Tag Archives: Washington DC

Radio Music Society at The Howard Theatre

The experience included a classy ambience, a historic venue, friendly people, and brilliantly talented musicians.  This past Saturday was honestly the most enjoyable outing I have had in the three years I have lived in Washington, DC.  So, let’s go on with the story.

Esperanza Spalding, whom I have praised a number of times here and here, is currently on tour for her recent album “Radio Music Society.”  I attended her concert on May 12th at The Howard Theatre and was blown away.

Source: dcist.com

Let’s begin with the venue.  The Howard Theatre re-opened this past April after two years – $29 million – of renovations.  It originally opened in 1910 and was dubbed as the “Theater of the People.”  In its heyday the theatre hosted performances by Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis, Jr., James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and many others.  The restoration, architecture, and design were created by Martinez + Johnson Architecture and Marshall Moya Design.  In my opinion, they did a magnificent job with the theatre.  They were able to revive its historical value and authentic character with a modern flair of elegance and soul.

Source: architecturenewsplus.com

Before you enter the building, a red carpet and a friendly gentleman wearing a sharp suit is waiting to direct you to the entrance.  The lobby is wall-to-wall marble.  The box office is adorned with two large portraits of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong.  As you continue following the red carpet, a large flat screen shows images of upcoming performances.  The groove of neo-soul and happy chatter gradually becomes louder as you enter the main floor to give your ticket to another gentleman wearing a sharp suit.  You then have the option of turning left into the main room or taking the stairs to the right.  I chose to start at the left.

I honestly felt as if I was stepping into another realm.  Every intricate detail of the space was designed to contribute to the overall experience.  The lighting was dim enough to not need sunglasses but still radiant to prevent accidentally walking into a wall.  The sound system was fabulous and had a great playlist of old and new favorites ranging from jazz to soul to R&B.   Elegant booths line both sides of the ground floor, all of which were taken by the time I got there.  The bar is decorated with marble and two large portraits of James Brown and B.B. King.  The center of the room holds the dance floor, which leads to a stage draped with blue velvet curtains.  I then decided to check upstairs.

The second floor also has an elegant bar with two large portraits of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald.  There are two tiers of booths situated on an incline so that everyone has a clear view of the stage regardless of where they are seated or standing.  I did not eat, but there were some delicious plates walking around, including steak, shrimp cocktail, and salads.  This venue really has everything covered for a full experience.  Everyone who works there are very helpful and personable.  They are also great with compliments.

Now for the performance.  If you are at any event where Esperanza Spalding is set to appear, you are guaranteed a great time.  This was extra special because I was standing right next to the stage for the entire show.  Granted I did not realize I would be standing the whole time, thus I was literally leaning on the stage due to the platform heels I was sporting, but it was completely worth it.  The stage was set with a large facade of a radio that served as the music stand for all the wind instruments.

Esperanza and her band are so talented.  In my opinion, jazz is a genre that emphasizes and personifies the art of music in regards to collective harmonies and individual improvisation while leaving a little room to expand in any direction the artist chooses.  I think one of the reasons why Esperanza has such a large and devoted following is because she takes that room for expansion and raises it to another level that is refreshing and enjoyable.  Her most recent album has more of an upbeat character and a conscious message.  I loved how she transitioned each song as if they were all segments of a main story.  We were even educated on the numbers of people who currently are enslaved and the reality of the Trayvon Martin case.  Seamlessly playing the bass, singing, and conducting the band, Esperanza had each of her band members showcase their solo skills, as if they were sharing their own story through music.  The audience, if you already guessed, enjoyed every moment of it.

 Once the show ended, I went back to the lobby to buy a poster.  A portion of the proceeds of her merchandise go to an organization called Free the Slaves.  While I was in line I overheard many people mentioning that she will be upstairs doing autographs.  I went upstairs to find a pretty full line.  After a little wait, Esperanza came out, sat down at a little table with a tea-cup, and started signing autographs.  When it was my turn she exclaimed, “Oh my. I love your hair.”  She then touched my hair, after asking of course.  I now know that my hair will definitely grow as long and beautiful as hers.  She was so nice and down-to-earth.  I of course praised her show and music while she was signing my poster.  She said “thank you” and blew me kiss.  This marks the first time I meet one of my inspirations and get an autograph.  It was wonderful.

If you are into good music and/or classy venues, I highly recommend you check out The Howard Theatre in Washington, DC and see Esperanza Spalding in your area.  If you are lucky to experience both at the same time, you are in for a very special treat.

