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Suggesting that the audience for a book entitled DC Jazz is going to be primarily composed of nerds is not a controversial stance. What kind of nerds, though—that’s the question. Subtitled Stories of Jazz Music in Washington, DC, that is indeed what the slim volume from Georgetown University Press (edited by Maurice Jackson and Blair A. Ruble) delivers. But it’s not a D.C. jazz history, at least in the sense of telling a linear story of how the music and its players developed their art within city limits. Nor is it a book whose primary orientation is toward the music buff.
It’s the history buffs—and D.C. history buffs in particular—who are on the front line.
The above isn’t a criticism. I’m not even sure it’s a matter of opinion: DC Jazz reads like an expanded issue of a journal of scholarly history, because, well, it is. Its original incarnation was as a jazz-themed issue of Washington History, the Historical Society of Washington DC’s official quarterly, in the spring of 2014. Seven of the 10 pieces in the book feel like they were written for an audience of Historical Society members. (Except the stark, powerful trio of poems by E. Ethelbert Miller; they were in the original journal issue, but no- body would say they were written for it.) And rather than a story, it’s a series of snapshots: “verbal portraits,” say the editors.
The essays in this book “cannot pretend to offer a comprehensive picture of the vibrant and still-vital D.C. jazz scene,” Jackson and Ruble warn us. “Instead, they represent important, idiosyncratic, even syncopated, stories about Washington jazz. They tell as much about the city as they do about the music.” In fact, they tell us more about the city. Ruble’s essay “Seventh Street: Black DC’s Musical Mecca” doesn’t restrict itself to the titular street, but rather makes it the nucleus of a sociocultural vibe that stretched sever- al blocks beyond it. In Jackson’s collage-like “Jazz, ‘Great Black Music,’ and the Struggle for Racial Equality in Washington, DC,” both the music and the city sometimes fade into the background, mere ingredients in a larger concoction. (That said, Jackson’s studies of Will Marion Cook and James Reese Europe, the District’s ur-jazzmen, are invaluable.)
John Edward Hasse’s adaptation of material from his biography Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington is all but a map of the Duke’s youthful haunts in and around Shaw; Rusty Hassan explores the airwaves; Lauren Sinclair and Judith Korey (both of whose contributions are new for the book) portray the evolution of Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia, respectively, as jazz-fostering institutions. If, as Jason Moran reminded Crescendo in Blue two months ago (and does again in his introduction to DC Jazz), jazz is also about place, this is Exhibit A.
But the book tells us much about the city beyond geography. It’s as “Official Washington” a book about jazz as one could imagine: wonky, think-tanky, visiting-scholar-y. It’s jazz as White Paper. It even features a glance from Anna Harwell Celenza at some of the legislative and executive initiatives that have made jazz a literal presence in Official Washington.
Again—if this sounds like a criticism, rest assured that it is not. The book is precisely what it aspires to be, and a success on its own terms is a success, period. Besides, who’s to complain that historians and history nerds want to give more attention to jazz?
What DC Jazz provides is setting and background, along with rough outlines of characters. It provides gorgeous archival photos of pianist John Malachi like the one that graces the cover, and information on where he went to high school and who he mentored. It does not tell us about the rumbling swing and low-level bebop concision he boasted, where it came from, and what effect it had on the musicians around him. It tells us that Buck Hill was a mailman who moonlit at the clubs, but there are no scenes featuring the players he cut to ribbons.
It is ultimately a cornerstone: an essential reference for more narrative, perhaps lively histories. Jackson and Ruble say as much: “We hope to provoke interest.” No serious history of D.C. jazz can go without, for example, Willard Jenkins’ wide-ranging interview with Bill Brower (the city’s alpha jazz nerd, who has put in more time in the trenches than the rest of us put together). Jackson’s and Ruble’s essays sketch the parameters for much of that hypothetical history. And Bridget Arnwine’s triptych of June Norton, Shirley Horn, and Eva Cassidy is the foundation of a history all its own.
DC Jazz is only the beginning of the work that needs to be done, not the end. As it happens, however, a rush of relevant D.C.-, jazz-, and D.C.-jazz-related material is apparently in the pipeline. Stay tuned.