Harlem and DC: Back and Forth, Then and Now

The Apollo Theatre Marquee in the early 1950s. Courtesy of Apollo Theatre

Jazz has always drawn from and expressed a sense of place. I’ve been thinking about what that means—how those places relate to the shapes and forms of music, and what it means for jazz when those places experience drastic change.
This weekend, pianists Jason Moran and Marc Cary will present what should be an illuminating project along those lines, and focused on the contributions and connections between African American communities in Harlem and Washington D.C. “Harlem Night/U Street Lights” will be presented on Saturday May 9 at at the Apollo Theater, as part of the Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival, and Sunday May 10 at the Kennedy Center. (The title’s reference to “U Street” honors what has long been a center for DC music and culture.)
Moran and Cary are both Harlem residents, and their lives and careers have also drawn them into Washington DC’s music scene. (Moran is the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center, and Cary, who was born in New York City, was raised and schooled in D.C.)
Among the other musicians involved are trumpeter Roy Hargrove, drummer Jimmy Cobb, pianists Bertha Hope and Gerald Clayton, and singers including Queen Esther, Brianna Thomas and, in DC, Howard University’s vocal jazz ensemble, Afro Blue. As befits these or any other black neighborhoods, the aesthetic will naturally spill beyond any strict definition of “jazz”—in DC, the program will explore connections between Miles Davis’ electric bands and DC’s influential “go-go” scene.
Moran and Cary will aim to capture the particular vibe that, historically, was born in each of these places and that still can be felt. And they’ll hope to make a larger point: As Moran put it to me, “Harlem for jazz and hip-hop is like Salzburg for European classical music.”
I posed a few related questions to each of them, and here’s how they replied:
(left) Jason Moran © Rebecca Mee/ (right) Marc Cary © Clay Patrick McBride

