- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2005

After naming a bridge and a high school for Duke Ellington, not to mention an upscale apartment house fittingly located on the District’s historic U Street corridor, perhaps a jazz festival bearing the music icon’s moniker in his hometown was inevitable.

But the idea of a world-class gathering in the spirit of such noted jazz festivals as Newport and Montreux remained dormant.

Until this week.

On Wednesday, the city kicked off its first-ever Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, which, says founder and organizer Charlie Fishman, will become an annual event.

“There’s no reason why D.C. should not be a premier jazz destination like other cities,” he says.

He should know.

A native New Yorker, Mr. Fishman traveled the globe as the personal manager and producer for jazz great Dizzy Gillespie until his death in 1993. “When I finally had to stop traveling,” he says, “I wound up in D.C., the national capital of the world [but] without a jazz festival.”

Two-and-a-half years in the making, the five-day Ellington Festival — named for the pioneering composer and arranger born Edward Kennedy Ellington in the District in 1899 (he died in 1974) — is already off to an auspicious start with a host of events and a star-studded bill.

Renowned guitarist Larry Coryell is performing a four-night engagement through Sunday at Blues Alley, and tomorrow’s concert on the Mall will feature saxophone great Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Wallace Roney, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, D.C. go-go master Chuck Brown and vocalist Sunny Sumter, a runner-up in BET’s Jazz Discovery competition and a host on the cable network’s jazz channel.

Legendary pianist Dave Brubeck (performing with his quartet) ushered in the festival with a Wednesday-evening gala. A second big event followed last night: a concert titled “Duke Ellington Tribute: Duke Goes Latin” with the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra (now directed by Arturo O’Farrill).

Both performances were held in the historic Lincoln Theatre, once an integral part of U Street’s storied past.

“Holding the events on U Street was a very conscious decision in celebrating D.C.’s jazz legacy,” says Mr. Fishman, who notes that most of the Ellington Festival’s performances will take place at clubs along the Northwest corridor between 11th and 14th streets.

“Up until 1968, the U Street-Shaw neighborhood was a mecca of African-American culture,” he adds, alluding to the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King that destroyed much of the community — and its night life — nearly 40 years ago. “And not just jazz. Everyone came here to perform, and [writers] Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes once lived here. Next to New York, it was the hippest African-American community in the country.”

In its heyday, U Street’s plethora of entertainment locales was the stuff of legend. Within a one-block radius, there was the Howard Theater (which pre-dates Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater by more than 20 years, Mr. Fishman points out), Cecilia’s and the 7th & T Lounge. Farther down the corridor you’d find the Republic Gardens, the Casbah, Crystal Caverns, Club Begasi and the original Bohemian Caverns — where pianist Ramsey Lewis and his trio recorded their Grammy-winning LP “The In Crowd” in 1962.

“Today, there are 12 clubs on and around the U Street corridor that will be participating in the festival,” Mr. Fishman says. He also notes that a variety of venues such as Blues Alley, the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center and the Henley Park Hotel will stage performances, as well. And, he says, there’s no charge for most events.

Such largesse, however, doesn’t come cheap. Costs for this year’s inaugural festival will run “between $600,000 and $650,000,” Mr. Fishman says. A $200,000 grant from the city’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Planning and Development provided the bulk of the funding, Mr. Fishman says, along with dozens of local and national businesses — including Fannie Mae, the Cafritz Foundation, FedEx, Borders, ABC-7, Daimler-Chrysler and the Philip L. Graham Fund.

“Until we were able to generate funding, we were a two-person operation. Now we’re up to four producers, a paid staff of 15 and dozens of volunteers,” says Mr. Fishman.

“The corporate response this year was very disappointing,” he says. “[But] we are grateful to those sponsors who did choose to show their faith. Hopefully, more companies will want to be involved next year. It’s an annual event that will grow. There is an enormous interest in jazz here. It just took us a long time to get the festival to the city.”

WHAT: The Duke Ellington Jazz Festival

WHEN: Today through Sunday

WHERE: Various locations along the U Street corridor and throughout the District.

TICKETS: Many events are free, and prices for others may be obtained through the individual venues.

PHONE: 202/232-3611

WEB SITE: www.dejazzfest.org

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