D.C.’s jazz scene is on the cusp of a silver age. U Street and its environs may not match the swinging heights the area hit in the 1940s and ’50s, but the corridor boasts high-quality live music, seven nights a week, played by both local and national acts. Some is even played in the same old-school venues: Bohemian Caverns has become arguably the best club in town, and the Lincoln Theater remains a spectacular place to see a concert.
The big difference is that jazz is no longer confined to the U Street corridor. It’s still the nerve center, to be sure; the Caverns and the Lincoln are only two of a dozen worthy venues. But there are also excellent options in Southwest, in Georgetown, on H Street NE, throughout Montgomery and P.G. Counties, and at any of the performing arts centers associated with the area’s universities—not to mention that behemoth in Foggy Bottom.
Summertime ups the ante even more, though: It’s festival season, and two major-league events come one on top of the other. The Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival is celebrating its 15th year, and marks the occasion with an extravaganza of its namesake’s compositions. Unusually, it’s the opening night of the festival—May 20—that features its money shot: Williams’ tunes played by the all-star quintet of Geri Allen (piano), Grace Kelly (sax), Esperanza Spalding (bass), Terri Lyne Carrington (drums), and Dee Dee Bridgewater (vocals).
Just afterward, beginning June 1, is the DC Jazz Festival, the annual citywide smorgasbord formerly known as the Duke Ellington Festival. Its two-week duration means it’s long on options, but there are two must-sees. The NEA Jazz Masters Concert, June 10 at the Lincoln Theater this year, honors saxophone legend James Moody in a program featuring fellow NEA masters Kenny Barron (piano) and Paquito D’Rivera (clarinet), as well as three likely future masters: trumpeter Roy Hargrove, singer Roberta Gambarini, and violinist Regina Carter. The June 12 Jazz at the Lisner, at (where else?) GWU’s Lisner Auditorium, is a daylong affair with Claudio Roditi Quartet, the Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band, singer Dianne Reeves, and Hargrove’s big band.
There’s plenty of excitement outside the festivals, however. Pianist Uri Caine, best known for weaving classical and klezmer into his music, also leads the considerably edgier Bedrock Trio, in which Caine goes both electric and electronica. More precisely, Bedrock (also featuring bassist Tim LeFebvre and drummer Zach Danziger) crosses funky jazz fusion with drum-n-bass rhythms and get something razor-sharp and strangely danceable. The group performs music from their latest disc, Plastic Temptation (and no doubt new material), at the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium on May 22.
In another type of fusion, two separate alto saxophonists bring their respective Caribbean heritages to the clubs. Miguel Zenon won a MacArthur Genius Grant for his explorations of the music of his native Puerto Rico, a unique style that can be experienced at Germantown’s BlackRock Center for Performing Arts on June 3. T.K. Blue, meanwhile, is the son of immigrants from Jamaica and Trinidad, whose sounds have seeped into his work with avant multiculturalists Don Cherry and Adegoke Steve Colson. He leads his own quintet Aug. 13-14 at Twins Jazz.
Bassist Charnett Moffett joined Wynton Marsalis’ first band when he was 19, went on to work with Ornette Coleman (as had Charles, his drummer father), and has since played every style within and without that spectrum. On his own terms, Moffett is perhaps the most diverse and idiosyncratic single musician who will grace D.C. this summer—his performance July 1 at Blues Alley is impossible to predict, save for bass solos that are intricate and original beyond imagination.
Much of the excitement, though, is in D.C.’s homegrown jazz, the stuff that’s keeping our city a vital musical realm. The exciting and technically dazzling musicians holding down regular gigs in these parts are too numerous to mention and all worth the time and money. In a pinch, however, two weekly events will provide a great cross-section. The Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra gives Monday nights a much-needed energy boost with its ventures inwards, to jazz’s rich history, and outwards to its cutting edge. Meanwhile, Fridays offer Jazz Night at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest, featuring a different act every week and one of the District’s most enthusiastic, loyal audiences—a taste of jazz mania past for D.C.’s new jazz renaissance.