Tag Archives: jazz

Steaming at Blues Alley

‘Twas a wet and blustery night

With cold descending on the town,

But the smoke was pouring hot

From the best jazz club around.

It was Saturday night and Kenny Garrett’s sextet was playing at Blues Alley, the premier Washington jazz club in the heart of Georgetown. The club is really located in an alley, which adds somehow to its charm. Inside, it’s the real deal. Tightly packed tables seating 140, surrounding a compact stage that is crowded on a night like this because the sextet has a lot of instruments.

We booked late, a bit unsure about attending such an event indoors, but we had seen Garrett several times before and the attraction of live jazz again, just a few blocks from our apartment, was too much to resist. Very wisely, the club has a firm policy: proof of vaccination to enter and masks-on when not eating or drinking. Even Garrett wore a mask before starting to play. All the audience seats appeared to be occupied as a few late walk-ins arrived to take the few remaining.

The traditional tools of the jazz trade jammed the stage: piano (baby grand, I think), drum kit (everything you can imagine), full-size bass, many microphones and, in this case, a full set of bongos, sound devices whose names I can’t guess and, in the center, a small electronic keyboard. In the hands of musical masters, these instruments enable the creation of the magical place a jazz club can be when a master of the art accompanied by others of surpassing talent are at the top of their game.

The people attending this event were primed for some top-level stimulation and they got it. Garrett’s sextet included: Vernell Brown Jr.: piano; Corcoran Holt: bass; Ronald Bruner Jr.: drums; Rudy Bird: percussion, snare; and Melvis Santa: vocals and keyboard, among other things. Those folks can play. For me, the drummer stood out, driving the music forward with powerful strokes and extraordinary energy. Few people can play like that for so long. But in truth the whole ensemble was a unit in an exceptional display of jazz at its most powerful.

At the end, Garrett called on the audience, already fully tuned up by the propulsive sound, to rise up and “work it out” to the closing number … and they did. I have never seen anything quite like that after attending many jazz performances over the years. Dancing in the aisles, even where there were no aisles.

Garrett’s style may not be for everyone (the first number lasted probably 15 or 20 minutes) but the crowd Saturday night was totally into it, as were all audiences in prior shows we saw. Typically, his entire body rocks back and forth to repeated riffs of sound. Maybe it’s how he keeps time. Doesn’t matter. The man can blow. He never seems to tire. His saxophone dominates the music, but the other instruments have their time as well when the tunes go from post-modern bop to Latin, Cuban, Afro something something, who knows. It’s all great.

At the end, Garrett dismissed each performer by name. The crowd erupted in appreciation and one-by-one the musicians exited. Garrett departed next-to-last, leaving the drummer, playing, for him, sedately. Then, he stopped and just walked off. It was all over but the vibrations. The steam subsided … until the next set.

Tickets are still available for tonight’s shows at 8 and 10.

Return to New York City—Jazz and More

That reads like the title of a novel, but it was just us finally getting back to the Great City for a visit, the first since moving to Washington on December 1, 2020. We stayed in the Loew’s Regency on Park Avenue, a nicely updated hotel with a surprisingly large room and, except for the bathroom, well designed.

We had planned this trip for some time and near the departure date learned that Birdland, one of New York’s legendary jazz clubs, would be re-opening for live performances just before our arrival. So, of course, we booked ourselves in there for Saturday night to see a group we had not known before – the Emmet Cohen Trio. The owner of the club opened the music part of the evening with a special welcome back to a packed and enthusiastic crowd, everyone excited to hear live jazz again. Then Cohen led the band in an opening medley of well-known jazz standards. Everyone was moved by the first piece—the classic Lullaby of Birdland made famous by George Shearing back in the day. An emotional and perfect way to start the evening.

Emmet Cohen proved an adept pianist in the jazz genre, moving easily among classical forms and more contemporary vibes. He and his musical mates, Russell Hall on bass (details about him here: http://www.russellhallbass.com/bio)  and Kyle Poole on drums (details about him here: http://www.kylepooledrums.com/about-1)  were perfectly matched and clearly had a great time entertaining the crowd.

The food at Birdland was decent and the service excellent, especially considering they had just reopened two nights before. Interesting to us that there were so many young people in the audience. Here are photos of the line waiting to get in for the second show:

When we emerged after the show, we saw this:

a moving reminder of the scene just out of our apartment window during our three-year sojourn in the big city.

