By Alex Tebeleff
Jazz has an incredibly storied history in DC, and CapitalBop’s Gio Russonello and Luke Stewart are playing a big part in helping it continue to grow. In celebration of this weekend’s DC Jazz Fest and Capitalbop’s Jazz Loft Series, I interviewed them to get some perspective on their work with CaptialBop, the nature of jazz, jazz’s role in DC, and how jazz continues to be such a vital American art form.
How did you guys get into jazz as an art form?
Luke: My first jazz experience happened in DC, at Twins Jazz in 2005. Walking around U Street I heard some bebop playing. I walked into Twins Jazz and Sonny Fortune was playing with Nasar Abadey and James King. It was a sparse crowd, but they let me come in and listen to the music for free. I was completely blown away. I had been listening to jazz on record in high school, but this was the first time I had the opportunity to experience it live.
Jazz live allows you to experience the musician’s experience and life. In the live setting, you get to experience humanity in the most honest sense, especially as an improvisatory art form. Experiencing a soloist working through the changes or feeling their energy is a powerful exhibition of the emotional gamut of what it is to be a human being. You can experience happiness, sadness, introspection, anger, hatred, and everything in between.
It’s like I’m listening to the history of a very deep and storied tradition of people. It’s something that I can hear. Most people who can hear and feel and are sensitive to it can sense the deep spirituality in the music that you can connect with.
In DC jazz specifically, there are a lot of individuals who have a deep history with various movements in jazz and social justice, and are clearly in tune with their spiritual self. It clearly comes across in their music; individuals such as Nassar Abadey, Allyn Johnson, and others.
Gio: I was into playing piano and I played classical but I didn’t really communicate with it. I got tired of it, so I started learning improvisatory music. Jazz was played in my house as a child, and I got to experience live in DC growing up as well in places like Blues Alley. I was exposed to it and it communicated to me.
How did CapitalBop start?
Gio: CapitalBop started when I came back from school each summer and saw nobody at the jazz clubs. I was surprised how exciting the music was and how it filled up a room, and yet there was no one else there to reciprocate that energy. It felt like there was a lot of opportunity and potential there. People just needed to know about what was going on. CapitalBop isn’t the main reason the clubs are fuller these days, but I started the site to try to help people receive the information they needed in order to get interested in attending shows.
I launched CapitalBop on the day of the Rossyln Jazz Festival in 2010. Luke was there; he and I had met before. He was repping WPFW, and I was passing out flyers. I mentioned I could use some help, and I know Luke had the experience, and he became my partner in the enterprise immediately.
Then a few months later, he and I came up with the idea of re-introducing the kind of thing that used to happen in NYC, where musicians would play in loft spaces in intimate settings, for each other and for the music, and that’s it. We figured we ought to try to replicate it but also document it and let the audience experience it. It just so happened that Luke had the perfect space for this at his studio at Gold Leaf Studios, aka Red Door. We had an amazing run of shows there where the audience was right up front and personal with the some of the best musicians in DC.
What are your goals with CapitalBop?
Luke: I feel like we’ve achieved the main goal as I see it, which is to continue to let people know about how great the DC jazz community is, and spread the knowledge of the legacy that exists here in DC around the music.
Gio: I like to think we are showing how powerful the present moment can be, creatively, when there is so much momentum of history and community behind it. It doesn’t feel historical; it feels rooted and strong. There are so many possibilities. There are so many musicians from so many backgrounds, some singers that are wailing in the blues scale and others who are doing some hushed electronic ephemeral free improvisations. Sometimes the two play together.
Luke: Specifically with the DC Jazz Loft series, we have the opportunity to showcase the real talent that resides here in DC, but also to exemplify that every approach to jazz is part of the same tradition. That’s why we try to have diverse bills that have straight ahead groups, with maybe an avant-garde group, or with a more Latin Jazz group, for example.
Gio: People don’t need to be convinced that jazz is something other than what it is. We aren’t trying to dress it up as anything. What we do is, we present a variety. Young people still love to hear older-sounding jazz, like classic hard-bop shit from the ’50s, but they’re also fascinated and entranced when they discover that so many musicians are making instrumental, deep-groove reworkings of Prince and Lil’ Wayne songs—on the same gig—and with some of the more mind expanding experimental fare. And I think people leave our shows with a new impression of how much potential this city has creatively.
You’ve got the DC Jazz Fest coming up this weekend. Tell us about the events you guys are involved with for it.
Gio: We’ve got a Three-Piano Cutting Contest on Thursday, June 26, at Union Arts. A cutting contest is one of the oldest traditions in jazz; it’s the most ancient jousting match in jazz. Basically, people like James P. Johnson, Duke Ellington, and Willie “The Lion” Smith would sit at a piano would sit together at a piano and try to simultaneously accompany and outplay each other. We have a few of the top pianists in the country performing.
On Friday, we have a jazz/dance Block Party just off U Street. It’s at the Lot @ Atlantic Plumbing, but we are calling it the Jazz Lot as a play on our Jazz Loft tradition. Headliner Marc Cary came up in the go-go scene in DC, playing in the Hi Integrity Band. He ended up moving to NYC and became a world-class, world-touring jazz musician, playing in the bands of Roy Hargrove, Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, and other legends, before starting his own leader career 20 years ago. He won the BET Best New Artist award, across genres, in 1999, when he was producing music for Q-Tip, and also releasing his own Rhodes Ahead project, which blends go-go, early Detroit house, electronica, and jazz. He’s bringing back the project for the first time in 15 years for the Jazz Lot show.
