By Mark O'Reilly, Project Coordinator
The late Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer-winning musical RENT was one of my first forays into music beyond my piano. Before my freshman year of high school, my lessons consisted of the standards of Beethoven and Chopin, but when I first heard those opening chords of “Seasons of Love,” it seemed almost pre-destined that I would eventually become a musical theatre kid. And while that never became my life’s ultimate trajectory, I still owe my early passion for musical theatre for leading me into the bright new corners of other musical genres. Particularly, jazz was one of these genres, if only because the musicals broadened my mind on the multitude of means there are for expressive and intimate storytelling, both verbal and non.
When Leslie Odom Jr. performed “Without You” (from RENT) the evening he headlined The Anthem with Maceo Parker and R+R=NOW, it was a surreal experience for me. Here I was, more than a decade removed from my high school novice actor of a self, listening to a Tony award-winning presence sing the music that served as the soundtrack to my adolescence. By itself, “life goes on / but I’m gone / ‘cause I die / without you” is a powerful sentiment regardless of the delivery or setting. But on June 16, it was heard by an audience of thousands, in one of DC’s largest venues, in a room where a pin could be heard dropping between the phrases of Odom’s soaring tenor croon. Being in that room as a lover of both jazz and musical theatre told me exactly what I needed to hear and feel: you are where you need to be.
I think the power of that moment had just as much to do with both the adeptness of the performer and the lyricism of the song’s author as it did with the synergy of the audience in that moment. The music of RENT is celebratory and solemn, and though its subject matter is heavy and controversial (in short: the life and times of young people in the Bohemian neighborhoods of New York City during a sexual revolution against a backdrop of illicit drug use and housing crises), its power lies in being still-timeless and universal two decades later. Add to that story a performer like Odom whose interpretations of it are breathless, and place the music of that story at the climax of a musical festival that emphasizes the ability of music to discover parts unknown, and you have a quintessential artistic experience. The DC Jazz Festival champions many similar expressions through creativity, to highlight the human experience through education and by making us feel.
To some, I know that serving up musical theatre as the hallmark event of a jazz festival seems like an interesting choice worthy of discussion. But to that, I can only reference another performance from the set – Spring Awakening‘s “The Guilty Ones.” Odom and his band, The Remedy (who I will be looking to see more of, hopefully sooner rather than later), indeed brought about an awakening in spring* (*our festival is technically in the spring!) during this rendition, which transformed a folk rock musical duet into a certified 25-minute jazz jam of breathtaking and energizing solos.
For me, this was a defining memory of both the DC Jazz Festival and my live concert experiences, as it was a validating and perfect summation of my life with jazz and musical theatre. I think many of the young musicians in our audience that evening will feel that way, as they navigate what their own musical language will be and what it will become. 2018 was an illustration of how these genres can relate to one another in their similarities just as easily as they can elevate because of their differences, and that is at the heart of what the DC Jazz Festival is setting out to do for our nation’s capital.