New Book Chronicles the Saga of Jazz in Washington D.C.


R+R=Now performs at the DC Jazz Festival in June.

(Photo: Jati Lindsay)

Summer proved to be a propitious time for Maurice Jackson and Blair A. Ruble to promote their new book, DC Jazz: Stories Of Jazz Music in Washington, DC (Georgetown University Press), because the city was teeming with activity.

At the beginning of June, the Kennedy Center presented a revised Quartet West and Liberation Music Orchestra with Carla Bley in celebration of Charlie Haden’s legacy. That double-billed event was preceded by the announcement of the Kennedy Center’s 2018-2019 jazz season. Jason Moran, the performance institutions’ artistic director for jazz, enthused a small crowd of journalists and other members of the D.C. jazz community as he detailed some of the visiting musicians, which are set to include Henry Threadgill, Mary Halvorson, Tyshawn Sorey, as well as Cécile McLorin Salvant in collaboration with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society.

Moran also discussed his upcoming multimedia presentation, James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfigthers: The Absence of Ruin. Moran spoke eloquently about Europe’s pivotal role in bringing jazz to France during his service in the New York Army National Guard during World War I, and about how he made historic inroads in America, such as having his proto-jazz Clef Club Orchestra be the first of its kind to perform at Carnegie Hall.

Jackson touches upon Europe’s legacy, too, in the opening chapter of DC Jazz, “Jazz, ‘Great Black Music,’ and the Struggle for Racial and Social Equality in Washington, DC.” In the essay, Jackson details how the nation’s capital became a mecca for African Americans, beginning in 1890, partly because of the lure of steady employment with the federal government, which helped foster a culturally informed black middle-class community. Europe’s family moved to the District from Mobile, Alabama, when he was 10 years old. The move put him in close contact with John Philip Sousa, who directed the United States Marine Band and laid an influential foundation for Europe’s musical exploration and evolution within the military. It’s one of the few quintessential touchstones in DC Jazz that makes it such a fascinating read, as it charts both the evolution of the black middle class and jazz in Washington.

The book is as digestible as it is illuminating. Instead of unfolding chronologically, Jackson, an associate professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, and Ruble, vice president for programs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, approached the evolution of D.C.’s expansive jazz scene by inviting other noteworthy D.C.-based historians and prominent figures to write probing dissertations on Duke Ellington, jazz radio, jazz’s involvement in legislative politics and international embassies, and the club scene, particularly around the city’s famed U Street.

“I wanted to show how music affects society. And how musicians are informed by society, but also how they can develop a consciousness to encourage other people,” said Jackson, after explaining that DC Jazz was conceived about 20 years ago, after Georgetown approached him about writing a jazz book. “I looked at all the musicians, going back to James Reece Europe all the way to Billy Taylor; I look at not just what they played, but what they said.”

Both the recently held DC Jazz Fest and the District’s Nordic Jazz Festival illustrate the region’s cosmopolitan jazz ecosystem, which involves established neighborhood spots, churches, universities, performance arts high schools, prestigious concert halls and embassies. And DC Jazz provides various entry points into the origins of that nexus. In Jackson’s aforementioned essay, he detailed how Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, sons of Turkish ambassadors, paved the way for African American musicians to perform at the Turkish embassy while the city was still racially segregated. Anna Harwell Celenza carries that theme further in her captivating essay, “Legislating Jazz,” which examines how the U.S. State Department conceived of the Jazz Ambassadors amid the Cold War.

Ruble’s enthralling piece, “Seventh Street: Black DC’s Musical Mecca,” outlines the rise of the famed U Street scene, which became known as Black Broadway and anticipated the Harlem Renaissance, while Rusty Hassan’s thesis, “Jazz Radio in Washington, DC,” points out how the District’s jazz scene benefited from a wealth of on-air broadcasting, whereas Europe gained access to jazz via Willis Conover’s pioneering show on Voice of America. Both John Hasse, a former music curator at the Smithsonian American History Museum, and Judith Korey, curator and music professor at the University of the District of Columbia, contributed respective narratives on Duke Ellington and the acclaimed Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives at UDC, which includes more than 1,600 sound recordings and four decades of audio interviews with jazz artists conducted by Grant during his WMAL radio show, “The Album Sound.”

As DC Jazz functions as an essential, scholarly anchor, it succeeds at illustrating the resilience of the city’s jazz landscape amid sometimes challenging social climates: the riots of 1968, the 1980s crack era and the current gentrification and displacement of black residents. Even with the closure of the venue Bohemian Caverns two years ago, the crumbling promise of the Howard Theatre after its 2012 resurrection and WAMU’s recent cancelation of Rob Bamberger’s “Hot Jazz Saturday Night” and Judy Carmichael’s nationally syndicated “Jazz Inspired,” the music continues to thrive by finding newer outlets, such as Sotto, Rhizome and Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society.

“The big problem in D.C. is gentrification and the effects on the African American people. I’m afraid that if things don’t change for the better that there were won’t be many black people here listening to the music,” Jackson said. “Nevertheless, I’m hoping that this book shows the beauty of D.C.’s African American culture and its strong, enduring relationship with jazz.” DB

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