Below are some photographs I took at the event.

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Green: the Original Vogue. Welcome to Eco Couture.

Source: Elizabeth St John

Washington, DC designer Elizabeth St John follows the philosophy of eco couture.  I caught up with her at her most recent showcase for the Art Soiree/Nuit De La Mode event at the Hillwood Estates.   With a background in environmental studies and a childhood surrounded by fashion and construction, Elizabeth St John designs bridal and evening wear and is President of the Universal Strategic Services Foundation.  She graciously accepted to do an interview with me and discussed her design philosophy, the fashion industry, and her charity work.

Fashion is generally seen as something celebrities waste money on and tween girls waste time on.  A lesser form of art that leads to anorexia, drugs, and self-image issues.  Although this is the underbelly of the fashion industry, its impact on society is undeniable.  There is a deeper layer to this impact that not many are knowledgeable about.  Eco couture.  A design philosophy that supports environmentalism and sustainable responsibility, eco fashion has been nourishing our planet way before the current green trend.

“I like the challenge of greening a business,” said Elizabeth St John.  Defining her collection as “Refined. Glamorous. Green,” she tries to dispel the negative connotation of green collections.  To those who think eco fashion is just a fad, Elizabeth St John considers them to be misinformed with a limited vision of green collections as recycling old pieces to new pieces.  “Couture is French for hand dressmaking,” says Elizabeth St John, “there is nothing more green than doing things by hand.”  She explains that eco fashion is based on the roots of apparel production and moving forward due to its environmental impact.

Source: Elizabeth St John

Referring to her design process, Elizabeth St John considers herself unorthodox.  She sources her material first, such as finding a piece of silk she really likes.  Then she develops a design around that piece of material.  “I actually don’t sketch,” she said, “so I do it kind of in reverse.”

To enhance her background and interest in the environment, Elizabeth St John and a few of her colleagues founded the Universal Strategic Services Foundation in Washington, DC to establish green projects for business in third world countries.  “I used to work for conservation organizations in the Amazon for inventory on plants and animals,” she said, “and I started to miss direct hands on work with countries over seas and other subjects that are important.”

The foundation is currently developing two initiatives.  First, bringing solar energy to very remote parts of the world, such as villages in West Africa, which allows them to run schools, internet, and refrigeration for medicine.  Second, establishing a vocational school for women in Afghanistan “to provide life skills they won’t have other wise to support their families,” said Elizabeth St John.  They are partnering with some government organizations so that these women will be hired to guarantee employment.

Source: Elizabeth St John

Returning to the fashion initiative in the United States, Elizabeth St John remarks that the current economic situation has moved a large part of the industry’s apparel production abroad, primarily to Asia.  As of recently, a lot of those companies are slowly moving back to the US due to the “problems with production quality and shipping” from Asia.  “I think going forward,” said Elizabeth St John, “you will see more ‘Made in the USA’ labels.”

Elizabeth St John is a fan of the Louis XVI of France era, “the skill involved in making those pieces is just spectacular.”  She also likes “the clean and feminine lines of the late 1950s and early 1960s.  The tailoring is timeless.”

Looking forward, Elizabeth St John is very excited about her upcoming evening collection.  “I get to be more creative and ratchet up the sexy factor,” she said.  The collection is due to premiere October 31st.

To view her collections and learn more about her work, visit www.elizabethstjohn.com

Source: Elizabeth St John

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America I Am – the right exhibit or continued distortion?

African-American’s influence on American culture and society has been repetitively diluted, distorted, and put aside in text books and general knowledge.  There have been a few attempts through books, films, and museums to compensate for this, but only those who seek it out benefit from it.  The most recent endeavor for this subject is Tavis Smiley’s America I Am – The African-American Imprint.  A 4 year-long tour exhibit dedicated to the African-American story.

When I first read the news about the exhibits premiere, I was excited and praising Tavis Smiley.  Critics seemed fascinated and the photographs were impressive.  Many notable celebrities visited the exhibit and gave multiple accolades.  I was happy to hear its set arrival in Washington, DC at a time when I would still be in town.

