DC Jazz Festival 2013: ‘Don’t understand it, just enjoy it,’ says founder

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When jazz impresario Charles Fishman settled in the District to care for his ailing parents, he was shocked by what he didn’t find. Mr. Fishman, who had spent years on the road as manager and producer for legendary jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, noted that though Washington had a vibrant jazz scene, the city lacked a jazz festival.

“I’d been all over the world thanks to Diz, and wherever you go, whether you’re in a small town in Italy or in Senegal, there’s a jazz festival,” Mr. Fishman said. “The fact that we who invented the music didn’t have a jazz festival in our nation’s capital was stupid and shameful.”

After his father’s death, Mr. Fishman was mourning at his synagogue when he began talking about the lack of a festival with Bob Peck, then president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. Mr. Peck immediately put Mr. Fishman in touch with potential sponsors who provided the seed money, and a few years later Mr. Fishman debuted what was then called the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival.

Now in its ninth year, the DC Jazz Festival kicked off Wednesday, the first of 12 days of jazz performances in the District. More than 125 performances will take place at more than 40 venues around town, ranging from established jazz spots such as Bohemian Caverns and the Hamilton to less conventional locales such as the Dumbarton House and the Embassy of Turkey. Notable performers at this year’s festival include the Roy Hargrove Quintet (June 9, 7:30 p.m., the Hamilton), Paquito D’Rivera and the PanAmericana Ensemble (June 14, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., Kennedy Center Terrace Theater), the Roots (June 15, 6 p.m., Kastles Stadium at the Wharf) and John McLaughlin (June 16, 8 p.m., Howard Theatre).

The DC Jazz Festival has been a key part of a recent surge of interest in jazz in Washington. The recently reopened Howard Theatre has hosted several jazz musicians, and the Kennedy Center has significantly increased its jazz programing since appointing Jason Moran, one of jazz’s most popular and respected young musicians, as its artistic adviser for jazz.

“When I come down there to do work, I always look to see who else is playing in the city, and there’s at least three or four other things I’d like to see, whether at a university or the Library of Congress or Bohemian Caverns or a loft session Capital Bop is doing,” Mr. Moran said. “There’s all this local and international talent coming through the city, so I think it’s in a wonderful state.”

Yet despite the abundance of offerings, Washington’s jazz scene is often overshadowed by the world’s jazz capital, New York City. “New Orleans and New York are the anchors,” Mr. Fishman said. “I always tell young musicians, you make your name in New York. We are sort of a satellite for creativity, and we have amazingly gifted musicians.”

Mr. Moran argues that the city’s position as the seat of government gives the jazz scene a unique character. “The city promotes access because you’re so used to seeing politicians. You’re accustomed to the role of speaking to someone about your passions, and sometimes you do it in the pulpit or in front of the camera, and sometimes you do it in the actions of the music.”

As Washington’s jazz scene has flourished and the festival has grown in size and stature, not all of the changes have been to Mr. Fishman’s liking. In particular, Mr. he bemoans the loss of one of the festival’s highlights, the performance on the Mall.

“It’s painful; I loved doing the Mall show,” Mr. Fishman said. “It was an incredible coming together of so many different people, all races, religions and cultures. It’s very expensive to mount a show at the Mall now. Basically, the only place we can do it is in front of the Capitol, which is prohibitive in terms of cost.”

While the DC Jazz Festival is a yearly highlight for the area’s jazz lovers, the festival also offers the opportunity for less-seasoned listeners to discover and grow their appreciation for jazz.

Think about the first time you tried to ride a bike,” Mr. Moran said. “Riding a bike takes coordination. When you first fall and scrape your knee, you think you never want to ride again. Listening to music demands attention. Jazz is a very complex form of music, and it takes time to get accustomed to how it feels and how it sounds. As in riding a bike, once you begin to understand the mechanics of your body, you take the training wheels off. It takes time to figure out how to listen to [jazz], but the more you do it the more you’ll find some satisfaction.”

Mr. Fishman is less philosophical.

“Just go and try it,” he said. “Everything is pretty affordable. Experience the music in as intimate a setting a possible, and feel the vibe of what is going on. The beautiful thing about music is you can just enjoy it, you don’t have to figure it out. Don’t understand it, just enjoy it.”

WHAT: DC Jazz Festival

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