The King

“I’m a diabetic now. The funny thing about being a diabetic is that a lot of the things you used to enjoy, well, they just don’t work no more. I’m 76 years old. And tonight, I feel good!” said legendary jazz artist B.B. King as he threw his hands over his head and wiggled in his seat before a crowd of cheering fans.

King proved that despite his age and imperfect health, he definitely has a few other things that still work. He has fully retained his ability to entertain crowds with the same music and charisma that’s kept him at the forefront of both the rock and jazz scenes for almost 50 years. As the king of jazz still attracts new listeners and performs more than 200 concerts a year, his legacy not only endures, but keeps expanding.

On Sunday night, King sang the blues with his signature Gibson guitar, Lucille, for a full house of all ages and races at DAR Constitution Hall. As usual, he plucked out single notes when singing, but then quieted his voice, allowing Lucille to “sing.” All night, the two traded off carrying passionate solo lines. It is this minimalist technique that his helped make the artist’s style so distinct, his emotion so apparent and his appeal so universal.

Despite the individual-based focus of his style, King is no hog of the spotlight. More so toward the beginning of his set, he made it a point to stop playing and gazed over at the line of brass players to his right, or at the organist and piano player to his left. The audience naturally shifted focus, only to be captivated by new sources of raw talent and energy.

King introduced “Boogaloo,” his bandleader and trumpet player, who is comparable in size and just as audacious as King himself. Boogaloo gyrates, thrusts his hips remarkably low to the ground and even displays his acting skills, pretending to cry when a female audience member (who he claims to be in love with) won’t chant the chorus to a song loud enough.

Clearly, the band knows how to get a crowd going. At one point, King demands the lights be turned on, saying, “I want to take a good look at Washington, D.C.”

A roar erupted over the illuminated sea of concertgoers, and King asked Boogaloo, “Did you know, in this city, there are two to three women for every man?” He paused and nodded his head as he looked out into the crowd. “I like that.”

Returning to the music, next came a stripped down medley of “Giving up Living” and the classic “Summertime,” during which the brass section exited and the stage lights focused on King, his bassist and a subdued percussion section. In this noteworthy piece, weepy guitar vibratos strummed over free-floating piano and organ lines, creating a consistent, interweaving stream of unexpected improvisational twists and turns.

King then decided to change pace, explaining why women are smarter than men with the biblical story of Adam and Eve.

“I want you to picture in your mind a beautiful woman sitting next to you without any clothes on,” he instructed the audience. “Why you out looking for apples?”

The band reconvened, rounding out the show with classic big band flavor. Though senility appeared to take hold of King at a few points during the show, (namely, when he spoke quasi-gibberish and began handing out his jewelry at the end), it was still humbling to witness a person creating on stage the sounds that have so greatly influenced music as we know it today. It was perhaps even more incredible to see a musician who upholds such a commitment to continuing to develop his art.

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