BOOK REVIEW - DC Jazz – Stories of Jazz Music in Washington, DC



DC Jazz – Stories of Jazz Music in Washington, DC, Edited by Maurice Jackson & Blair A. Ruble
(Georgetown University Press, £20.50. Book review by Peter Vacher)

It was the noted African-American author Ralph Ellison who remarked, “It is well that we keep in mind the fact that not all of American history is recorded.” He went on to allude to the ways in which romance or ancient myth can overtake the chaos of reality. On a more prosaic level, it has long been my contention that the story of jazz in America is also far from complete, especially as it relates to the major centres of population that included substantial numbers of African-Americans.

Of course, New Orleans has attracted a bookcase full of learned studies, as has New York, and to some extent Chicago [although the documentation of South Side blues and jazz activity is still incomplete] while Detroit, Seattle, Newark and Los Angeles have benefited from dedicated research and superior documentation. So far, so good, you might say. But that is to leave out Birmingham, Memphis, Philadelphia, Houston, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Boston, San Francisco, Oakland, Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and a host of locations in Florida and elsewhere, that have not had their jazz stories examined or researched in full. It’s arguable that it’s all too late anyway, as the generation that most avidly pursued and provided jazz and blues in the segregated neighbourhoods in these cities is dwindling by the day.

One such city that was overdue for the jazz historians’ eagle- eye is the nation’s capital, Washington DC, so this new publication [supported by the Historical Society of Washington DC], comprising a series of individual chapters or essays [sub-titled Stories of Jazz Music in Washington, DC] rather than an over-arching chronological history, is to be welcomed. As its editors state in their book’s Introduction, "Washington is one corner of the jazz world that has not received the attention that it deserves." Exactly.

In 1900, Washington had the largest percentage of African Americans of any city in the nation. It was a majority black city from the late 1950s until 2011 when it slipped below 50% for the first time in over 50 years. Indeed in 1970, the black population proportion had peaked at 71.1%. Federal jobs mattered, as did the presence in the city of the prestigious all-black Howard University and the Howard Theater, a significant stopping-off point for major black artists in the heyday of black entertainment and swing.

Dancers in a jazz club, Washington, D.C., between 1938 and 1948
Photo by William P. Gottlieb
William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress
Basie’s star saxophonist Frank Wess moved to the city with his family and played in Bill Baldwin’s band and in the Howard Theatre house band under Coleridge Davis’s leadership; neither of these leaders is mentioned here. Wess had played in the 14-piece Howard University Swingmasters band while studying at the University music school; from it also emerged tenor-saxophonist Benny Golson and two more Basie-ites in bassist Eddie Jones and trombonist/MD Bill Hughes. To speak to Hughes was to hear him recall a time when the black sections of the city teemed with neighbourhood bars with jazz on tap; unaccountably neither he nor Jones figures in the book. Nor for that matter does the great swing trombonist James 'Trummy’ Young who made his professional debut in Washington in 1928 in Booker Coleman’s Hot Chocolates and then worked with drummer Tommy Myles, graduating to the nationally-known Earl Hines orchestra in 1933. Coleman went on to front a popular Dixieland band in Washington. A more complete account of the city’s jazz history should surely have referred to these bands and their role in facilitating the apprentice years of prominent creative players.

Another omission is the pianist Tommy ‘Puss’ Chase whose early days were spent with long-forgotten local bands before a prolonged sojourn in Europe presaged a triumphant return to Washington where he spent the final three decades of his life [he died in 1969] playing mostly solo engagements. Chase had grown up in a musical milieu that included bandleader pianist Claude Hopkins and the city’s greatest musical luminary, one Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington.

President Nixon presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Duke Ellington
during a 70th birthday gala tribute at the White House in 1969
Photo courtesy of White House supplied by publisher
Putting these quasi-historical caveats aside, it’s the range of contributions that are on offer that needs to be considered, the ten authors involved including varied academics and established commentators John Edward Hasse and Michael Fitzgerald. Co-editor Jackson opens with a scholarly account of the struggle for racial equality in the city and cites the importance of African- American musical pioneers James Reese Europe and Will Marion Cook, the latter something of a mentor to the young Ellington. He also highlights the role of the Turkish Ambassador’s sons, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun who made a profound impact during their stay in the city by challenging segregation and arranging multi-racial concerts and of course, built later careers of considerable significance as co-founders of Atlantic Records.

Felix Grant and Shirley Horn in 1988
Photo courtesy of Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives, UDC


Ruble, in turn, describes the to and fro of life around U Street and Seventh Street, "Black DC’s Musical Mecca", before Hasse’s exemplary chapter on Ellington’s ongoing connections to his birthplace is completed with a detailed timeline. Thereafter the topics covered include long-time broadcaster Rusty Hassan on jazz radio in Washington, a local journalist and activist’s recall of post-war jazz activity, the women in DC jazz, that’s Shirley Horn, Eva Cassidy and Ruth Brown for starters, the legislative framework, Howard University and City College, these two seats of learning seen as seed-beds for jazz performance, and a useful summary of jazz research resources in the city. What is missing is the hoped-for over-view of the city’s jazz history, African American or white, ideally to be documented via interviews and contemporary press references, with musicians, bands, dates and locations all delineated.

As if to prepare the way for a more formal and detailed history, the editors of DC Jazz admit that it "cannot pretend to offer a comprehensive picture of the vibrant and still-active DC jazz scene". That said, this elegantly presented and properly referenced publication does go some way towards correcting the apparent lack of attention to Washington’s jazz story, and in the words of the old song, will have to do until "the real thing comes along". A tighter approach to editing might have reduced the occurrence of the word "legendary" and avoided the three separate references to pianist John Malachi’s fleeting contact with Jelly Roll Morton when the New Orleans pianist was managing a dive on U Street. A better array of illustrations would also have been welcome. And a city map!

Peter Vacher's book Swingin' on Central Avenue won the 2016 ARSC Best History in Jazz Music Award.

LINK: DC Jazz at Georgetown University Press

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