Butcher Brown and the Braxton Cook Quartet, who will play before Marc, are both led by young musicians from the area who tour with the famous Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. (His latest album was the number-one selling jazz album on iTunes when it was released.)
Luke: On Saturday at The Fridge on 8th Street SE, by Eastern Market, Matana Roberts will be doing her Coin Coin project, which is a personal exploration of her lineage through free improvisation, orchestration, operatic vocals and spoken word. Matana Roberts is one of the most-well respected artists in jazz today. It’s also the DC debut of the Coin Coin project!
What role do you feel jazz plays in contemporary American culture?
Luke: At this point it’s at once the foundation to many of the different approaches to music that people are taking, and also still a living art form. People are still working in and creating in the parameters of jazz expression. The element of improvisation is jazz’s biggest contribution to contemporary music.
Gio: Jazz has always taught us to rebel from the inside out. It’s about self-invention, the power to create your own reality in real time, and to do that in a way that’s social and dependent on other people—but also self-empowered and spectacular to watch. In DC, it’s played an important role in solidifying heritage and community, but it’s also broadened our horizons, and it’s also made DC an important hub for music and a center for ideas that aren’t related to what goes on downtown. Jazz continues to do all the things it’s always done.
Shows This Week
A punk focused show at Comet. Guerilla Toss is a ferocious and noisey punk band with strong grooves from Massachusetts. Peoples Drug is a new band featuring members of Foul Swoops and Mary Christ, among others. DC’s Sneaks opens the show.
Thursday marks the opening night of this awesome DIY festival at The Lab in Arlington, which continues throughout the weekend. The Lab has done a ton to help grow the creative music scene in Arlington, and this festival is a larger extension of all their awesome work. It will feature dozens of bands, an art gallery, and 10 workshops, highlighting music, art, and creativity around the DMV area. Highly recommend checking out Mobius Strip and Real Clothes.
Night one of the DC Jazz Fest at Union Artists! This is a really unique event that is part of a great tradition in the history of jazz featuring a piano contest between three of the best piano players in the country.
If these first two shows weren’t interesting enough, this show at Artisphere in Arlington should really help make your decision of what to do on Thursday night very difficult. This show is headlined by sound artist Christine Sun Kim. Though deaf, she uses performance and visual art to explore the meaning of sound. Transmissions is full of great players from various elements of the DC music scene. This particular performance involves audience moving through the room while the musicians positioned in different areas of the room each sustain a transitional note for 20 minutes. Opener Peals features members of Baltimore band Future Islands and Double Dagger. Their performance will “create a work with an ethereal emphasis on texture.”
An all grindcore bill at Ft. Loko. Baltimore grindcore band Triac’s last release was a split with DC’s D.O.C., so that should give you some indication of what you are in for at this show!
A really great experimental music bill at Back Alley Theater.
Night two of the DC Jazz Fest! This event takes place at the same location as The Lot @ Atlantic Plumbing where Union Kitchen hosts their monthly series of shows. Marc Cary is a jazz legend, and Butcher Brown and Braxton Cook Quartet are some of the best young musicians in the country in jazz. Definitely my favorite bill of the week!
DC’s Br’er returns from the road for a great bill at The Beehive in Petworth. Brooklyn’s Conveyor return to DC to help open up the show along with Bloomington’s John Flannely and Indianapolis’ $Shame Thug$.
Garage Rock continues to be on of the specialties over CD Cellar in Arlington. DC’s Thee Lolitas opens for surf punk influenced Gloomy Ones from Brooklyn.
A particularly special show at The Paperhaus, this marks the first time we’ll be recording a full length live album of material for one of the shows at the house for release. Baby Bry Bry & the Apologists have become a live favorite in DC for their very dynamic and entertaining shows, so hopefully we’ll be able to capture all that energy! NYC’s Racoon Fighter and DC psych rock newcomers Crumms open the show.
The last show of the DC Jazz Fest at The Fridge. This show features experimental jazz artist Matana Roberts and her COIN COIN project. Bassist Tarus Mateen will be opening the show with his quartet as well.
Another really creative art show at Hole In The Sky. The theme and focus of this event is the life and legacy of Michael Jackson on the fifth anniversary of his death. There are lots of pretty ridiculous things to go along with the visual art, including a multi-screen Moonwalker video game experience.
This show is a combination live music show and art show in celebration of Grogan Social Scene’s single release at Lamont Street Collective.
Philly hardcore band Backslider headlines a very heavy night of music at Union Arts presented by Deep Space Arts. Openers include DC hardcore band Red Death, Baltimore/DC proto grunge band Mind/Glow playing their first DC show, and DC’s The Defense, featuring members of one of DC’s greatest bands, Scream, playing their first ever show.
A new space for shows, Adams Morgan Spanish restaurant Churreria Madrid, hosts this great all DC bill. DC’s DC’s Black Checker make really fun straight up Rock n’ Roll, Laughing Man has been one of DC’s foremost creative forces in Rock for a few years now, and Rom is now performing under a new name.
Pattern Is Movement have played a big role in helping build up the Philly music scene at the underground level and beyond. I’m very happy to have Paperhaus opening on this bill!