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The Jazz Artists Who Chose DC

April is Jazz Appreciation Month, so for this blog post I’m focusing on jazz artists who chose to have their career in Washington, DC. Many DC-grown musicians sought fame and fortune in larger, flashier markets, like New York or Chicago. Examples include Duke Ellington, who is more associated with the jazz scene in Harlem than his home town, or Meshell Ndegeocello, who went to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and played in various GoGo bands before seeking fame up north. Others found reasons to remain and had admirable careers from here. I think they are good examples of musicians who saw the value in choosing a scene that was under-appreciated, but also where they felt a strong connection with their communities. Many artists who get their start in DC end up leaving for larger cities, New York in particular. However, there are musicians who are from or travelled to, and chose to remain in, DC and have immense careers. They chose to contribute to a smaller scene but still made an incredible impact.

Shirley Horn – Voice of an Angel
Shirley was born in Washington, DC in 1934. She came of age when Duke Ellington was already an established musician, big band had had its day, and bebop was just rising. She started playing the piano at 4 years old. She was trained as a classical pianist and showed immense talent at a young age. She was already studying classical music at a Junior Musicians program at Howard University at 12 years old. However, she was pulled towards the sound of jazz. After all, she was growing up close to one of the most vibrant jazz scenes at the time. She looked up to artists like Erroll Garner and Ahmed Jamal (recently deceased, RIP), and snuck into clubs around U Street to hear them play. She said that Garner was the first pianist who really “blew me away” with songs like “Penthouse Serenade”, “Pastel,” and “Cologne.” She herself would eventually perform at various jazz clubs both on and off the Black Broadway strip, including Crystal Caverns (later Bohemian Caverns), Olivia’s Patio Lounge (formerly at 711 13th Street NW), and the Merry-land Club at 3rd an G Street NW, to name a few. Her parents were unaware that she was sneaking out to play at jazz clubs, but one night a patron who had been coming in nightly to listen to her walked with a giant turquoise teddy bear and told her that if she sang “Melancholy Baby,” the teddy bear was hers. So, she did. I imagine walking into her home with a giant bear was a difficult thing to explain. Her Mother was accepting of her new interest, however, because as she said, “she was playing what I liked.”
Unable to attend Juilliard supposedly due to finances, she remained in Washington building her own career. Her talent was recognized by a New York-based record company, Stere-O-Craft, with whom she recorded her first album Embers and Ashes. That was enough for her to get the attention of Jazz’s bad boy Miles Davis. Miles was in the midst of his first comeback after taking a break from music to deal with his heroin addiction. He called her up one day in 1961, while she was at her Mother-in-Law’s house (who knows how he got the number), and he invited her to come play at the Village Vanguard in New York. She accepted, and when she arrived at Miles’ house prior to the gig his children were singing her songs. In an interview she did prior to a concert in Bern, Switzerland much later, she clarified that she did not actually play with Miles Davis that night, as commonly assumed. Miles convinced Max Gordon (founder of the Vanguard) to let her play in his trio, opposite Davis. She said she sat in a few songs, however, when she felt brave enough. She also met jazz singer Carmen McCrae at that concert, and after hearing her sing, Carmen couldn’t believe that Shirley wouldn’t leave Washington, DC for further pastures. This would be a theme when other artists spoke of Shirley Horn.
Musicians who knew her said that she never seemed interested in becoming famous. What times she played in New York, she didn’t enjoy the large clubs, in which people might be talking during her shows. Apparently, she would walk off of the stage if there were people talking while she was playing, she just didn’t want to deal with it. She preferred smaller, intimate, quieter venues. Listening to her songs, her voice was far more suited for that type of show than a larger club somewhere that was more appropriate for Bebop or big band. She was more interested in building her life and her musical community in DC. Her two favorite accompanists, bassist Charles Ables and drummer Steve Williams, were her constant performing companions and were also DC locals.

