Washington, D.C., is bitter enough weather-wise in January. Cover the political topography with permafrost and it’s downright unbearable. As a furloughed fed I was miserable and, when dear Tucson friends offered me food and care, I happily booked a room at Hotel Congress.
I wish I could say that I dropped the hammer on a 1953 Buick Roadmaster and rode Highway 10 across the country, or arrived on one of the vanished streamliners of the Southern Pacific. Instead I took the more prosaic airborne route.
Upon landing I — as an East Coast “dude” (not the Big Lebowski kind but the “which end of the horse is the front” kind) — expected tumbleweeds and Wyatt Earp.
What I wandered into was jazz — lots of jazz — since I’d arrived in the middle of the annual Jazz Festival.
Tucson, you made me rethink the parameters of this uniquely American art form. There were — of course — some classic performances, including an intimate evening with Sheila Jordan and Cameron Brown, which is best described as a religious experience.
However, the revelation was the inextricable relationship between jazz and other genres of the Americas. The continuity runs both ways — jazz sensibilities influence other forms as much as other genres influence the melting pot that is jazz.
The Tucson Jazz Festival was a case study of this phenomenon in the context of southwestern sounds. One couldn’t listen to the Texas swing of Asleep at the Wheel without hearing the influence of the bands of the ’30s and ’40s. The horns of the high school students playing in the Mariachi Aztlan de Pueblo had as equal a place as the Dixieland sound among the jazz varietals.
Although I came to Tucson to flee internecine political trench warfare, I was happy to find a politically engaged but not obsessed city. I also found that, contrary to what politicians holding the government for ransom claimed, people don’t hate federal workers. Quite to the contrary, I found sympathy for feds’ plights and even offers of free meals for furloughees.
The rhythms of jazz provide an interesting soundtrack for the current political moment — unsettled, off-kilter and dissonant.
I understand that the event was a bittersweet moment for Tucson as I learned more and more about the remarkable Yvonne Ervin, with whom the festival was synonymous.
In the wake of her untimely passing I also discovered a local, unsung hero.
Years in Washington have taught me the value of eavesdropping and what I put together from lobby and aisle chatter was that a festival staff member, named Joe Tasker, was responsible for stepping up to continue Yvonne’s legacy by bringing the celebration of jazz in its many tones to culmination — an homage to Yvonne.
I asked for an introduction to this guy and met a welcoming, engaging ponytailed fellow whose enthusiasm was not just for music but for sharing it. He also adamantly refused credit, pointing to Yvonne’s influence.
Throughout the week I continued to cross paths with this cool cat who proved to be a polymath impresario, seemingly everywhere, from technical troubleshooting to emceeing.
Monday offered glorious blue skies, breezy weather and Poncho Sanchez. This was jazz as hope — a happy crowd, jiving to music-making through yet another cultural gloss on the art form.
I’m not about to give you a pat “I’d like to teach the world to sing” ending. I’m heading back to a still-gridlocked Washington where I’m still not getting paid … or perhaps I’ll just ask Hotel Congress to hold my room indefinitely.