[Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on Jazz Appreciation Month. Part One is an overview; Part Two will offer some specific domestic and international highlights, including a look at International Jazz Day held each April 30.]
Thursday, I was reminded again how much The Thing That Took Over The World has dominated our lives for more than a year now. It continues to do so — though, hopefully, with a somewhat looser grip on us each passing day.
To say the least, COVID-19 has put a serious damper on fun-filled, big-ticket items such as travel and close-knit social gatherings — including live music — and on the simple joys each of us revels in from so many things we take for granted in our everyday lives.
Already buoyed by the fact that April 1 is not a fool’s day, but served as Major League Baseball’s Opening Day — a national holiday for many of us — I arrived at work. As I parked my car directly across the street from the Jazz Series, I realized immediately that Branford Marsalis’ album “Four MFs Playin’ Tunes” (Marsalis Music) was wafting into the North Tenth Street air.
I could feel one of those internal smiles surface; all I can say is, well, Marsalis & Co. sounded like music to my ears.
Hearing the saxophonist’s quartet wasn't so much about who was being featured on our in-house jukebox, though I have made it no secret that I think this particular Marsalis offspring leads one of today’s most important, impressive small-group cooperatives.
But rather, I experienced the realization that, for the first time in a very long time, music was dripping from the installed outdoor speakers.
What used to be a given — firing up the five-CD changer and having music playing all day at the Jazz Series — succumbed to COVID-driven silence through disinterest and malaise, with a hint of laziness thrown in for good measure. With no live music on the Jazz Series docket between March 1 and mid-September 2020, and only a limited amount since, it just didn't seem worth it to play recorded music publicly. Silence seemed to be the order of the day for a long, long time.
As I pulled the door open and walked through the entryway, I promptly blurted out to Assistant Director Josh Chittum, perched as he is daily in his chair just behind the box office window, “Wow! Music outside!”
“It’s Jazz Appreciation Month,” said Chittum instantly, his reply unabashedly enthusiastic and spontaneous.
April has been Jazz Appreciation Month for the past two decades, ever since the Smithsonian Institute designated it in 2001. With so many national and cultural recognitions now assigned and practiced — for instance, I learned not that many years ago that April is also National Poetry Month — it is not surprising that such celebrations overlap during the moon’s cycles; after all, there are only 12 of them.
Nonetheless JAM has gained momentum annually to the point where, even if it hasn’t reached critical marketing mass, it’s decidedly moving that way. Not surprisingly, the pandemic gobbled it up last April. Thus the national initiative to further awareness of jazz coast-to-coast is underway.
Each year, the Smithsonian uses a thematic approach that features an accompanying poster. In 2021, the billing is “Women’s Impact and Contributions in Jazz” with the emphasis placed on Nina Simone; the legendary singer, pianist, composer and civil rights activist graces the poster as depicted by Duke Ellington School of the Arts sophomore visual arts student Naa Anyele Sowah-de Jesus.
Meanwhile National Public Radio created an interactive avenue for people to comment about the role jazz plays in their everyday lives. I just might have to participate in that one.
The network’s nationally broadcast “Jazz Night In America” portal allows people to enter their comments and share their stories. Accompanying copy on the site begins:
“April is Jazz Appreciation Month! Whether it be sharing the music with family or friends, going to a concert, or playing in a band, NPR's ‘Jazz Night in America’ is inviting you to tell the world about the role jazz plays in your life. We want to know: What is your favorite moment in jazz? Is there a special moment in your life where jazz played an important role? Why is public radio important to jazz? What attracts you to the spirit of improvisation?” and so on.
Along with individual organizations and distinct municipalities, an abundance of other JAM-specific websites are up and running. Among them, National Association for Music Education. The Washington D.C.-based entity is featuring student concerts as well as listing bullet-point offerings such as 7 Cool Ways to Celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month, noting:
“Every April, we celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month. Not every school participates for various reasons: lack of a jazz program and/or lack of understanding of jazz being some. Even without a great understanding of Jazz, this can be a great learning opportunity for you and your students to enjoy and appreciate this great music.”
Among the delights of Jazz Appreciation Month is the pleasure of seeing what pops when you ask Google to list what’s going on during Jazz Appreciation Month. Do yourself a favor. Check it out.
By Jon W. Poses
Jon W. Poses is executive director of the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.