Every third Thursday of the month, the free concert series, Take 5! transforms the Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian American Art Museum into an American town hall, making it a center of social, artistic and cultural egalitarianism where all are welcome and few remain strangers. Like New York City’s legendary Town Hall, there are no bad seats in the Kogod Couryard. The atrium features soaring heights and live trees. Lights like floating stars are embedded in a glass ceiling. Banquettes and tables and chairs are sprinkled around the courtyard, offering a warm and calming ambiance that equally invites conversation or solitude. This is a community chill-out space in chilling times. A musical oasis in the midst of the city.
Recent free concerts have highlighted the music of Lee Morgan or offered a tribute to Wayne Shorter, featuring local saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed. Jazz trumpeter Mike “Bags” Davis takes the stage February 21, performing the music of legendary bebop trumpeter/composer Kenny Dorham whose big sound took him from the big bands of Lionel Hampton, Billy Eckstine and Mercer Ellington to gigs with jazz leaders Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey, among others.
But Take 5! is not a performance series where “we’re playing jazz just for the sake of jazz” insists American Art’s program producer Laurel Fehrenbach. The series is the museum’s nod to “an American art form we can’t hang on walls,” and a tribute to American biography, honoring the lives of pioneering and emerging jazz artists who have transformed America through the art of sound.
During an average performance, the jazz park atmosphere of the courtyard attracts more than 200 people. Capturing old jazz heads and jazz novices. Parents with toddlers and children find the space as friendly as millennials enjoying a glass of wine from the cafe. Board games, checkers, Monopoly, Life and Candyland, engage families sitting up close to feel the music or in the back to play with the kids. Free educational handouts offer insight into the cultural histories and careers of the featured artists.
Art Jamz, a local studio and ”participatory art” program provides a bohemian touch, offering paint supplies, canvas and teachers to anyone who signs up to explore their artistic side, creating art against the backdrop of live music.
“We want the courtyard to be full, lively and used by whoever wants to use it,” says Fehrenbach, who says she is open to new collaborations with local organizations. She says the family friendly space and concerts have become a welcome accident stumbled upon by people living in the Penn Quarter neighborhood or workers heading home from daycare with kids. Bright and open with a cafe, the courtyard makes it possible for nearly everyone to find the right spot to fit their situation.
The upcoming Take 5! Schedule offers:
Joann Stevens is program manager of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an initiative to advance appreciation and recognition of jazz as America’s original music, a global cultural treasure. JAM is celebrated in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia and some 40 countries every April. Recent posts include Wynton Marsalis, Honoring Duke Ellington and The Making of a Millennial Jazz Musician: Elijah Jamal Balbed.