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D.C. residents are justifiably proud to live in the birthplace of Duke Ellington, probably the greatest jazz composer of all time (and in this critic’s opinion, the greatest American composer, period). But jazz aficionados should not remember Ellington while forgetting Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s longtime musical partner, who died in 1967 but would have been 100 years old this November.
Until very recently, the music of the Pittsburgh-born Strayhorn was largely (and in part deliberately) hidden in the shadow of Ellington; compositions that were his alone were attributed as “Ellington-Strayhorn” (and sometimes “Ellington” alone, as were tunes to which both men contributed). He was, however, credited with some of the band’s biggest hits, including “Take the A Train” and “Satin Doll,” and had a success elsewhere with “Lush Life.” One of the Ellington Orchestra‘s finest recordings was a posthumous selection of Strayhorn pieces (1967’s …And His Mother Called Him Bill). So his talent was recognized. We now, however, know just how vast and beautiful that talent was, and celebrate Strayhorn in his own right.
That “we” includes this year’s DC Jazz Festival, whose always wonderful East River JazzFest series in 2015 is celebrating Strayhorn with music by some of D.C.’s best local jazz artists performed in some of its most unexpected, out-of-the-way venues. “The river really serves as a divide of sorts, and it shouldn’t be,” East River JazzFest founder Vernard Gray said last year. “Some of the best sights in the city—-if you want to see city lights, go into the hills of Anacostia.” And this weekend, it’s got some of the best sounds in the city too (and almost all are free!):
- On Friday afternoon at 1 p.m., pianist Janelle Gill, who recently gave a revelatory solo concert at the Arts Institute of Washington, performs with her five-piece ensemble (saxophonist Marshall Keys, cellist Adia Gill, bassist Romeir Mendez, drummer Mark Prince) at the Francis A. Gregory Neighborhood Library in Hillcrest. The concert is designed with senior citizens in mind, but promises Gill’s interpretations of some of Strayhorn’s more obscure compositions.
- Saturday morning (10 a.m.) offers a brunch at the Anacostia Arts Center, featuring music by vocalist Karen Lovejoy and the Lovejoy Group as they perform the staples of the Ellington songbook.
- Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Francis Gregory Library, local hip-hop favorite Christylez Bacon presents a program of hip-hop arrangements of Strayhorn’s tunes, called (appropriately enough) “Strayhorn from a Hip-Hop Perspective.”
- Saturday night at 8 p.m., Strayhorn meets the blues at the hands of organist Greg Hatza and the Greg Hatza Organ-ization quartet at Uniontown Bar and Grill in Anacostia. (This is the sole event of the East River JazzFest Series that has a cover charge: $5.)
- Sunday features two Afro-Caribbean takes on Strayhorn. At 1 p.m., trombonist Reginald Cyntje and a five-piece version of his ensemble deliver renditions flavored by Cyntje’s upbringing in the U.S. Virgin Islands, at Anacostia’s Honfleur Gallery.At 4 p.m., at the studios of We Act Radio (1480 AM) on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, bassist Pepe Gonzalez and his sextet give Strayhorn an Afro-Cuban twist.
- Monday afternoon at 1 p.m. offers another jazz program for seniors, this time at the Dorothy I. Height Neighborhood Library in Benning; singer Iva Jean Ambush and a crack quartet (tenor saxophonist Paul Carr, keyboardist Terry Marshall, bassist Dave Marsh, drummer Harold Summey) pay tribute to the long-running friendship between Strayhorn and singer Lena Horne in a concert presentation titled “Strayhorn and Horne: A Love That Endures.”