As the sun goes down on a hot Wednesday in July, members of the Fred Woodard Collective make their way through the backyard for a basement rehearsal at a house in the Dudley Triangle neighborhood. In a setting furnished with an oil tank, washer and dryer, and shelves crammed with vinyl record albums, there’s barely enough room for the jazz quartet.
“It’s going to be an interesting night,” says percussionist Matthew Williams, after gulps from a gallon jug of water. He settles in with probing taps on drums and cymbals, perched right near the tank and a wall crowded with the faces of jazz icons—Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, James Lee Jamerson, Lionel Hampton, and Sonny Rollins.
If the music has roots and branches, what comes off the tree has to find its way back home. In one sense, that’s the goal of the Dudley Jazz Festival, launched in 2016 by the group’s leader and main organizer, Fred Woodard, Jr.
This Saturday (July 30), the free event will return to its original location, at the recently renovated Mary Hannon Playground on Dudley Street, with support from the Mass. Cultural Council, the City of Boston, and the Mabel Louise Riley Foundation.
The event will run from noon to 6 p.m.
“It’s mainly to expose my community to jazz music,” Woodard explained, “and provide an alternative to what’s in popular culture—or what’s in popular culture in the general media.”
Born 61 years ago in Kansas City, Missouri, Woodard grew up in Iowa City, where his father, Fredrick Woodard, Sr., was a professor of African American and World Studies and English at the University of Iowa. A generation earlier, when his father was growing up in Kansas City, it was a magnet for jazz artists around the country and famed as the birthplace of saxophonist, composer, and great “Bird” of Bebop, Charlie Parker.
While still in junior high school, Woodard’s father had started playing alto sax, one more hatchling in a flock of aspiring nightbirds. And, among Woodard’s relatives, there were only a few degrees of separation from big names such as Ellington, Count Basie, and Coleman Hawkins. As Woodard took up his first instrument—the cello, he was absorbing the musical legacy of his father’s record collection, with tracks by Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Wes Montgomery. But he was also taken with the popular music of his own generation—Motown, Funk, and the catchy, danceable blend of genres in Earth, Wind & Fire.
In the decades between world wars, jazz morphed from its roots in blues and gospel to become a leading form of danceable popular music, even beyond the United States. In the postwar decades, Bebop would mark the ascent of jazz as art music—and the start of its gradually diminishing popularity.
By the time Woodard was at Berklee School of Music in Boston, he was focused on jazz guitar and the golden age of Bebop was more than a decade in the past. If Woodard learned from earlier masters by transcribing their improvised solos, he also tried to play with artists above his current level and make new discoveries as a listener.
“If you listen to someone and copy their lines and everything and play along with their recordings and get the feel of it, and then you use it when you’re practicing and when you go to play,” he said, “then, after a while, if you’re really a creative person, you’ll start to hear other things – and, then, after a while, it just kind of turns into your own voice.”
Adding to the new voice in the Collective is Woodard’s 25-year-old son, Fredrick Woodard III, on violin. As they rehearsed the set for the upcoming festival, they frequently swapped leads, at times with the freewheeling violin over rhythmic chords on guitar. While he plays from his chair, Woodard rocks back and forth, keeping time like a conductor, but also facing diagonally across, toward the beat kept on percussion by Matthew Williams.
“Fred was my introduction to jazz music,” said Williams, who was among Woodard’s students at the Roland Hayes School of Music in Roxbury. The introduction included his first exposure to recordings by Williams’s favorite drummer, Elvin Jones.
“I’m glad I started listening to jazz,” said Williams, “because it helped me in a lot of other areas, even musically.”
As a 21st century jazz musician, Woodard has done everything from making recordings and performing at clubs to playing at festivals and bookstores, even busking in subways. Sometimes he’s joined by his son, as well as his 21-year-old daughter, Deniece, a bassist and music major at UMass Boston. The two also help Woodard in his role as music director for a trans-denominational community, Unity in the City, which streams services online.
Working on the project with them, and performing at the festival, is Janice Octavia Allen, a vocalist specializing in gospel, blues, and jazz who studied at the New England Conservatory. Other sets at the festival will be played by Bill Lowe’s Signifying Ensemble and Beacon Bop from UMass Boston, with Woodard’s daughter on electric bass, Matthew Villacis on drums, Gerardo Rivas on tenor sax, Analee Clough on baritone sax, and Phillip Lei on piano.
