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Charles on Preserving D.C.’s Jazz Legacy

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

“I was born bageled and cream cheesed in New York. I got into music at an early age because my grandmother and father played piano. I remember playing things like “heart-and-soul” with my father. My parents, like many Jewish parents, started sending me topiano lessons at six-and-a-half to learn to play classical music. I hated it and wanted to play ball, so that I could eventually be a Brooklyn Dodger. Man, my parents endured eight tough years of my messing around. I used to do all kinds of crazy things to avoid playing piano. My parents made me practice for an hour a day. When my Mom wasn’t looking, I used to move the clock up so I could get out and play ball with my friends sooner.

“In an effort to redirect my focus, my piano teacher introduced me to jazz. That was it for me. I quit classical piano and fell in love with jazz. As you can imagine, my parents were not too keen on me being a musician. They wanted me to be a lawyer or doctor or accountant or my Dad’s business partner. He worked in plastics. I didn’t have the courage at that time to break away from the family and say screw it, I am going off to do my thing. So, I went to college.

I was stunned that the nation’s capitol and the city that basically invented jazz did not have a jazz festival.

I studied at New York University, but I got my degree in Greenwich Village hanging out and being exposed to the great jazz and folk scenes. That was where I developed my passion for the music and realized that, if you loved it, you had to do it 24/7. Dizzy Gillespieused to say, ‘If I don’t practice for a day, I know about it. If I don’t practice for two days, the musicians know about it. If I don’t practice for three days, everyone knows about it.’

“At the same time as I was developing my love for jazz, I also got involved in Jewish life. As a kid, I joined Young Judea, which is a Zionist youth group. It was a spectacular experience for me because I met all of these brilliant people who knew about Judaism, music, poetry, and art. It showed me how multidimensional people could be. I eventually became a leader in that group and went toIsrael for a summer and fell in love. I realized that Israel was my heritage and homeland, although I am an American through-and-through. At that moment, I decided to split my energies between jazz and Jewish education.

“In Israel, I worked to develop a cooperative settlement outside of Jerusalem that focused on the arts. I also started, with the help of the late, great Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, a Greenwich Village-type jazz and arts center in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the bread to settle in Israel, so I took a job in Houston, Texas, as the director of performing and cultural arts at the Jewish Community Center. I was responsible for secular and religious programming. We did all kinds of great things there, but after three years, I felt like I had done all that I could do with that place. We created a number of really successful programs, including starting the largest Jewish book fair in the country.

“I ended up coming to Washington because I was offered a job working for B’nai B’rith on their Israel Commission. In Washington, I also became an advisor to the Israeli Embassy and the Foreign Office’s Cultural Department. I worked to bring Stan Getz to Israel and to help with Israel’s 30th anniversary celebration. Working with some other people, we organized the only prime-time television homage to a foreign country. We had people like Golda Meir, Barbara Streisand and Paul Newman talking about Israel at 30. It was really incredible.

“The more time I spent in and around Israel, the more I thought that it would be fascinating to bring American musicians there. Israel is like the U.S. in that it is a big cornucopia of people. You have Cuban Jews, Pakistani Jews,Chinese Jews, and Argentine Jews. They all bring their own culture, history and music. I have always found that the East is one of the least exploited areas in terms of music, so I started a jazz festival in Israel and ran it for six years. I brought in all kinds of famous jazz musicians. My dream was to produce a concert of Dizzy Gillespie with the Israeli Philharmonic in Israel. It took me eight years, but I eventually put it together. The result of that concert was that I became Dizzy’s manager. I stayed with him for seven years until his death, and we produced over six albums together. He was a genius and an incredible man to work with.

“When he passed away, I got tired of managing. At the same time, my parents were ill and I had to dedicate myself to them. I cut out all management and did a little production work here and there. In 2001, I had the idea to start a jazz festival in D.C. While I had been living here for many years, I was always on the road and now that I had time, I was stunned that the nation’s capitol and the city that basically invented jazz did not have a jazz festival. Come on, D.C. is home to Duke Ellington, Shirely Horn, and Sonny Stitt. It angered and embarrassed me, so I started on this journey to put together the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, which we have since changed to the D.C. Jazz Festival. We launched a sneak preview in 2004 and then premiered in 2005. I got a lot of help from foundations, the city and businesses around the city.

“Remember, in the 40’s and 50’s, all of the Billboard charts were filled with jazz. It was dance music at the time and people like Dizzy, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong were real entertainers. One could even say that people like Louis and Dizzy were pioneers in rap because of the scatting. As jazz progressed, people like Miles and Coltrane became more music to listen to than to dance to. That meant that jazz lost its entertainment dimension. Now, radio stations play jazz in the middle of the night or at odd hours of the day. Record stores don’t really exist anymore and those that do rarely feature jazz. So, there is a real importance to having a jazz festival in D.C. and also having regular events to keep people, especially the kids, excited about the music. By 2013, my vision is to have a month-long festival and other jazz events throughout the year. You need to remember that jazz is one of the few true American forms of music. And much of it was formed in this city. We need to preserve that legacy.”

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