- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2003

“The blues is the roots,” W.C. Handy once said. “All the rest is the fruits.” Handy’s notion is very much in evidence around the city this week, as the 2-1/2-month “Blues and Dreams” celebration continues in various venues around town.

The Kennedy Center offers two takes on the genre, one returning to the past and another stepping off squarely into the future. On Saturday, musician Randy Weston appears in a program that examines the African roots of blues and jazz by going back to the source.

“He incorporates African rhythms and motifs in his music,” Kennedy Center Vice President Derek Gordon says of Mr. Weston, who was born in 1926, “in the same way that [Romare] Bearden does in his art.”

Mr. Bearden was a major 20th-century artist who celebrated the life of the black community. A current retrospective at the National Gallery, “The Art of Romare Bearden,” serves as one of the anchors of “Blues and Dreams.”

And tonight, at the Terrace Theater, trumpeter Terrance Blanchard will offer an object lesson in how the blues can influence contemporary music — in this case, jazz.

“He is of the younger generation of the leading trumpet players,” says Mr. Gordon of Mr. Blanchard, who in 2000 received three awards from Down Beat magazine, including jazz trumpeter of the year.

If the name Terrance Blanchard sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve read the credits in the many movies where his soulful trumpet punctuates the soundtrack. He has recorded such classic film scores as “Anatomy of a Murder” and “Chinatown” for the album “Jazz in Film.” Remember Denzel Washington’s trumpet in Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues”? Mr. Blanchard was his coach.

“The two performances represent the continuum of African-American music,” Mr. Gordon says. “It’s indicative of the role African-Americans have played and continue to play in shaping the musical expression of the country.”

• • •

Over at the Sumner School tomorrow at noon, the Friday Morning Music Club will offer an eclectic program of its own, an ambitious assortment of opera, jazz, ragtime and spirituals.

The blues will be there as well, but with a twist: The music will be by classical composers who offer their own riffs on the subject.

“Many black composers incorporated jazz and blues elements in their music,” says Raymond Jackson, a professor of piano at Howard University who trained at the New England Conservatory of Music and at the Juilliard School. “You can hear the influence of spirituals and ragtime as well.”

During his part of the program, Mr. Jackson will present black composers’ various takes on the blues aesthetic, that unique combination of flatted notes and rhythms that has come to be synonymous with the sound.

Included will be the scherzo from Adolphus Hailstork’s piano sonata (which Mr. Jackson premiered at a National Gallery concert), Howard Swanson’s “The Cuckoo” and John Work’s “Scuppernong.”

Appearing as a guest artist on the program is Virginia Hayes Williams, more popularly known in this town as Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ mother. A classically trained singer who provided offstage singing voices in the film versions of “Carmen Jones” and “Porgy and Bess,” Mrs. Williams is excited by the opportunity to step outside her familiar operatic repertoire and tackle some Duke Ellington.

“It’s not what I usually sing,” Mrs. Williams says. “But since this is a program about black composers, I’m willing.”

Her love for music began early on. Still, many people were surprised that the music the young Virginia Williams loved the most was not the popular blues and jazz of the day but classical music.

“I was ridiculed quite a bit for the time,” Mrs. Williams says. “People said it was white people’s music.”

Then, when she was 12, her grandfather took her to renowned tenor Roland Hayes, the first male black singer to receive critical acclaim on the concert stage — and the young Virginia’s uncle.

“He told me, ‘Classical music is not white music — and you have a relative that sings it.’ ”

From then on, Hayes acted as her mentor, even paying for music lessons when the money was tight.

Later, she got advice from Marian Anderson about how to sing spirituals.

“She told me, ‘If you really want to sing spirituals, you can’t just sing the notes — you have to put yourself in the position of the singer.’ ”

Miss Anderson’s advice to the young singer may be in evidence tomorrow, when Mrs. Williams joins fellow singer Loretta Giles and Mr. Jackson for some spirituals of their own.

• • •

Finally, at Howard University on Wednesday, jazz students will present their own concert in the Blackburn University Center Gallery. Hour-long jazz concerts happen there every Wednesday from noon to 1 p.m. It’s a great opportunity to grab some lunch and listen to some great music.

“It’s part of our mission to have a connection to the community,” says Roberta McLeod, director of the jazz program. “We want people to come hear what we have to offer.”

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