Even when created for pure listening, jazz was an ongoing conversation with the popular music of its time, whether show tunes, dance hits, movie soundtracks, or the sound of Sunday at church. That background also applies to another festival headliner, Yoron Israel. A drummer, composer, and band leader, as well as a past participant in the festival, he chairs Berklee’s Percussion Department, along with serving as music director for a church in the Boston area. In his upcoming appearance at the festival with his Trio Plus, he plans to perform selections mostly from their recent album, “New Dreams.”
In past albums, Israel, 58, paid tribute to inspirations from the past such as John Coltrane and Stevie Wonder. Growing up mainly in the west side of Chicago, he explored jazz greats of the past, with a public library giving access to recordings by artists such as Thad Jones and Lester Young. While still in junior high school, Israel went on tour for the first time with an uncle’s rhythm and blues band, and it was the same uncle who arranged for his first formal lessons as a percussionist.
But, as a teen playing with his peers in garage bands, Israel was tuning in to popular artists such as Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Michael Jackson, and Earth, Wind & Fire.
“I feel that music is part of who we are as artists—or who I am as an artist,” said Israel. “In some ways, those artists are as significant to me as the John Coltranes and Charlie Parkers.”
Over the years, Israel would find other jazz artists with similar feelings.
“Many musicians wanted to make sure they kept intact, kept in contact with their musical roots that went beyond jazz, and not just in a pretentious way, not in a way to sell more records or anything, but in a way of being sincere about who they were,” he said. “So, I think, by doing that, we’re also connecting to non-musicians who may hear the music and have a similar background.”
But Israel’s first awareness of wanting to be a musician came from growing up in a church-going family.
“It was a pretty big church. We had several choirs who would perform and, as a youngster, I was part of the young choir, in terms of singing,” he recalled. “But, looking at the gentlemen who were playing the instruments, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do.”
Decades later, the path that led from church to the garage leads to another neighborhood setting in Dorchester, with Israel’s return to the Dudley Jazz Festival.
“It’s really a beautiful thing to play there,” he said, “because, a lot of the times, to play in Dorchester or the community in general, it’s good to see faces that you don’t normally see when you go to Scullers.”
With jazz clubs becoming harder to find or afford, Woodard says artists sometimes need to look beyond their specialization and its connoisseurs. “They get so far into their own space that they forget about communicating what art is about,” he said. “It’s communicating to an audience, rather than being in your own little world.”
When many artists were physically cut off from that audience by the pandemic, Woodard tried another path to creativity: an online course with musical exercises. One assignment was to write blues in different keys, not unlike the sets of preludes and fugues in J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. That led to a composition that Woodard was able to perform in person last year, and part of the set planned for the upcoming festival, a blues number titled “Hindsight 2020.” It’s in the unusual key of G minor, with a four-beat rhythm that, without enough swing, can easily get swamped by notes in relentless groups of threes.
One of Bach’s G minor fugues also has persistent triplets, fretting like fingers through worry beads. In “Hindsight 2020,” Woodard’s melodic fretwork is more dogged, a plod of resistance under a heavy load, with ballast from the harmonically indeterminate interval of fourths.
“On the one hand, you could say it was an academic exercise,” he explains, “but it kind of expresses the overall mood during the lockdown, the pandemic.”
The Collective’s set also includes a piece by Woodard’s son, “Chile,” and ends with a reimagining of “Stretching,” by the pianist and composer James Williams.
A Memphis native who came to Berklee in 1973, Williams left to play with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Fifteen years after “Stretching” was recorded, its opening bass line and horns would re-emerge in hip-hop, sampled by Digable Planets in “Rebirth of Slick.” The Collective’s version, starting with Melvin Graham’s solo on bass, mixes the original and its offshoot into yet another piece of new music – jazz rediscovered as popular music, then rediscovered again as jazz.
The rehearsal night in Woodard’s basement wrapped up with a second run through his tribute to Coltrane, “JWC.” Once again, the piece begins at full tilt, but this time more in gear, as Woodard and his son swap leads, with interjections from Williams on drums. Woodard then takes that to the next level, with a grainy stream of scat urging his bandmates on, as if to a more unfiltered kind of presence.
If music can dance and sing, it can also talk. And, when it’s over, Williams has the last word.
“That’s tight,” he says. “Getting there.”