Lady Day

On Thursday, August 22, August 1997, while working as an FAA contractor in Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to see Wynton Marsalis perform in-person for the first time ever, along with his quintet. To date, I’d purchased all of his Jazz albums and CDs. The group, featuring Walter Blanding (tenor sax), Marcus Roberts (piano), Rodney Whitaker (bass), and Wynton’s youngest brother Jason (drums), was in town for asix-nightengagement at Blues Alley in Georgetown. Wynton Marsalis, credited by many for spearheading the resurgence of straightahead Jazz in the early 1980s, which had suffered a death knell at the hands of the more commercial ‘Jazz Fusion’, was prolific in leading this comeback. He had departed from Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers in 1981, was touring and recording with members from Miles Davis’ famous second great quintet (Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams), was making a name for himself in the Classical music world, and was putting his own young band together. He felt that, back when not too many Jazz venues were providing gigs for his upstart band, Blues Alley did, something he never forgot about. To that end, for nearly a decade (1984-91, 1993), Wynton Marsalis’ groups (quartet, quintet, sextet, septet) held down mid- December six-night engagements at Blues Alley. In fact, his critically acclaimed 1987 quartet album, “Live At Blues Alley”, was recorded during his 1986 engagement. So in August 1997, after having “blown up” big time and achieved box office appeal, recorded several albums (both Jazz and Classical), toured all around the world, and nine years under his belt as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO), he was in a position to accept engagements at perhaps much bigger venues than Blues Alley. However, through a sense of loyalty, and after a four-year absence, his group, a quintet this time, returned to Blues Alley. After a long day at work, I made my way across town from L’Enfant Plaza to Georgetown near the intersection of Wisconsin Ave. and M St., NW. Before the Wynton Marsalis Quartet descended the stairs, the club was abuzz with excitement, anticipation, and energy, looking forward to seeing and hearing this famous trumpet icon. Once the quartet began playing, the sound was great, the band ‘let it rip’, and the set was outstanding: up-tempo,mid-tempo, swinging, ballads, blues, etc.!!! In fact, during one ballad, he slowly strode through the aisles, flirtatiously serenading gentlemen’s female guests seated at tables, mine included, with his bluesy, mellow, and weeping trumpet sounds. Throughout the show, however, although mostly dark in the club, out of the corner of my eyes, Istrangely noticed a few gentlemen conspicuously standing up against the trademark brick walls, as well as by the front entrance and the staircase. They all wore suits and ties and didn’t show any types of facial expression. Since the men didn’t look like the wait staff nor was there standing room only, something seemed amiss. Well, midway through the set, Wynton made an announcement acknowledging the presence of the U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, in the audience, seven full months into her tenure as a member of President Bill Clinton’s cabinet. Wow!!! The Jazz fans warmly applauded. She happened to be on a month-long respite from her diplomatic duties abroad, having returned from Singapore in July and headed to the Czech Republic at the beginning of September. After the set ended, on the way down from the upstairs restroom, I passed her on the narrow staircase and said, “You’re doing a great job, Madame Secretary!” I guess even the Madame Secretary, flanked by her own Secret Service detail, deserves a night out on the town every once in a while… And with Wynton Marsalis at the helm, this night was both unforgettable and historic!!! :v)