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Faces, Places that Formed D.C.’s Legacy of Jazz

The easy way out would be to minimize the District’s jazz influence on being the hometown of pianist, composer and bandleader Edward “Duke” Ellington who would go on achieve worldwide acclaim.

But Ellington remains just the tip of the iceberg according to the history revealed in a new book, “DC Jazz,” which introduces readers to musicians, jazz venues, educators and advocates of jazz in the nation’s capital.

Co-edited by Maurice Jackson, who teaches History and African American Studies at Georgetown University and Brian Ruble, distinguished fellow for programs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the two historians have gathered 10 contributors who weigh-in on DC’s vibrant environment for jazz against the backdrop of early segregation and the ongoing struggle for home rule.

“This turned into a labor of love,” said Jackson speaking about the process of assembling the right group of writers. “It’s not just about the music — it’s about the city.”

Jackson took a non-musician’s approach to “DC Jazz,” delving into various ways that musical genres like jazz have and continue to influence society. In the 1940s, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, sons of Mehmet, the Turkish ambassador to the U.S., hosted jazz groups in concert at the embassy for eager audiences, removing the policy of segregation from within their midst. Later, the two would form Atlantic Records after bringing jazz greats to the embassy that included: Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter and Lester Young.

Two local institutes of higher learning, Howard University [HU] and the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), served as both intellectual proving grounds for students eager to learn about jazz as well as venues from which new talent routinely emerged.

Lauren Sinclair, who wrote a chapter on the development of the jazz studies program at HU, says resistance to studying jazz at Howard remained in force until 1968 — a pivotal year in the District.

“Students wanted jazz to become a formalized field of study along with advocating for Black liberation and decolonization of the curriculum,” Sinclair said.

Changes at the historically Black university Howard resulted in trumpeter and composer Donald Byrd being invited to serve as the founding jazz studies director at Howard. He would advocate for students’ interests in jazz, also starting the The Blackbyrds, who continue to perform today.

UDC’s jazz legacy would be cemented by Calvin Jones, the director of jazz studies from 1976 until his death in 2004. A trombonist, pianist and bassist, Jones became known for taking jazz to as many audiences as he could muster — from area schools and detention centers to the Veteran’s Hospital. Allyn Johnson, once the program’s assistant director under Jones, now heads UDC’s jazz studies program.

“DC Jazz,” unlike many historical works, does not follow a chronological assessment of the local jazz scene. Instead, chapters offer a compilation of articles allowing readers to choose whatever topics may interest them. You may want to learn about the foundations of jazz radio with stations including WMAL-AM, WAMU-FM, WHUR-FM and WPFW-FM, pioneers responsible for increasing the awareness of jazz.

The book also takes readers on a relaxing stroll through D.C., visiting venues that first featured jazz musicians to welcoming audiences: The Crystal Caverns, later renamed the Bohemian Caverns, One Step Down and Blues Alley would become legendary hotspots within their own rights. Some artists would go on to perform at much larger, prestigious venues in the District like the Kennedy Center, whose jazz program, currently under the direction of musician/composer Jason Moran, owes its roots to pianist and composer Dr. Billy Taylor.

Jackson says the last words about the roots of jazz in D.C. have yet to be written.

“We picked themes that we decided had to be tackled in ‘DC Jazz’ but there are so many other stories to tell about Washington jazz that they could never be contained between the covers of any one volume,” he said.

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