Miles tried to convince her to tour with him, but she turned him down. In interviews in which she was asked why she decided not to tour with Miles, or take her career to that level, she said that she had her daughter Rainey and wanted to be there for her and her husband. However, she gets emotional when she talks about Miles Davis. She always mentions how he took care of her, and other musicians who knew them both talked about Miles’ love for her, both her playing and her voice. I like to think that perhaps there was some romantic tension there, since she also admitted to being attracted to him. Who wouldn’t have been? Nonetheless, any romantic interest was probably kept within the boundaries of their musical relationship. He was supposed to appear on her 1992 album “Here’s to Life,” produced by Quincy Jones, but unfortunately Miles died before recording began and Wynton Marsalis had to step in. Horn dedicated the album to Davis. When she speaks about it she gets emotional, and any observer can see that she and Davis were very, very close.
After her daughter married and moved out of the house she started touring nationally and internationally. On YouTube, you can find recordings of concerts she played later in her life, including at the Four Queens in Vegas and the Village Vanguard in 1991. She passed away in 2005, due to difficulties related to diabetes. In the end she had recorded twenty studio albums, two concert albums, and was nominated for a Grammy nine times, finally winning in 1998 for her tribute album to Miles Davis “I Remember Miles.” She is recognized as one of the best singer/pianists of the jazz genre.

Buck Hill, the Wailin’ Mailman
Buck Hill was born in DC in 1927. Like many other DC jazz musicians, he attended Armstrong Technical High School. He started playing saxophone around the U Street neighborhood in his teenage years, receiving his first saxophone from his brother, who wanted Buck to accompany his piano. His first musical influences included Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. He became a mainstay at local jazz clubs like Showboat Lounge (with Charlie Byrd) in Adams Morgan, Harold's Rogue and Jar, Blues Alley and Cellar Door, as well as performing in the Howard Theater house band. To make ends meet and support his family, he had obtained a job with the U.S. Postal Service, and drove a cab. But he played music as his passion, and was eventually discovered by guitarist Charlie Byrd, a mentor of Miles Davis. So Buck began playing with Byrd, and recorded his first song with him. He helped nurture other local artists as well. In fact, when Shirley Horn was getting started in the jazz scene, Buck was one of the few that actively welcomed her to come play with him when other musicians were skeptical of her as a jazz musician, since she had begun as a classical pianist. Some of his fellow musicians would go on to join groups led by top artists like Miles Davis, but he was not interested in leaving his home town. Hill once played with Davis himself, filling in for John Coltrane on a gig. Miles tried to get him to join his next tour, but Hill declined due to the obligations of his family.

Buck started recording in the 1950s and appeared on albums with Charlie Byrd and Shirley Horn, issued by the Verve record label. In the late 1970's he recorded his own albums with Steeplechase records. His first international performance was at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 1981, to much acclaim. In fact, the next year Mayor Marion Barry declared a "Buck Hill Day." But he never left his postal job, hence why he earned the moniker “the Wailing Mailman.” He remained in DC his entire career, and became something of a local legend. He passed away in 2017, at 90 years old, and thus the impetus for this mural, painted by Arizona artist Joe Pagac, unveiled in 2019 to much fanfare.

Keter Betts – Bringing the Brazilian On
I have a soft spot for Keter (Kee-ter) Betts, mostly due to the fact that he played a large part in introducing Brazilian Jazz to American audiences. Betts is not a native Washingtonian, but he called the DC area his home for the better of 50 years. As a bassist he was known as an accompanist, but the names that he accompanied speaks to his prowess and talent. Those named include, but are not limited to Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Shirley Horn, Buck Hill, Dinah Washington, Billy Ekstine, Roberta Flack, Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz. He is recorded on over 100 albums. He accompanied Ella Fitzgerald through most of her later career until her retirement in 1971.

Betts was born in New York in 1928. He became hooked on music after following a parade around town, entranced by the sounds of the band. As a youth he started out as a drummer, loving the loudness and how the drums kept the beat. When he joined his high school band he tried as many instruments as he could get his hands on. He took to drums first, but because of a chance miss-encounter in New York with drummer Panama Francis he met bassist Milt Hilton, who turned him onto the instrument. As a bassist, he took his job as a supporting role to singers very seriously. He describes himself as a sort of tailor, who dresses up a lead artist who otherwise would be presenting to the audience as if naked.

Betts’ first big show was in DC. He had been travelling with saxophonist Carmen Leggio, and they were often visiting DC to play gigs. He linked up with local saxophonist Earl Bostic, who hired him to join his band. Betts toured the country with Bostic, but DC was his home base for a while. He left Bostic for Dinah Washington in the mid-50s but returned to DC once again in 1956. From 1957 – 1964 he played with DC pianist Charlie Byrd, during which Byrd, Stan Getz and their accompanists (including Betts) went to Brazil on a cultural trip with the State Department. Betts and drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt fell in love with Bossa Nova, bought a few records, and convinced Getz and Byrd to learn how to play that style. There efforts resulted in the recording of Jazz Samba with Verve Records at the All Souls Unitarian Church on 16th and Harvard in 1962. It was the greatest coup for Brazilian music in America since Carmen Miranda made her splash in the 1930s. The song “Desafinado” became a jazz standard and won a Grammy. From then on Betts was a coveted accompanist, and Ella Fitzgerald ask him to join her band. He toured with her until her retirement in 1991, traveling to over 50 countries. Afterward, he decided he was ready to cut his own album, and the result was Bass, Buddies, and Blues. Betts passed away in 2005 at the age of 77.

