D.C.: Duke’s City: Ellington’s hometown has sizable jazz scene, including at GW

Every Friday from noon to 2 p.m., senior Jonathan Kantor and a group of his fellow music students attend a zero-credit class in the basement of Philips Hall. Officially listed as a workshop, those who attend frequently refer to the class as a “jam session.”

Rather than a professor lecturing at a podium, a group of jazz professors plays a set of jazz standards for students, faculty members and the public. Following their set, student and amateur musicians are brought up to play any song they choose.

“I think that the jazz department here, particularly the jazz jam sessions, are something people neglect,” Kantor said. “I think there’s so much good music going on around campus, if people took time to go to the jam sessions, they’d be shocked at the ability of some of the students that go here.”

D.C. has historically been a city with a rich jazz culture, a home to jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and live music in the historic U Street and Georgetown neighborhoods. However, many agree that the District is not as noted for jazz as New York City or New Orleans, where jazz makes up a very significant part of the culture and nightlife.

Nevertheless, a very loyal and diverse group of people, including many GW students, regularly enjoy going out to local jazz clubs.

“D.C. is not as noted as a city as New York or others for jazz,” said sophomore Campbell Charshee, a piano player in the jazz department. “But to the people living here, there’s an established and quite strong jazz scene, with lots of players and fans.”

Freshman bass player Leo Sherman agreed, saying, “I think that it’s really a great scene. It’s small but it’s powerful, especially how jazz surfaces in the really lifeless work environment that is D.C. It’s cool how jazz just drives and surfaces on U Street. Just going there feels like you step back like 50, 60 years and you hear jazz coming out the windows, on the street; it’s alive and it’s wonderful.”

The jam session at GW each Friday afternoon was started by Jim Levy, a professor who teaches jazz piano and leads the King James and the Serfs of Swing student jazz ensemble. Several of the jazz clubs in D.C. host similar jam sessions, where students and other amateur musicians go on stage to gain playing experience.

“I’ve really embraced the jazz scene in D.C. since I’ve been here,” said Kantor, who plays tenor sax and will be taking graduate school music courses at New York University next year.

“The best things for me are the jam sessions at Twins and HR-57 jazz club, where I got started,” he added, referring to two clubs in the U Street area.

GW, much like D.C., is not really known for its jazz. However, Charshee said it’s still a great learning environment for budding musicians.

“The jazz faculty here are extremely dedicated to providing a very intense and personal jazz education for the students who want to get involved,” he said. “Between jam sessions, lessons, ensembles and all that, my personal experience is that I’ve been incredibly mentored. There’s a lot of kids that are dedicated to learning the art here. I think it’s one of GW’s best-kept secrets.”

On April 16, Easter Sunday, the GW jazz department will host its annual jazz festival at Blues Alley jazz club in Georgetown (1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW) at 7 p.m. The festival will feature student ensembles within the jazz department, including small jazz ensembles Combo Nation and ?ber Combo, and big band King James and the Serfs of Swing.

The following weekend, Kantor will have his senior recital at HR-57 (1610 14th St.), featuring his quartet with GW senior Darren West on drums, Steve Zerwin on bass and Jon Ozment on piano. The GW student Latin music ensemble Los Gringos will open for Kantor at 7 p.m.

“I expect (the show at Blues Alley) will be really good,” Sherman said. “I think the atmosphere at Blues Alley is a really happening place, and I expect that feeling of playing at Blues Alley to really reflect in our performance. It should be a really good evening for playing.”

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