The theme of this year's event, "A Rumpus in Richmond," comes from a classic Duke Ellington piece, recorded in July 1940 by the classic Duke band featuring, among others, Ben Webster and Jimmy Blanton. "Like many compositions, it was written and recorded first and given a title later," says Doug Richards, whose Great American Music Ensemble (G.A.M.E.) will perform its rendition of the piece at the event.
The rumpus in question was a result of Ellington's interracial fraternization. "Duke was always a ladies man, and the lady in Richmond was not the same skin color," Richards says. "There were people in this area at that time that didn't take kindly to that sort of thing."
Richard's arrangement promises to be a highlight of his set, which will include a number of other Ellington pieces. Renowned Richmond violinist Joe Kennedy Jr. and singer Rene Marie both featured on Richard's yet-to-be-released "It's All in the G.A.M.E." CD will also perform with Richards's big band.
"Rumpus" will also spotlight a favorite performer from the past two events, Brown says. "Many of the surveys that we did said that a particular artist James Gates Jr. stole the show," he says. "So this year we are giving him a special showcase."
"We asked him, 'If you could have a national artist appear with you, who would it be?' He said pianist Alex Bugnon. I guess the moon and the stars were in the right place," Brown says, "because it all came together." Alex Bugnon and his ensemble, featuring Gates, who often goes by "Saxsmo," and guest vocalist Carlton Blount, headline the second half of the show.
There will also be dancers from the VCU Department of Dance and Choreography, Eric E. Stanley's "Bebop, Boogie and Blues" revue to fill the spaces between acts, and a host of other diversions.
"This year we will have a whole floor of gaming and horseracing," Brown says. "There will be separate music in the gaming room; it gets so loud because people are screaming at the tables." The winners can cash in their chips for chances to win prizes at the end of the evening.
The real money raised goes to support the broad range of services offered by the society, including performances for senior citizens, schools, community centers, "Make Music With Me" kids bands, a monthly guest-educator series and other musical activities.
"We just started a brand new program, an after-school Jazz Academy at Pine Camp," Brown says. "James Gates is the principal, and many of the area's top musicians are instructors."
So the celebration once intended to mark the completion of the Jazz Society's mission has become a funding engine for its continuation. It's a good cause, and a great party. S
Virginia Jazz Gala 2002 "A Rumpus in Richmond Celebrating the Duke" happens April 27, 7 p.m. - 1 a.m. in The Richmond Convention Center. Tickets cost $100 and seats are reserved. The event is black tie (optional) with a '40s jazz-age theme and decor.