Sadly, we have lost the Jazz Standard to the pandemic, but the Village Vanguard and Smoke will hopefully reopen soon, and jazz will once again resound through the streets of New York.

On Sunday we lunched with a New York friend at Tavern on the Green, another great nostalgic return. That night, we dined at The Leopard at Des Artistes on West 67th. Our guest was my wife’s ballet instructor, Finis Jhung, New York City’s renowned ballet master. He danced with Joffrey Ballet, had his own company at one point and has trained some of the world’s greatest ballet dancers and Broadway stars. A very interesting person with whom to chat.

On Monday my New Jersey-resident daughter and family, my two grandsons in tow, joined us for lunch at Rosa Mexicano near Lincoln Center, which is just up the avenue from our old apartment. After lunch, we walked to Josie Robertson Plaza, the center element of the Center with its Revson Fountain running again. The Plaza has been completely covered in AstroTurf, with seats and other features (food stall, reading area) and is perfect for lounging around on a lazy day, which is just what we encountered:

Finally, when in NYC, one should always look up. In addition to surprising art and architectural features, there is the sheer magnitude and daring of buildings like these:

If you don’t look up from time to time, you miss it.

Getting Jazz

I took a friend to a jazz club recently and, despite the powerhouse performance laced with complex improvisations, the experience was a disappointment to my friend. I had built up the event as something special, but he just didn’t “get” jazz. I suspect the root cause was that he was not properly prepared for the encounter, not schooled in the history of the music and thus unable to hear it in a context that made musical sense. He said it was just “interesting” and that he could “appreciate the mastery.”

My own appreciation of contemporary jazz is based in part on listening a lot to the precursors of the hard bop style and extended improvisations of modern jazz. This historical perspective is just as important in jazz as in classical music, where an informed listener can understand more modern classical forms in the context of, say, music from the Baroque Period. It is, for example, easier to hear the magic in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring if you are familiar with what came before.

I have compiled a list of jazz performances that, in a manageable time frame, could provide a short course in the progression of the music from the original Dixieland originating in the back streets of New Orleans, progressing through ragtime, swing and the other major “movements” to the challenging styles of the present. This is not the “definitive list” or a “complete list” but it’s a pretty good one. More is omitted than is included, but anyone with a minimal ear can listen to the changes through time, without a detailed analysis of what is actually going on, and hopefully learn to dig the sound and the freedom that inheres in jazz music. Jazz deconstructs music to its core elements and reassembles it in new ways. As Cyrus Chestnut says at the end of the first set at each performance: “We’ve enjoyed playing these songs and we promise never to do it again.” He means that the improvisation will be different each time, a spontaneous reimagining of each tune. Like chess games, no two performances of the same tune are the same.

Here is my list:

Louis Armstrong                                  West End Blues

Sidney Bechet                                       Summertime

Jelly Roll Morton                                   Black Bottom Stomp

Pete Fountain                                        Rampart Street Parade

Art Tatum                                               Tiger Rag

Count Basie                                            One O’Clock Jump

Dorsey Brothers                                     St. Louis Blues

Charlie Parker                                         Cherokee

Charlie Parker                                         Scrapple From the Apple

Lester Young                                            Stardust

Ben Webster                                             Stormy Weather

Coleman Hawkins                                   Body & Soul

Bud Powell                                               Bouncing with Bud

Thelonious Monk                                    ‘Round Midnight

Thelonious Monk                                    Straight No Chaser

John Coltrane                                           Giant Steps

John Coltrane                                           One Up, One Down

George Shearing                                      Lullaby of Birdland

Art Blakey                                                  Moanin’

Modern Jazz Quartet                               Softly As In a Morning Sunrise

Erroll Garner                                             Autumn Leaves

Stan Getz                                                   Girl From Ipanema

Stan Getz                                                   These Foolish Things

Miles Davis                                                So What

Miles Davis                                                Oleo

Dave Brubeck                                            Blue Rondo a la Turk

Dave Brubeck                                            Take Five

Marcus Roberts                                         What Is This Thing Called Love?

McCoy Tyner                                              Passion Dance

Stefon Harris                                              Black Action Figure