The second annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, which took place from Oct. 4 through 8, was supposed to climax with a free performance on the National Mall that would have included performances by Poncho Sanchez, Dr. John, John Scofield and Mavis Staples.
But with rain and wind in the forecast, these acts were moved to U Street's historic Lincoln Theatre, and instead of being free, would be $15 each. For the cash-strapped college student, $45 for Saturday's three performances was hard to justify.
Then I remembered that I write for The GW Hatchet. But for the majority of students who are not a member of the college press corps., the organizers of the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival have hopefully learned a few things for the future, including scheduling the festival during a season when rain and wind are less likely, and considering the impact that a last-minute price hike would have on attendance.
That being said, Saturday's performances were nothing short of fantastic. The Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band led off the afternoon, and had the audience on their feet by the end of a set that went beyond the be-bop infused Afro-Cuban jazz style that the band is known for, ranging from mo-town to a mellow cover of the Duke's "In a Sentimental Mood." The eight-piece band, led by Sanchez on congo drums and vocals, rounded out a set of their originals with a few more covers. If the opening bass line of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia," didn't get your foot tapping, their cover of Ray Charles' "One Mint Julep," might have been more your style. And in what was among the coolest moments of the day, Sanchez announced that the band had recently collaborated with Memphis soul legends Booker T & the MGs, and when they covered "Raise Your Hand," it didn't take much for the audience to comply.
The sets were divided by intervals of an hour, which left time for a walk around U Street, the neighborhood that served as the center of arts and entertainment for D.C.'s African American community during the first half of the 20th century. Once referred to as "Black Broadway," the lively neighborhood and its clubs make up a vital part of D.C. nightlife, especially the jazz scene. U Street institutions such as the Lincoln Theatre and the Bohemian Caverns, as well as newer jazz hot-spots HR-57 and Busboys & Poets all hosted events during this year's Ellington Jazz Fest.
Speaking of institutions, Dr. John was next up, and you couldn't help but feel the cool as his band played on stage. It appeared that the years have not been kind to the body of this 65-year-old "N'awlins" boy, but his voice is a different story. His deep, soulful croon cut through the funky styling of his three-piece rhythm section during a chilled-out set that included his version of Ellington's "Satin Doll." While it wasn't as thrilling as the sets that surrounded it, simply watching Dr. John and his legendary keyboards was a joy in itself.
After some delicious soul food on 14th Street, but before the last act of the night, festival organizer Charles Fishman took a few moments to address a nearly packed Lincoln Theatre. Fishman is a good man to have organizing your jazz festival: a Grammy-winning producer, he was also the manager for Dizzy Gillespie until his death in 1993. The Duke Ellington Jazz Festival can no doubt thank Fishman's connections for helping to bring it from last year's "humble" beginnings with Dave Brubeck and Chuck Brown to this year's stellar sophomore line up that included Roy Hargrove and Roy Haynes as well as Sanchez, Dr. John, and the next act.
Fishman introduced to the stage guitar hero John Scofield, who immediately announced that on this night, he would be playing the songs of the one and only Ray Charles. He was accompanied by his band and a vocalist that did the late, great piano man justice on covers of "Mary Anne," "Hit the Road, Jack," and "What I Say," but this was all about Scofield. Scofield has become famous over the years through collaborations with the likes of Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, and Mediski Martin & Wood (who, incidentally, he will be performing with on Friday, Nov. 10 at the 9:30 Club), but let's give credit where credit is due: this cat can really tear it up.
A few songs into the set, Scofield had the pleasure of inviting to the stage a singer whom Bob Dylan dubbed "the epitome of soul," Mavis Staples. Silent until her first note rang out, her versions of "I Can't Stop Loving You," and "Georgia On My Mind," took the audience like siren songs. She brought us dancing back to earth with her doctored version of Charles' "I've got a Woman" (went her lyrics: "I've got a Man"), and during the encore gave us "I'll Take You There," the song she made famous with her family, The Staple Singers, back in 1972.
Leaving the Lincoln still slightly dazed from Scofield and Staples, I could only wonder if next year's Duke Ellington Jazz Fest would possibly duplicate a performance that had the audience singing and dancing and forgetting about everything outside the theater. While Fishman and company have a lot to live up to, you can bet that the U Street clubs, the Kennedy Center and the National Mall (weather permitting) will be the places to be on Sept. 27 through 30, 2007. Don't let this one slip off your radar.