- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

If jazz is dead, the nation’s capital never got the memo. Despite the lack of a local jazz radio station, plummeting CD sales and a severe recession that has put a raft of jazz festivals around the country out of business, the sound of America’s music may be the area’s hottest ticket this weekend, as two ongoing festivals fan out across the region.

Both the Duke Ellington and Capital Jazz festivals begin tomorrow, with each boasting a diverse all-star lineup. George Duke, Al Jarreau, Fourplay and Chaka Khan are on the bill for Capital Jazz. Meanwhile, the musical Marsalis family, Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard and Buckwheat Zydeco are in the spotlight for the Ellington extravaganza.

Named for native son and musical great Duke Ellington, the 5th Anniversary Duke Ellington Jazz Festival continues through June 15 at various locations throughout the District. The Capital Jazz Fest, meanwhile, closes out its annual run at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., on Sunday.

This regional embarrassment of riches comes as a host of other jazz festivals around the country - most notably New York City’s JVC Jazz Festival - have gone belly-up, casualties of the nation’s economic downturn. A summer staple since 1984, the New York event was shelved this year because the concert company behind it is suffering a financial crisis, the New York Times reported last month.

“In this area, we have a high concentration of educated and upper-income adults, particularly in the African-American community, to whom jazz tends to appeal,” says Cliff Hunte, founder and producer of the Capital Jazz Fest, who says attendance at his event has routinely been 30,000 to 40,000 fans in its 17 years.

Charlie Fishman, a founder, executive producer and director of the Ellington festival, rejects the notion that the D.C. area’s upscale demographics explain its receptivity to jazz. “Music is one of the greatest tools to bring people together despite race, economic status, religion and politics,” he says.

Now celebrating its fifth year, the Ellington Festival has seen a steady rise in attendance since its 2005 debut, with about 55,000 turning out in 2008, according to Mr. Fishman.

This year’s event, perhaps the most ambitious to date, will see important changes, including a scheduling move - permanent, according to Mr. Fishman - from early fall to early summer.

“If you examine our last four festivals, they were all held on different days in September and October,” Mr. Fishman says. “I loved doing it in September, but there was always something else going on at the same time. The Congressional Black Caucus [legislative weekend]. Hispanic Heritage Month. The return of Congress. It’s a very crowded calendar.”

This year, the Ellington festival faces direct competition - less than 25 miles north of the city - from the Capital Jazz Fest. Mr. Fishman is saving his big-name acts for next week, after the rival festival has closed. “Cliff [Hunte] has been doing this for 17 years,” he says. “I didn’t want to step on his toes.”

Both events have an arsenal of star power, but each bill caters to different musical tastes. Traditional jazz purists likely will gravitate to Ellington, where this year’s theme pays homage to New Orleans, the cradle of jazz, with a number of headliners hailing from the Big Easy - including Nicholas Payton, Mr. Blanchard, Buckwheat Zydeco and the Marsalis family.

A June 15 Kennedy Center concert tribute to Marsalis clan patriarch Ellis Marsalis featuring the elder Marsalis with his musical sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason; Mr. Connick and Dr. Billy Taylor has been sold out for weeks, Mr. Fishman reports. The concert is one of just a few ticketed Ellington events (out of 75).

By contrast, the Capital Jazz Fest offers a musical stew of so-called “smooth” or contemporary jazz that also features R&B; heavyweights including Peabo Bryson, Regina Belle, D.C. go-go master Chuck Brown, the ‘80s vocal quartet En Vogue and Miss Khan (who replaces Natalie Cole, recovering from a recent kidney transplant).

Tickets to individual concerts may still be purchased, but daylong passes are no longer available, Mr. Hunte says.

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