In 2000, Lavenia Nesmith had a vision to celebrate the gospel artist she had admired since her childhood, Mahalia Jackson. On Sunday, February 19, she brought her stirring theatrical tribute, The Mahalia Jackson Story to the Gospel Matinee at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival. Gospel lovers in the DC area had a chance to see Nesmith interpret many of Jackson’s songs on the Ronnie Wells Stage at the Hilton in Rockville, MD.
However, The Mahalia Jackson Story was more than just a songfest. With narration by Julian Hipkins, it was part play, part history journey. For example, it was revealed that the songstress’ given name, Mahala, means, “the lady of melodious song.” The performance took the audience through Mahalia Jackson’s early beginnings, shared anecdotes about her songs and performances, concluding with her passing.
Nesmith, one of the DC area’s top female jazz vocalists, started the show with the first verse of "Bless This House,” the song that Mahalia Jackson sang each week at the conclusion of her weekly gospel show. Other songs included “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” “In The Upper Room,” “Walk With Me Lord” and an acapella version of “Come Sunday.” She completed the tribute with a rousing rendition of “Down By The Riverside.”
Throughout the play pianist Stephen Key, percussionist Terron Whitehead, bassist Harry Jackson, provided excellent musical support. The show received a standing ovation and those who failed to take advantage of The Mahalia Jackson Story certainly missed an exceptional performance by Nesmith, Hipkins and the very talented musicians.
The musical "Sistas Can Sang: A Tribute to Female Legends of Jazz and Blues" not only brought back to life legendary jazz singers such as Billie Holiday and Nancy Wilson. It also reinvigorated the singing career of Lavenia Nesmith, one of its stars.
Nesmith stopped performing in 1991 to raise a family. Eight years later, she returned to her passion and, in 2000, started working on a show to honor the great vocalists who preceded her.
Nesmith will perform "Sistas Can Sang" on Saturday as one of the events in the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival at the Hilton Rockville. The four-day festival runs from Friday through Sunday, with a closing brunch on Monday.
"Sistas" follows Cora, the cleaning lady of the imaginary Museum of Women in Jazz and Blues, as statues of past greats come alive and sing their songs to her. Nesmith enlisted her friend Bebe Ross Coker to help pen the piece.
"Initially, I tried to write the story, and it didn't take me long to realize that I was not a writer. I shared it with a dear friend of mine who was a playwright," Nesmith says.
In piecing together the show, which premiered in 2006, the women researched the lives of various great female jazz performers. In addition to Holiday and Wilson, they chose songs by Gloria Lynne and Dinah Washington. Nesmith says people outside the jazz community might recognize the names, but aren't likely to be familiar with their stories.
"For example, most people don't know that Dinah Washington's birth name was Ruth Jones, and she was also the pianist for Mahalia Jackson at some point," Nesmith says. "They also don't know that Nancy Wilson at the age of 15 won a talent show and her prize was her own TV program."
Paul Carr, founder and executive director of The Jazz Academy of Music that presents the festival, asked Nesmith to perform. Carr also plays saxophone in the live band that accompanies the women of "Sistas."
"The first time I saw the play I was completely blown away, and the play always gets a very good response," Carr says.
The festival follows in the tradition of the East Coast Jazz Festival, which its founder, the late jazz vocalist Ronnie Wells, ran through 2006. After Wells passed away in 2007, the festival ended. Spearheaded by Suzan E. Jenkins, CEO of the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, Carr was approached about reviving the festival in summer 2009. One reason he agreed to take on the festival, he says, was that no other event with a large dose of jazz existed for his students to attend.
"It occurred to me after about two years when the East Coast was gone [that] I was teaching kids that had never even heard of the East Coast Jazz Festival," Carr says. "Believe me, when you're gone, people forget you pretty quickly."
Since helming the festival, Carr says he has changed its focus slightly.
"The East Coast, it kind of seemed like it was vocalist-driven. Now it's instrumentalists who are driving it, and I had the knowledge of what happened before me so I'm trying to incorporate vocalists and more instrumentalists," he explains.
Carr's role as an educator hasn't escaped him while planning the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival. Despite its American roots, he says, jazz is a genre of music that has struggled to find exposure. In fact, he says, schools in other countries teach more about American jazz than most in this country.
"You have kids over in Europe who know more about American jazz than kids here in America. That's what I mean by, we have to prepare the next generation to keep the music going," Carr says.
One of Carr's objectives in organizing the festival was booking players of all levels and from all locations, which includes several of the area's high school and middle school jazz bands. Some of his former students, such as members of the Aaron Seeber Quintet, also will perform throughout the weekend.
To engage the youngest possible audience members, pianist Eric Byrd will lead "Jazz for Small Boppers" on Saturday. The event is an interactive jazz performance designed for children, ages 4 and older.
"It's excellent how he gets these babies literally involved into him singing along and him playing," Carr says.
Musicians, such as Grammy-nominated singer-pianist Freddy Cole, will give master classes on their instruments as well.
"We pretty much have a master class on every instrument: trumpet, trombone, saxophone, guitar, bass [and] drums. Kids can come see someone who's playing in the festival talk about their instrument," Carr says.
Among these artists is trumpet player Randy Brecker, who will perform Sunday night after sitting down for an interview with Eric Byrd. Brecker has won multiple Grammy Awards and played with the likes of Frank Zappa and Bruce Springsteen. He probably will discuss the intricacies of his craft.
"I just kind of go into how I practice and how I improvise and how I started and try to give it in an hour. It's hard to run through the whole gamut, but I've done a lot of this so I cover a lot of bases as far as different approaches to improvising," Brecker says.
Brecker will perform with the Jazz Academy Orchestra at 7 p.m. Sunday. Although he has played with some of the world's most acknowledged performers, Brecker enjoys playing with young musicians.
"They're not kids when they're playing. They might be somewhat more inexperienced musicians, but they try their best and I always find it a real uplifting experience," he says.
Two years ago, Brecker performed with Carr in a quintet, as well as with a high school big band. He is not sure what songs he'll perform on Sunday, but he says that is part of the fun of being a jazzman.
"I remember last time with the quintet, five minutes before we played ... we called [out] a couple of tunes, and we went out there and did them," Brecker says.
Take this opportunity to jazz up the weekend to the tunes of the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival.
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