Alfresco jazz at the Black History Museum 

Hitting the High Hat

I always wanted to visit a New York City jazz club. I went to school in the Big Crabapple, but because I was a broke, underage college student, the closest I ever got to a jazzy nightclub was the dinky piano bar under my studio apartment where the local talent performed Billy Joel's "Piano Man" at least once a night.

When I moved to Virginia, I thought I blew my chance for tapping my feet to Billie Holiday covers in a dimly lit lounge. Then I heard about the Simply Jazz concert Series at the Black History Museum.

During the series, the venerable museum turns its backyard parking lot into an open-air jazz club. This Friday, the museum combines the contemporary and fusion jazz sounds of Rudy Faulkner and FRENS with an alfresco setting that rivals any New York basement outfit. Stepping into the museum's transformed backyard, you'll find crisp white linens and candlelight at every table, a full brass ensemble on the stage and feet tapping to the infectious rhythm of contemporary jazz. This Friday, early concertgoers will also be treated to a tasting of wine and cheese before the band takes center stage.

"We wanted to serve mature audiences who weren't being serviced by Sunset or Cheers," says Mary Lauderdale, visitor services coordinator for the museum. "And we wanted to bring it right here to this community."

In keeping with the Black History Museum's mission to preserve the legacy of Jackson Ward, the museum launched the Simply Jazz summer concert series as a way to educate visitors about our own "Harlem of the South." According to Lauderdale, "Fusing concerts like this with our mission and exhibits is a great way to educate people."

Walking along the worn brick sidewalk to the museum, it's easy to imagine Jackson Ward's heyday when Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington performed at the many concert halls that once lined the streets.

The series' final concert on Aug. 10 features jazz vocalist Desiree Roots. On that day, they will also unveil, "Collected Sound," a temporary installation that covers the history of jazz and features works of fine art.

To some the Simply Jazz series may not be as hip as the Village Vanguard or provide jazz that's as tight as the Cotton Club's, but that's never been the Black History Museum's goal.

"We did this to bring attention to jazz, to the museum, and to bring Jackson Ward back to its heyday years," says Lauderdale.

The Simply Jazz series proves that jazz in Virginia is still grooving in a fashion that would make Richmond's own Bill "Bojangles" Robinson


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