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City Jazzes it Up for Memorial Day

For 29th straight year, Alexandria marks beginning of summer with open-air music.

Alexandria has held a jazz festival to celebrate Memorial Day every year for the past 29 years. Several of the five performers on this year’s bill played at the festival for some of these years, and all of them have deep connections to Alexandria and the DC area.

Tom Grooms, an on-air personality at Smooth Jazz 105.9, who will MC the festival, grew up in the Hollin Hall area. “Alexandria, personally, it’s close to my heart,” he said.

He recalled the days when his station was located at 510 King St. and played classic rock and roll. The station left Alexandria for DC when it switched formats in 1994, but it also begin a relationship with the jazz festival. “The end result is a lot of fun. People are happy, and [the concerts] just get bigger and better each year,” said Grooms.

“Music is a cool thing,” Grooms added. “It unifies people.” He hopes concert-goers will keep in mind the meaning of the holiday. “We also have to remember the veterans for Memorial Day,” he said. “The people who are not with us and the people in Iraq … Some of the stuff that’s playing today, they’d like to be there and celebrate the jazz festival and the freedom we have to do that … [Honoring the soldiers is] more important than anything else. It’s an honor for our station to be there because of that fact.”

JUANITA WILLIAMS is first on the bill. She is a talented local who likes to go to far off places. Williams has lived in Alexandria since 1989. While she has performed in the Washington area many times, “I like going out of the area, because they appreciate you a lot more,” she said.

People in the United States music industry try to pigeon hole one’s music, Williams said.

But Williams’ music is diverse, with influences ranging from Aretha Franklin to Chaka Khan to Roberta Flack. European and South American concert promoters have been more open to her, she said.

When given a chance to listen, North American audiences are also frequently enthusiastic, Williams said. “When you play, the people are like — where’ve you been?”

“I’M A NATIVE Washingtonian and I’ve been into music at least sixteen years now,” said drummer Kevin “Stixx” Marshall, who described his band’s sound as “full-fledged jazz, funk fusion.” He said that in recent years he has expanded his work into producing and songwriting. “My main passion for years was just playing drums for various artists … at the same time I’ve always been interested in and had a passion for songwriting. And I know I’m a singer … This was really my first year …. highlighting my work, myself as the artist.” Marshall’s current cd is called “Moments.”

Marshall’s current band includes a bass, saxophone and back-up singers. “My sound is probably a mixture of jazz and gospel … but a foundation of funk,” he said. “It’s groove oriented. That would probably be my style. One word: groove.”

AL WILLIAMS plays the flute and saxophone. He has lived in the Alexandria area for 20 years. Before settling down, he traveled around the world with musicians such as Mongo Santamaria, a popular Cuban percussionist in the 1970’s, “who really brought the pop-jazz, Latin thing to the states,” said Williams. Later Williams toured with electric bass player Stanley Clark, revolutionized the way jazz musicians used the instrument.

“Basically we did the whole planet,” said Williams. “I got to play on stage with Jeff Beck, John Mclaughlin, Al Demeola … It was jazz, but it was like a rock and roll experience at the time, with the fusion thing going on … I never touched my own luggage. It was cool. But mostly I learned a lot.”

Before Williams was a rock star, he was a bassoon player. But at some point during 1968-69, his major at the Philadelphia Music Academy switched to flute and saxophone. “There were a lot of great jazz players who went to the school at the time. The school had a great jazz big band … So I was surrounded by that. And everybody was listening to everything. We had our regular theory and harmony classes but later we’d hang out at somebody’s dorm or apartment and listen to Hendrix and Miles … It was a total artistic community in the time of beaded curtains and incense. It was wild … I was playing all the woodwinds – flute alto flute, soprano sax, baritone sax, I just had a whole pile of stuff there.”

Williams is still inspired by the musicians that surround him in Alexandria. “There are a lot of really good musicians who live around here,” he said. He has played the Memorial Day Festival before. “I don’t even know how many times.”

William struggles to define his current sound. “It’s kind of a mixture. I really hate the term smooth jazz. Its contemporary jazz, a little R&B, some Latin rhythm stuff … We usually just pick a handful of tunes out of our repertoire and throw them together for a show.”

FUNK BANDS, go-go bands, reggae bands, folk, classical, country, blues, rock and roll: this is what veteran drummer Keith Killgo lists when asked what styles of music he plays. Killgo is a DC native. “I’ve been playing music since I was probably about four years old,” he said. As a child, he took piano lessons from Roberta Flack. He started playing as professional drummer when he was eleven years old. He reached the pinnacle of his fame with the band The Blackbyrds, who played a fusion of jazz and R&B.

When asked what genre he prefers, he said, “All of it. Every music has its beauty … I’m a conceptualist. I’m into the concept of what I’m playing … I just like music and it don’t matter to me what it is.”

“Its going to be jazz,” said Killgo of the sound festival-goers can expect to hear. He is playing in this genre because of “the musicians that I have with me. Those are musicians that are excellent at doing this kind of music … jazz is my roots, you know? I played jazz all my life … it draws upon so many different styles of music to make it jazz that you end up learning all these styles of music.”

The band, composed of a bass, saxophone, keyboard, trombone and trumpet as well as Killgo’s drums, will play original compositions and arrangements of songs from the JFK Quintet, a group Killgo’s father, Harry, played with in the 1960’s. Killgo records on the same label his father, a piano player, did many years ago. The quintet’s third album went unreleased, but several years ago an employee of the label, Riverside Records, contacted Killgo and told him they had found a copy of the album. Killgo had heard the music before. “I was there when they recorded it. I was five years old.” He decided to play the lost songs as a tribute to his father.

JAMES BAZEN has a mixed outlook on his work as a jazz big band leader. “The popularity of jazz has been declining for years,” Bazen said pessimistically.

Even though there is a more active jazz scene in Washington than in many American cities, there are not many places to play big band jazz music, Bazen said.

But despite the difficulties, Bazen and 16 others get together weekly and play at a Rockville restaurant, with only food and drink as pay. Love of the music is enough to get these players to gather and perform. “It’s actually easy to get people to play in (the band),” Bazen said.

The James Bazen Big Band’s music is similar to that of Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton and Gordon Goodwin, Bazen said.

In recent years the band has increasingly been playing their own compositions. Bazen said his own music has been called “quirky.”

The James Bazen Big Band played at Alexandria’s Memorial Day Jazz Festival a few years ago. At the time the bands performed under a bridge and the acoustics were poor, Bazen said. After this, Bazen didn’t want to go back.

But this year’s festival will be in a much better performing space, he said. With better acoustics and less distracting noise, the band will start their set at 5 p.m.