What and who were your key guides into the Harlem of jazz’s past? How did you soak that in?
Jason Moran: I moved to New York City in 1993, from Houston. When I arrived, I’d always think about the lore of the Harlem Renaissance, and how the energy must have felt between the different artistic and political communities. That was always the community I wanted to have, and I think it exists in a major way in Harlem today. My big guide would be Dr. Billy Taylor, especially the stories he’d tell about being in a room with piano giants Willie the Lion Smith, Mary Lou Williams, Monk, Art Tatum, James P. Johnson or Fats Waller. In him sharing those stories with me, I felt a deep connection. I also meet lots of people in Harlem who had parents that visited the Savoy Ballroom or the Renaissance, and that history is very present Uptown, still activating the air. Ellington also looms large simply because of his tone poems about Harlem and Harlem culture. To put a “sound” on a “people” is deep.
Marc Cary: Beaver Harris, Arthur Taylor, Mickey Bass and club owner Ed Williams (Condon’s). For me, they were the historians of Harlem, especially in Sugar Hill. Ed Williams introduced me to AT [Arthur Taylor], Mickey Bass introduced me to Beaver Harris, and through them, Abbey Lincoln came into the frame (as she used to live beside AT). I soaked it in by being immersed in playing with these people. I’d also spend a lot of time with them on a personal level with them, talking. AT wrote a book “Notes and Tones,” that talked about the history through the eyes of the musician. Quite a few of them were still living at the time when I came to town. AT had already written the book by the time I met him, but what I was privy to was the videos of the interviews that he has done. Later, Walter Davis Jr. was also a big influence on me, historically as well as the fact that he played with Bud and Monk, and he often talked about his experience in Harlem. I studied was Walter Davis Jr., so he was a direct window into the scene and its roots.
How do your influences and experiences relate to your idea of Harlem jazz today?
JM: There is a big jazz community in Harlem, and hopefully always will be. That is why I am including a local legend like Bill Saxton, because he has been a major part of keeping the music present. Now, Harlemites can hear good music at any number of venues uptown from The Apollo to Ginny’s or Minton’s. I have loved Harlem since the ’90s, and also love that I can be a part of the history that has helped shape the sound of music as a whole. Harlem for jazz/hip-hop is like Salzburg for European classical music. I’ll always remember going into the Zebra room in the Lenox Lounge, and the vibe it had in there.   That will always be my idea of Harlem jazz. Harlem jazz is a vibe. Kind of like the guy who bike rides Harlem Streets blasting speakers, playing Marvin Gaye. So I have been enamored by folks that know how to sonically represent the landscape they live within.
MC: I’ve always been interested in building some of the essential pieces that were needed to form a community. There are a lot of musicians in Harlem who come in and out, who are not necessarily from Harlem, who don’t become a part of any community here. My attempts in the past were to open the Langston Hughes House as a resource for musicians and artists to present their work in a space that was community-supported and historical. I think we have more institutional community than we have musicians’ community, and institutions like the Apollo and Harlem Stage have become the epicenter for the musicians and the culture.
What about the DC of jazz’s past? How did you soak that in?
JM: As for the past in DC, I’d say it was partially Billy Taylor. But now that I hang out there more, I think it’s also Marc Cary. He’s always telling me about some musician, living or not, that was pivotal for getting the music to the people. That’s why a person like go-go icon Chuck Brown is still a major figure—because of his ability to fuse histories.
MC: For me, it started with being exposed to The Black Repertory Theater in DC, and meeting a lot of the musicians who performed in the theater but who were also jazz musicians. From there, thanks to Mayor Marion Barry, they had intense summer programs for youth, and I took advantage of the many years that those were available by being involved in Lettum Play Youth Orchestra, and then moving into some of the summer programs such as Blue Alley Youth Orchestra, under the tutelage of Dizzy Gillespie. But I was also exposed to a great list of musicians—everyone from Elonora Oxendine, Atrius Fleming, Mary Jefferson, John Malachai, Calvin Jones, Hildridge Roach, Lawrence Wheatley and Rubin Brown, and not forgetting Shirley Horn. They were all people directly influential and accessible to DC’s young musicians through those programs and via the local venues throughout DC who supported youth development.
How do your influences and experiences relate to your idea of Washington DC jazz today, and to whatever sense of jazz community exists there now?
JM: In DC, I always ask someone “who should I be checking out?” The bassist Tarus Mateen, is not there right now, but he is also very helpful.
MC: I think DC has perpetually provided the world with incredible musicians based on the fact that they have an indigenous music in DC called “go-go.” Young musicians can find themselves part of a group at an early age, and perform. It can act as a gateway to jazz at a young age. Having come through at the time that I did, there has been quite a bit of change: Gentrification has changed the meaning of culture in DC. Change is inevitable. So I believe the scene in DC today is in transition. Historically, it was a rich and fertile ground for development.
Presented by The Apollo Theater and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Jason Moran – Curator & Musical Director 
Marc Cary – Music Director
Special Guest – Roy Hargrove
Afro Blue, Ben Williams, Bertha Hope, Bill Saxton, Brian Settles, Brianna Thomas, Donvonte McCoy, Federico Gonzalez Peña, Gerald Clayton, Jimmy Cobb, Kenny Quick, Lakecia Benjamin, Marc Cary, Mickey Freeman and Queen Esther
Harlem resident Jason Moran, virtuoso jazz pianist and composer, is known for awing audiences with his audacity, conviction and breath-taking technique. He’s established himself as a risk-taker and innovator of new directions for jazz as a whole. This one-night-only exclusive concert celebrates Moran’s deep connections to jazz artists in Harlem and D.C., where he serves as Artistic Advisor for Jazz at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Location: Apollo Mainstage
Tickets: $45, $35
In person at the Apollo Theater Box Office
By phone call Ticketmaster (800) 745-3000
Online at Ticketmaster.com
For Groups Call (212) 531-5355
Harlem Nights / U Street Lights: A Collaborative Presentation of The Apollo and The Kennedy Center
Sunday, May 10, 2015, 8:00 PM
Curated by pianist and Kennedy Center Artistic Director for Jazz Jason Moran, with pianist and Music Director Marc Cary, Harlem Nights / U Street Lights brings together an all-star lineup of artists that includes seasoned veterans and up-and-comers from both communities, with contemporary performances celebrating the legacies of key artists from each city (Duke Ellington, Dr. Billy Taylor, Miles Davis) as well as seminal works and movements (swing, bop, and go-go).
The evening will be in two parts:
6 p.m., Millennium Stage (Grand Foyer)
FREE PERFORMANCE, No Tickets Required
With dual pianos onstage, all-star pianists Jason Moran, Marc Cary (Music Director), Bertha Hope, and Gerald Clayton connect the dots between jazz luminaries with histories in both New York and D.C., including late greats Duke Ellington and Dr. Billy Taylor. In addition, vocalists Queen Esther and Brianna Thomas perform with Howard University’s premier vocal jazz ensemble Afro Blue (directed by Connaitre Miller), mining the rich, related vocal history of the New York and D.C. jazz scenes.
8 p.m., The Crossroads Club (Atrium)
Tickets: $23
The Crossroads Club pumps up the jazz club experience with a dance floor, high-top tables, expansive standing room only, and drinks available for purchase.
The evening continues with an explosive “Miles Davis Meets Go-Go” jam, inspired by Davis’s 1980s fusion exploration of the music of the late Ricky “Sugarfoot” Wellman, featuring trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Donvonte McCoy; bassist Ben Williams; NEA Jazz Master drummer Jimmy Cobb; drummer Kenny “Kwick” Gross; percussionist Go-Go Mickey Freeman; and saxophonists Lakecia Benjamin, Brian Settles, and Bill Saxton. Jason Moran, Marc Cary, Federico González Peña, Bertha Hope, Gerald Clayton, Queen Esther, Brianna Thomas, and Afro Blue also join the all-star line-up for the evening’s finale.
Performance Timing: One hour, 40 minutes, with no intermission.

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