Introducing Our New Jazz Column: Crescendo in Blue
Longtime City Paper jazz critic Michael J. West, documents D.C.’s robust and ever-expanding jazz scene.
Duke EllingtonPubli Domain photo
This, the first installment of a new jazz column, started life as yet another iteration of the cheerleading cry I’ve published a hundred times in 11 years of writing about jazz in D.C. The scene is doing better than it sometimes seems; there are many performances, at many venues, in numerous neighborhoods; great players are everywhere, with more arriving all the time. And so on. It’s true, but you’ve already heard it all.
You’ve also heard all the complaints on the other end of the spectrum. Jazz is the least popular genre in the United States, clubs are closing all over town, and what seem like plentiful choices for live audiences can translate to low-paying gigs, often for the door, booked and/or paid for (and not infrequently patronized) by people with little feel or respect for the music. That’s also true. Just the facts, as Henry Threadgill said—and pass the bucket.
There’s little use in further spinning ’round these north and south poles of received wisdom. What, then, is this column here for?
Put simply, it’s here because the music, and the people who play it, deserve to be.
Whether you’re on Team Thriving or Team Life Support, jazz is an essential part of D.C.’s cultural ecosystem and identity. Duke Ellington, jazz’s greatest composer and arranger (and perhaps America’s greatest overall) grew up here, musical upbringing included. The tradition that he came up in merits some exploration.
Much clearer, of course, is the tradition that followed him. One wing of it, the Billy Taylor-Ben Williams wing, went to New York and from there to the wider world.
Another stayed here, less celebrated but no less rich and vital. Two of its longest-lived representatives, pianist Reuben Brown and tenor saxophonist Ted Efantis, passed away last month; their legacies went largely unmarked in D.C. media. That’s not cool.
This column arrives too late to offer extended memoria for Brown and Efantis, alas. But I hope in the future to address them both individually. That’s also true of Taylor and Williams, and of Allyn Johnson and Michael Bowie. Jason Moran, an import—and a part-time one at that—is nonetheless part of the ecosystem as well. There’s even room here for other, more peripheral D.C. associations: Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd (who straddles both the Taylor and Efantis wings) recorded Jazz Samba, one of the most influential jazz records of its day, at All Souls Church in Columbia Heights. D.C. jazz is a diverse and distinguished fellowship that warrants exploration and insight. Both of which are the pretext for “Crescendo in Blue.”
From another angle: Several years ago, when Bobby Hill was still the programming director at WPFW, he and I were in discussions for a new show on that station. My plan was to develop a program about D.C. jazz, in all its guises from the ancient to the future. Taylor, Efantis, Williams, Moran, Jazz Samba, Buck Hill, Reginald Cyntje, Howard alumni, U.S. Army Blues, Billy Hart’s current quartet, Butch Warren’s sideman recordings, Jelly Roll Morton at the Library of Congress, Charlie Parker at the Howard Theatre… if there was a D.C. angle to approach it from, it was fair game.
That concept fell apart (along with much of WPFW at the time). I now formally convert it to monthly print.
About the name: No column about D.C. jazz could get by without a tip o’ the hat to Duke, now and forever, as mentioned above, our favorite son and dearest father. “Crescendo in Blue” was written in 1937 as the back half of his long-form composition “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”—not his first long form, but his first critically and commercially successful one. It was simultaneously one of his most raucous, and most ingenious and inventive creations. Not incidentally, of course, it was the vehicle that permanently recharged his career at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. The title also serves as a reminder of the primacy of the blues in jazz’s universal, ever-changing embrace. (“The blues” here being rather universal and ever-changing, too.)
As for the crescendo: Well, who doesn’t like to end with a bang?