The last weekend in June was a sweltering one in the nation’s capital, but in this case there was hot music to match the rising mercury. The DC Jazz Festival was celebrating its ten-year anniversary, and festival organizers won the day by pulling in some top talent from the nation’s jazz capital (New Orleans, of course) to mark the occasion.
The festival was happening all week in DC, with shows at various venues around town. But the weekend shows at the stage on the Anacostia riverfront were the main attraction with Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue headlining on Saturday night and the Rebirth Brass Band headlining on Sunday. There were also strong supporting sets from Gregory Porter and the Robert Glasper Experiment on Saturday, as well as Irma Thomas on Sunday. It was like getting a slice of New Orleans airmailed directly to DC.
DC always has plenty of action with the international culture that pervades, and that scene was thriving with DC earning a number one national ranking for most people watching the Team USA World Cup games. Nonetheless, there was a band of activists around town who were finding that many of the citizens of the District of Columbia were still a bit uptight when it comes to the subject of one of the jazz genre’s key accouterments: marijuana. The activists were collecting signatures for a voter initiative to legalize the sweet leaf in DC, yet many residents still seemed to buy into the old “Reefer Madness” propaganda campaign of the 1930s. Others were afraid to sign for fear that Uncle Sam would find out and fire them from their jobs with the federal government. Such is the climate of fear and loathing that exists in DC in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s pervasive surveillance schemes.
The only dissension in the air surrounding the DC Jazz Fest occurred when a small band of marijuana jazz activists attempted to canvass outside the Saturday show to collect signatures for the initiative. The activists were rebuffed by security guards who insisted that the sidewalks and streets approaching the Yards Park were private property. (The campaign still collected some 55,000 signatures, however — far more than needed to get Issue 71 on the DC ballot in November.)
Gregory Porter hit the stage on Saturday afternoon with shade in short supply, making for something of a subdued crowd on such a hot sunny afternoon. But Porter is a rising jazz star who headlined the Jazz Stage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in April, so the vocalist was ready to do his thing. Porter hit the mark with “Work Song”, a bluesy tune about working on a chain gang that featured a stellar sax solo. Music fans could take it all in with a refreshing beer from the local Bluejacket Brewery, which had a beer tent serving craft brews from their home base just around the corner.
After Porter’s set, heading over to the brewery for a respite from the heat seemed like the thing to do. It was only about a five-minute walk, though, making it easy to get back to hear some of the set from the Robert Glasper Experiment. The set was highlighted by a jazzy mashup jam that included some of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, demonstrating jazz’s ability to mix and match genres. Hailing from Houston, Texas, Glasper is a keyboardist with diverse influences and talents mixing jazz with funk and R&B.
As twilight approached, the beer line grew exponentially and it became clear that the crowd was growing rapidly with new arrivals for Trombone Shorty (aka Troy Andrews). Andrews and his band Orleans Avenue have been a hot commodity for several years at least, blending the Big Easy’s brass band funk flavor with an arena rock edge that creates a powerful sound and increasingly mass appeal. There was a tangible energy in the air from the moment the band hit the stage for a triumphant set. “Fire and Brimstone” was an early highlight, with Andrews delivering swaggering vocals and horn blasts over hard rock guitar that got the crowd going. “We can’t keep waiting for the world to change,” sang Andrews, invoking a socially conscious theme that has long been a hallmark of the New Orleans music scene.
A “Treme” jam kicked the dance party into effect, and the band scored again later with a deep blues cover of Allen Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down”. Another hot jam featured Duke Ellington’s classic “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and there was no shortage of swing with this band. There are few artists that can jump around from funk to rock to blues to jazz and hip hop and dazzle in each area like Trombone Shorty. A big jam toward the end saw Andrews deliver a mind-boggling trombone solo that seemed to defy modern physics with the way he kept blowing air through the horn. At the end, there was no doubt that Andrews has staked out a space as one of modern music’s brightest and most diverse talents.
Trombone Shorty’s triumphant set was the clear peak of the festival, but diehards were able to come back to the riverfront for more on Sunday. The crowd was much smaller, but there was a clear contingent of Big Easy transplants representing to show a DC-New Orleans connection in effect. Legendary New Orleans singer Irma Thomas threw down a mid-afternoon set that mixed blues and funk for more of that timeless Big Easy vibe. Her classic “Don’t Mess With My Man” featured a high-energy raveup that seemed influential on the Blues Brothers. She hit the other end of the spectrum with a sweet gospel-tinged rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”, highlighting jazz’s effect as a youth elixir. Thomas cranked it back up at the end with a raucous version of “Proud Mary”, impressing with a youthful spirit belying her veteran status.
The Rebirth Brass Band hit the stage shortly before 6:00 to close out the riverfront festivities with a high-energy set that was heavy on the band’s patented funky grooves. The band featured tracks from their new album Move Your Body, as well as some timely covers like a swinging jam on the late great Bobby Womack’s “Used to Love Her”. The band touted their non-profit site Roots of Music, a noble effort to raise money to put instruments into the hands of more kids in New Orleans to help keep the music scene growing. A big jam on “When the Saint’s Go Marching In” closed things out in style, leaving no doubt that the tenth annual DC Jazzfest was a huge success.