Few people would picture The Half Street Fairgrounds—-the little lot off of Nationals Park (you probably know it as The Bullpen) where pre- and post-gaming happens—-as the venue for a jazz or wine festival, let alone both. And perhaps that’s the point. These are products that we think of as ivory-tower stuff, to be sought out in their elitist/marginal outposts by Those In The Know. But the makers of both want to reach the people. A look around the New Vintage Jazz and Wine Fest, held at the Fairgrounds Saturday, would tell you that the organizers (CapitalBop, Art Whino, Petworth Jazz Project, and Chris4Life Foundation) made a smart move.
A large, lively, and diverse crowd wandered around the lot that day, and they weren’t lured by free admission; tickets were $30 just for the music (presented by CapitalBop), and extra for tasting of the varieties provided by Diamond District Wines. (And if you wanted food, which was provided by a line of District food trucks, it was more money again.) Despite unending claims of jazz’s death, people are willing to pay good money to see this music.
I don’t have the expertise to comment on the wine or food—-though I enjoyed both—-but the music I heard was indeed well worth paying for. Bassist Tarus Mateen was as funky and virtuosic as ever, as well as just about the coolest-looking dude on the jazz scene. Todd Marcus did superlative work on bass clarinet, including a protean but stunningly in-the-pocket rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird” by his quartet. In the early hours of the fest, though, it was bassist Kris Funn and his Corner Store trio that had the crowd under its spell. Funn and John Lamkin, together maybe the District’s most potent rhythm section, mixed up grooves that drew from funk, rock, hip-hop, go-go, and swing, sometimes all at once. On top, guitarist John Lee got his Hendrix on with brilliant, splashy lines that dripped with the blues even when they weren’t blues lines. It was incredible, flavorful music that brought head bobs and positive energy to the whole affair.
There was one major problem at the Fest: The stage was at the north end of the Fairgrounds, and there were no speakers anywhere in the south end, where the wine stations and food trucks were set up. This effectively divided the event into two: A wine festival and a jazz festival. (CapitalBop head honcho Giovanni Russonello was aware of the problem and did what he could to solve it.) But it didn’t seem to faze anyone. There were certainly plenty of people crowding the seats and standing room on the stage side, and it was constantly becoming more full.
“We need this,” said pianist Allyn Johnson as he surveyed the scene at the Fairgrounds. He was right; the greatest nourishment any music scene can have is exposure. And the fact that this particular exposure was so successful suggests that, contrary to all of the naysaying, jazz has some populism left in it.
Photo by Ronald Weinstock used with permission