Congressional Black Caucus Honors Jazzmobile with Festive Tribute in D.C.

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Jimmy Owens (left) receives the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Jazz Legacy Award from Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) on Sept 16.

(Photo: Michael Wilderman/jazzvisionsphotos.com)

This year’s Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C., honored Jazzmobile, the pioneering New York City-based nonprofit organization that became the first of its kind in the nation to present and preserve jazz through concerts, workshops and educational programs.

Founded by Daphne Arnstein and Dr. Billy Taylor 50 years ago, Jazzmobile presented free, outdoor jazz festivals in all five boroughs of New York City. Its early concerts showcased such luminaries as John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Sun Ra, and the organization also birthed the stellar Jazzmobile Allstars. In 1989, the group released a critically acclaimed, eponymously titled disc, led by Taylor (1921–2010) on piano.

At the Caucus’ 31st annual Legacy Awards and Concert on Sept. 16, an updated edition of the Jazzmobile Allstars took the stage. Fronted by trumpeter Jimmy Owens, who was a member of the Allstars’ inaugural squad, the ensemble included fellow torchbearers: drummer Winard Harper, alto saxophonist Antonio Hart, pianist Danny Mixon, and bassist Herman Burney.

Originally Larry Ridley was billed as the ensemble’s bassist. But because Ridley is recovering from hip-replacement surgery, he joined only on one song—a fervent romp through Miles Davis’ “All Blues.”

That performance allowed concertgoers to luxuriate in Ridley’s deep resonating bass lines and his exceptional arco bass work. Likewise, Mixon dug deep into the blues aesthetic, often channeling the churchy pianism of Bobby Timmons, while Owens and Hart swaggered intertwining passages that implied Saturday night honky-tonk.

Standard material informed the Jazzmobile Allstars’ entire set, which highlighted the organization’s implicit ethos of upholding jazz’s great tradition. They got the party started with a rousing take on Taylor’s “It’s A Grand Night For Swinging,” a finger-popping groover on which Hart blew scalding blues licks and serpentine lines alongside Owens, whose gregarious trumpet tone and fluid hard-bop phrases burst with youthful elation.

Harper summoned the ferocity of Art Blakey as he thrust the momentum forward. Mixon took the spotlight in a trio treatment of Bronislaw Kaper’s “On Green Dolphin Street.” Again, the pianist brought barrelhouse boogie to the fore that was superbly underscored by the rhythm section’s pneumatic, funk-swing pulse.

Sonny Rollins’ intoxicating “St. Thomas” got a grand treatment from Harper, who opened it with a majestic balafon invocation before stirring up the tune’s irresistible calypso beat.

Vocalist Charenée Wade appeared on two numbers—both proving to be highlights in an already radiant set. First, she lent her poignant alto to a rendition of Max Roach’s “Lonesome Lover” (famously sung by Abbey Lincoln). Her burnished timbres and exceptional enunciation simmered with elegance, particularly when she embellished phrases with discreet yelps and cries that recalled Nancy Wilson. When she traded lines with Hart and Owens on a valorous reading of Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” Wade brought the house down.

After the Jazzmobile Allstars’ set, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation presented Owens (who performed at the Caucus’ first jazz concert in 1985) with a “Jazz Legacy Award,” in recognition of his stalwart dedication to music and education. The concert’s executive producer Cedric R. Hendricks and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) gave Owens the award.

Conyers’ presence was most fitting, considering that he introduced House Resolution-57, which acknowledged jazz as “a rare and valuable national treasure.” The legislation was passed in 1987 on what would have been John Coltrane’s 61st birthday.

Coltrane’s legacy inspired the Washington Renaissance Orchestra’s moving set. The brass-heavy unit, co-led by pianist, conductor and music director Allyn Johnson, and drummer and artistic director Nasar Abadey, had grander ambitions for the evening.

In addition to a suite of Coltrane’s music, the musicians hoped to perform Johnson’s Freedom Warrior Suite and a new composition, “Buffalo Chips,” penned by the orchestra’s guesting alto saxophonist Joe Ford (who also received a CBCF Jazz Legacy Award that evening). But because of time constraints and technical difficulties, their program was severely truncated.

Nevertheless, the orchestra’s zeal came through on the Coltrane suite, particularly on “Naima,” on which the horns engulfed the memorable melody with swarming dissonance, somewhat akin to the work of Charles Mingus.

The orchestra then provided a splendid sonic bed for Ford’s coiling improvisations, and displayed regal might on “Songs Of The Underground Railroad” and “Some Other Blues.” From Johnson’s Freedom Warrior Suite, only the dynamic “Mandela,” with its 6/8 West African rhythms and chants, came into fruition during the set. Still, the concert brimmed with enough intrepid musicality to compel concertgoers to seek out a recording of the entire suite.




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July 2021
Julian Lage
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