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: Continue reading “Harlem and DC: Back and Forth, Then and Now”