On the 23rd of April, I went to the exhibit in Washington, DC at the National Geographic Museum.  The exhibit starts within a hallway with large pictures aligning both walls.  You begin in the present and travel backwards to the past, passing images of Oprah, Michael Jackson, Colin Powell, Bill Cosby, Angela Davis, Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, etc.  Then we enter another room with a large mural of black men dressed as conquistadors.  The story begins explaining Africans contribution to the Spanish explorations.  As we walk through the exhibit, there are several artifacts, quotes, and anecdotes to depict the era.  It moves on to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, including the “door of no return” from Elmina Castle in Ghana, West Africa.  Then there are references to the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Underground Railroad.  The Civil War ends part one of the exhibit.  Cross a hallway and enter part two, beginning with baseball and advertisements of the era.  The first African-American sorority and fraternity are showcased with their colors and celebrity members.  One placard mentions the Harlem Renaissance.  Then we move to religion.  There is a documentary showing on one wall within a miniature church depicting the origin and influence of the Baptist Church.  There is one case dedicated to the journal Malcolm X wrote while he was in Mecca.  The next room is dedicated to the military, with another documentary depicting all the important figures in the American military beginning in the Civil War to Colin Powell.  Then we transition to the Civil Rights Movement.  Within one room, this movement is showcased through the Million Man March, Rosa Parks, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  There are notable relics from this era, including a sweatshirt from the Million Man March, the bench Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat on when he was in jail as well as the chair he sat on when he was in court, and the finger print card Rosa Parks had to fill when she was arrested.  Following is the second to last room, dedicated to celebrities.  Muhammad Ali’s boxing gown, Smokey Robinson’s suit, Stevie Wonder’s harmonica, Prince’s guitar from the Super Bowl, and Gregory Hines’ tap shoes are the main attractions in this room.  The last room is devoted to a large screen with a concluding video to wrap up the essence of the exhibit.

So that was the exhibit in a nutshell.  I am sure it took a lot of time and effort to get a hold of the heirlooms and information, which was authentic and impressive.  However, there are a few factors that were lacking.  The historical part up until the civil war was splendid.  The first era that I felt was not showcased enough was the Harlem Renaissance.  The music, the fashion, the business, and the influence that came out of that period of time deserves more than one placard.  People like Josephine Baker, Marcus Garvey, Duke Ellington, and W.E.B. DuBois could have been mentioned.  Places like The Cotton Club and The Apollo Theater could have been featured.  Maybe they could not find anyone to donate something for it.  Second, the Civil Rights Movement deserves a much bigger room.  Where were the Black Panthers?  Where was Angela Davis or Malcolm X?  It is hard for me to believe that funding or donations were the difficulty here.  Did they intentionally choose to omit these key players?  It was quite disappointing.  Third, the celebrity room.  Not sure if this was a last-minute idea, but it was organized all wrong.  Motown had one case with LP covers of Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, and Jackson 5.  I think Motown deserves an entire room.  There should have been a placard and picture of Berry Gordy and how he came up with the idea and built such an influential empire.  Maybe showcase the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, and the Jackson 5 with video clips.  James Brown’s glitter suit was within a case of mannequins with Smokey Robinson and Teddy Pendergrass.  I think James Brown deserves a room, but due to the current economy we could have at least given him two cases.  He wasn’t just the Godfather of Soul or the creator of funk music.  This man was an activist and an intellectual.  His business tactics were revolutionary at the time.  Why was there no mention of how he would sell his own tickets so that the theater wouldn’t rip him off?  He also did a lot for education for the less fortunate in this country and helped and inspired many youths to finish school.  Why was there no mention of the iconic TV show “Soul Train” and the impact it made on the black community and this country at large?  Where was Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra or the Isley Brothers or the Staple Singers?  There was a note card size placard that was dedicated to Michael Jackson.  The King of Pop is mentioned in tiny letters next to the one case dedicated to Motown to mention that the whistle in the case is the one Michael used when he was 8 years old and he later grew up to be a great entertainer.  Really!?  Not even a silver glove or a hat or a proper picture.  I did find out later that the exhibit had an MJ memorial within the display when it was in Los Angeles, which is nice.  However, his death should not be the only reason to bring up his name and once time has passed forget about him.  Do we not consider his achievements – including breaking barriers, raising the bar, and truly bringing people of all nationalities together to enjoy the same music – important or worth mentioning?  The only writer in the room was Alex Haley, the author of Roots.  Where was Maya Angelou or Alice Walker or James Baldwin?  Why was there no segment dedicated to Black Cinema or Theater?  Not only Shaft and Cleopatra Jones, but also Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis or Sidney Poitier and Eartha Kitt.  Where was Harry Belafonte or Dorothy Dandridge?  Bottom line, this room needs some work.

