Fred Irby, director of the Howard University Jazz Ensemble
Trumpeter Fred Irby, director of the Howard University Jazz Ensemble; courtesy of

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“Among the things that have really annoyed me over the years is the lack of print coverage of the annual Benny Golson Awards at Howard University,” opines the late, great jazz writer and producer Bill Brower in Willard Jenkins’ recent anthology Ain’t But A Few of Us: Black Music Writers Tell Their Story. “Nobody covers that—it’s like it doesn’t happen.”

As was more often the case than not, Brower—a friend, mentor, and partner in crime to this writer and the local jazz scene before his untimely passing in 2021—was absolutely right. The Howard University Jazz Ensemble created the award in 1996 to honor the school’s legendary alumnus and recognize artists and supporters of American jazz.

The 2023 Benny Golson Jazz Master Awards, given at a ceremony in the band room at Howard’s Childers Hall on April 6, went to D.C. native pianist Marc Cary; broadcaster Rusty Hassan; educator and University of the District of Columbia jazz studies founder Calvin Jones (given posthumously: Jones died in 2004); and the Excelsior Brass Band of Mobile, Alabama, founded in 1883 and regarded as the oldest jazz marching band in the world. 

“The very first city to have Mardi Gras in America was Mobile, Alabama—my hometown,” Fred Irby, director of the Howard University Jazz Ensemble, the student big band, told the audience on April 6. “You know when you watch TV, you see the band marching in the street, and you see the little kids running behind the band? Well, that was me in Mobile! And the band I ran behind … was the Excelsior Brass Band of Mobile.”

Though not well known to most D.C. residents, the Golson Awards are actually considered quite prestigious to those aware of Howard University’s enormous contribution to jazz history both locally and and in the wider world.

The very fact that the awards are named after Benny Golson offers a hint. The tenor saxophonist and arguably the greatest living jazz composer, is something of a spiritual founder of Howard’s Jazz Studies program. 

Golson attended Howard, but left the university in 1950, 20 years before the program’s de facto founding by trumpeter Donald Byrd. Indeed, during Golson’s tenure, playing jazz was grounds for expulsion. But he persisted, sneaking off campus to play clubs on U Street NW and incorporating jazz harmony into his classical composition assignments. Once he left, he became a force in the earthy, populist hard bop movement of the 1950s and wrote a remarkable catalog of standards (the common repertoire shared among jazz and pre-rock American popular music) including “Stable Mates,” “I Remember Clifford,” and “Killer Joe.” The school later awarded him an honorary doctorate and points to his legacy as the gold standard for Howard alumni. Of course, Golson, now 94, is not the first major jazz figure to come out of Howard; Billy Eckstine spent a year there in the early 1930s, but Golson is the one who embodies the program’s legacy.

Unless, of course, you count today’s student band leader, Irby, who received a Benny Golson Award in 2016. As a trumpet player, Irby has spent his career mostly in orchestra pits, including the one at the Kennedy Center, where he is principal trumpeter of the Musical Theater Orchestra. But Irby—who is retiring in 2024 after 50 years at Howard—has directed and conducted Howard’s Jazz Ensemble, commonly referred to as the HUJE, since 1976. Jazz greats Geri Allen, Wallace Roney, and Greg Osby were among his first students. Subsequent proteges include a Who’s Who of D.C. jazz royalty: Paul Carr, Warren Shadd, Antonio Parker, Brian Settles, Elijah Balbed, Amy Bormet, Karine Chapdelaine, and several members of the Dashiell family. 

And then there’s HUJE’s current wunderkind, alto saxophonist and Prince George’s County native Langston Hughes II. No, before you ask, there’s no relation—and the name is the least remarkable thing about this 22-year-old. (Keep your eye on him.)

Irby’s most obvious innovation was to have the HUJE make a record every year, something the university embraced wholeheartedly from its beginning in 1976. “We did the record and we got about a thousand LPs printed up,” Irby recalls. “And the president of the university said, ‘I wanna buy some LPs.’ He had just paid for the whole thing, and now he wanted to buy them back from me! What he was doing was, he was gonna give those albums out to everybody that gave Howard University money, so that they can keep giving money.”

The band has continued to record every year since 1976; as you read this, they are entering the studio for the 2023 album, which will be released sometime this fall. The CDs—yes, you read that right—HUJE now produce are increasingly impractical. “They send them to their families, and their families don’t have a CD player,” Irby chuckles, but the production process itself is a learning experience.

There’s a much larger story to be told about the history and impact of Howard’s Jazz Studies program and of Irby himself. At the moment, though, the best story on the subject is the one within the music itself. To absorb that story, readers can book tickets to the Calvin Jones Big Band Festival at UDC’s Auditorium on Monday, April 24. It’s a long-lived tradition among three of the DMV’s top university ensembles—Howard, UDC, and the University of Maryland College Park—to put on a one-night, epic performance each April featuring all three bands. All are worth local jazz lovers’ time and attention. What Howard and Irby have on offer, though, has truly earned the favor of your discerning ears. Don’t let it slip past like it just didn’t happen.

Calvin Jones Big Band Jazz Festival starts at 8 p.m. on April 24 at UDC’s Theater of the Arts. $10–$20. 

Writer’s Note: Swing Beat author Michael J. West wrote a paid press release for Jenkins’ book.