Last night, the Sears family participated in an historical cultural event at our favorite jazz club, Blues Alley.
As you can see in the photo above, this club is literally located in an alley, just off Wisconsin Ave. (aka, Embassy Row). Blues Alley has been operating since 1965 and has featured many big name jazz artists, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis and Marcus Roberts. The group pictured below - the US Army Blues - can now be added to that distinguished list.
Last night was the first time an American military band ever performed in a jazz club. And we were there! Our family had a table right in front of the band, in front of two saxophone/flute players, to be precise. We were so close that Joshua and David could have turned pages for them! The band began at 6:00 PM with a jazz clinic. Unfortunately, we didn't make it to that session. Their first performance, which was sold out, was at 8:00 PM. We didn't make it to that one either. Their final performance, which was nearly sold out, took place at 10:00 PM. About two weeks ago, I managed to get reservations to that one, so that's the one we attended.
This group is good - - - very, very good. Many of their charts were arranged and/or composed by members of the group. That's good for several reasons. First, it testifies to their well-rounded musicianship; they are not just technician/players, they understand music well enough to create it from the ground up. Second, their repertoire is unique, even when they build upon standard tunes. Third, the arrangers/composers write specifically to highlight and challenge the skills of players they know. (Duke Ellington did the same thing with his bands. Instead of listing parts as first trumpet, second trumpet, etc., he listed by the parts by players' names: Eddie, George, whatever.)
The US Army Blues consists of players drawn from the larger US Army concert and ceremonial bands located here in Washington DC. This is the premier US Army musical organization in the country. There are other regional groups, but this is the one in which most US Army musicians long to play. The same standard applies to the other military branches - Navy, Air Force, Marine - the regional bands are good, but the best artists play in Washington.
The performance is only one part of the Blues Alley experience. The club itself is intriguing. From the outside, this place looks like a dive. When you go inside, the atmosphere is simple, almost Spartan: brick walls, little cocktail tables all smushed closely together. Since they can seat just 125 patrons, everybody gets a good view of the stage and the performers. Even the farthest tables are only 50 - 60 feet from the stage. The photo below shows the stage backdrop: an aged brick wall with a simple poster.
Blues Alley is a great little club. I've been to jazz clubs in Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit, but I like Blues Alley the best. The Zanzibar Blues Club in Philadelphia has a high class ambience and people dress to the nines when they go there. But it seats several hundred people, so there is no sense of intimacy. It's more like a pricey restaurant with live entertainment. Andy's Jazz Club in Chicago is smaller than the Zanzibar but bigger than Blues Alley. The music and food are good and the ambience is pleasant, but not intimate. The club I went to in Detroit (I can't remember the name, but they serve great soul food) was much like Andy's.
Blues Alley, with its intimate ambience reminiscent of the clubs of the 20s and 30s, grinds the others to dust. Audience and performers chat together before and after the show. No matter where you are sitting, you can watch the sweat drip from the performers' brows, and examine the dings and dents in their instruments. This is the way jazz was meant to be. Listening to jazz on the radio, iPod, etc., is okay - it's certainly better than not listening at all. And concert hall performances are definitely better than recordings. But jazz in a small club - that's pretty close to heaven on earth. That's the Blues Alley experience.