Davey Yarborough – Instructor Extraordinaire
Davey Yarborough is of a more recent generation of contributors to DC’s jazz scene, and in fact is still alive and living in the District. I had the pleasure of interviewing him myself just a few days ago at Highlands Cafe. He was born in DC and became interested in music around the 3rd grade, when his parents bought a “combo” stereo that had both a record player and a radio. He would listen to records non-stop and decided he wanted to learn how to play music. His first instrument was a clarinet, but he would go on to primarily play the saxophone and flute. He bought his first alto saxophone after working a summer at Arby’s, saving up $400 and then getting the last $25 from his Dad so he could purchase the sax he wanted. The first big band he saw was Bobby Felder and his group Entertainment Package. At the end of the show, Felder invited anyone who was interested in going to college for music to come speak with him, so Yarborough did. He received a full scholarship to study music and almost stopped at his Associates Degree from Federal City College (now UDC). However, his mentors convinced him to finish the last two years, after all he had a free education already and would have more opportunities. He originally wanted to get his degree in Performance, but FCC did not have one. However, they did have a degree in Music Education. He was hesitant. In numerous interviews, including the one he did with me, he mentions his resistance to becoming a teacher. However, in the course of his teacher-training as part of his requirements, in which he was teaching very young children, he recalls the satisfaction of watching a struggling student finally hit a breakthrough and the smile that spread across their face. After that, he figured teaching wasn’t so bad.

He had a difficult time finding a full time job as a teacher upon graduating, but he started subbing at Woodrow Wilson High School (now Jackson-Reed High). Eventually offers started coming his way, including at an elite high school that had a Junior Music Degree: McKinley Tech High School. They had temporarily lost their program, but their Superintendent agreed to re-establish it again as long as Davey Yarborough was the instructor. He had by then earned a reputation not just as a teacher but as a performer, having briefly performed with the Four Tops, Earth, Wind and Fire, Chuck Brown (who played his Prom!!) and before going to college, not to mention performing around DC. He would eventually have several jobs, including assistant teaching at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where he established the jazz program as part of the curriculum in 1986, and teaching music at UDC, all while performing at both matinees and night shows in between. It was quite a schedule.

His largest impact would by far be through the establishment of the Washington Jazz Arts Institute, a summer music program for kids aged 12 -21. He saw that there was a critical need for good music education for kids, plus he saw that they needed something to do during the summers to keep them out of trouble. Music lessons and instruments are expensive however, so the purpose of the Institute is to provide an opportunity for free music lessons, and in some cases, instruments, for DC children. The program is still hosted by the Peoples Congregation Church at 4704 13th Street NW, and will celebrate their 25th year this summer.

When I asked him about why he remained in DC for the duration of his career, his reasons echoed those I had heard expressed by the others discussed here. He married young (to the equally talented and well-known singer Esther Williams), but it's not just about that. DC offered him a stable career in music education, which gave him the opportunity to perform at his leisure while also being present for his family. He doesn't regret being able to strike that balance instead of having a whirlwind touring career. Being involved in education also afforded him the opportunity to give back to the community that had raised him. I also asked him if he thinks that DC still draws talent, and he stated that it does, for people who are looking for a place where there are as many stable opportunities as their are performing opportunities. Today he is working on his own documentary about the musicians and clubs that made DC a vibrant music capital in the 1960s and 70s, called "In their Own Words," and it will be screened at the Kennedy Center this Fall. You better believe that I will be first in line to see it.

There are plenty of other jazz artists currently working in DC who have chosen to make it their home, and to list or discuss them all would make for a long blog post indeed. Those I've discussed here are just a sampling of the incredible talent that made a huge impact in the world of jazz, but from their dear home city of Washington. Due to them and the legacy they have left, DC will continue to be a city that educates, promotes, and retains great musical talent. Happy Jazz Appreciation Month!




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