So, what does this mean?  There has been talk over the years of certain states wanting to change history text books in how they depict the slave trade or the civil rights movement.  Throughout my education I have sat through many history and english classes where deviations from the truth were part of the curriculum.  How does this exhibit fit within this scenario?  Did it provide a full and accurate depiction of the African-American story?  I would vote no.  It was a commendable attempt, but there is a lot of room for improvement.  I hope this endeavor is the beginning of an ongoing project to achieve a genuine and just portrayal of the African-American imprint.  Young people – of all ethnicities – will never know the greatness of the human race if we continue to sponsor diluted history.

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The Alvin Ailey Experience

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC from February 1st thru February 6th.  Each performance included a different set of routines with “Revelations” as the finale.  I attended the February 6th Show and had an amazing second experience with the company.

Three Black Kings: Choreographed in 1976 by Alvin Ailey. The show begins with King Balthazar wearing a long white flowing skirt and an egyptian necklace surrounded by five men wearing the same skirt.  They glide and dance on the stage to an afro-beat jazz fusion composed by Duke Ellington.  Balthazar is crowned king, and then King Solomon appears.  Entering with five women dressed in pink, they glide on stage while King Balthazar and his five men walk off proudly.  As the music becomes more jazzy and upbeat, Solomon and the women dance together and invoke a sense of romance and happiness.  Solomon and one woman continue their beautiful duet as the other four women exit the stage.

Source: USA

As they finish, Martin Luther King walks on stage.  Wearing a white button down shirt and black pants, he starts moving to the music, which now has changed to soulful jazz.  He is then accompanied by fifteen other men and women and they dance in sync separately throughout the piece.  The people lift King up in support and King continues to lift them with his moves.  High kicks, precise arabesques, signature soul, and unimaginable control were the key characters of this piece.

Source: google

In/Side: Choreographed in 2008 by Robert Battle. As a dim, dark, purple light sets the stage, the dancer stands with his back to the audience.  A tall, muscular man, wearing only black briefs, begins a haunting modern routine to “Wild is the Wind” by Nina Simone.  Expressing emotions of torment, fear, and intrigue, the dancer moves robotically and fluidly.  This was a very deep piece.  It was so impressive how the dancer seemed to maintain a presence covering the entire stage, even though he was the only person there.

Forgotten Time: Choreographed in 1989 by Judith Jamison.  Twelve dancers kneel on the floor wearing nude colored body suits decorated with a few colorful lines.  Gold dots of light cast shadows on them.  In silence they rise and walk towards the left at different intervals.   The music sounds like an a capella choir singing in a shrieking tone.  As the piece progresses with seven sections, the dancers tell a story of ancient rituals of love and tribal rites of passage.

Source: google

The dancers’ acrobatic talents are challenging and gracefully performed.  With complex lifts and an amazing sense of balance, I found myself losing a sense of time as they remained suspended in the air.
Revelations: Choreographed in 1960 by Alvin Ailey.  What more can be said about “Revelations?”  The most memorable, moving, uplifting, and inspiring piece I have ever experienced.  This year, the company is celebrating the 50th anniversary of this work of art.  During the show, we saw a film documenting Mr. Ailey’s thoughts and inspirations for creating the piece and Judith Jamison’s experience with the piece.
If you have never experienced an Alvin Ailey performance, you essentially have not lived.  The above clips are only the tip-of-the-iceberg when it comes to how amazing and inspiring they are.  This was my second time seeing the company, and I must say the event was very different.  The pieces were wonderful and a new experience on their own.  However, the atmosphere of the audience left a noticeable impression.  The first time I saw Alvin Ailey was in Atlanta, GA at the Fox Theatre.  The company was celebrating 50 years as the cultural ambassador to the world.  They performed an Otis Redding Tribute, collaborated with the a capella group, Sweet Honey & The Rye, and of course Revelations.  In each section, the audience not only observed, but also participated.  They sang along, cheered throughout the routine, and got up to dance.  They even interacted with each other, regardless if they were strangers.  On the flip side, the DC audience felt so restrained and passive.  There was silence during the ballet and then polite applause when the curtain fell.  Even during Revelations, no one seemed to accept the exciting offer of the “holy ghost.”  I’m not saying this is good or bad, I am just noting my observations.  I find  the difference in culture between the north and the south of the U.S. very intriguing.  Regardless of color or race or religion, the mere act of enjoying a show or an event is not expressed in a universal way.  In my opinion, the south, in particular A-town, knows how to have a good time.
Thank you again Alvin Ailey for giving me the experience of a life time.

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