During the age of segregation, Washington, D.C.’s Howard Theatre was one of the country’s first large venues to welcome black audiences and performers. It was the most prestigious room in the city’s entertainment and nightlife district of the African American community — its “Black Broadway.” And after decades of dormancy and disrepair, the renovated Howard Theatre reopened in 2012. NPR’s Weekend Edition gave a good sense of the building’s historical importance in a report.
Name a popular African American entertainer between 1910 and 1970, and he or she probably played the Howard: Chuck Berry, James Brown, The Supremes, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder. Because jazz was once pop music, this means the Howard hosted plenty of jazz legends in the primes of their careers, including everyone from proto-jazz bandleader James Reese Europe to Louis Armstrong to the Count Basie Orchestra to Ella Fitzgerald to Charlie Parker to Jimmy Smith. For further reading, The Washington Post put together this oral history, and created this handy timeline graphic too.
All this makes for a fascinating story, especially as it connects the dots between jazz history and African American history. But now the theater is again becoming a living part of its community. And the particular way the Howard is rebooting gives some clues as to where its legacy stands — how, in the great jazz tradition, its past figures into its present. For example:
Every year, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation throws a concert and panel discussion as part of its annual conference. It’s notable not only as a musical event — this year’s show features drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s take on the classic album Money Jungle, featuring vocalist Lizz Wright, as well as alto saxophonist Antonio Hart’s quintet with special guest Jimmy Heath — but also as a cultural one. In this century, anyway, it’s become surprisingly uncommon to see documentation of black jazz artists performing for primarily black audiences.
By the time you read this, the concert will be transpiring or over. But earlier in the day, many of its star musicians and a few distinguished authors assembled for a forum in a cramped Washington Conference Center boardroom. Around 100 to 150 people — the majority African-American, in business attire and middle-aged — were in the house for a discussion titled “If You Really Are Concerned: An African-American Agenda for Jazz.” It took its title from a Billy Taylor song, the last stanza of which goes:
If you really are concerned, then show it
If you really want to help, you can
But you’d better start right now
By making changes when you’re able
Or your world will disappear
As one of the panelists, writer and consultant Willard Jenkins, said in his prefatory remarks, every time African-Americans are gathered to talk about jazz, the room sighs, as if it’s lost control over something which emerged from its community. “Nothing has been stolen — we’ve given it away,” he said. “And we’ve given it away through our neglect.” Continue reading