Jazz Quintet Dial 251 has style reminiscent of the classical jazz greats, said Vera Oyé Yaa-Anna. Yaa-Anna, a regular fan, spoke shortly after seeing the group perform May 11 at Twins Jazz (1344 U St. NW). The group is scheduled to play the Hill Center (921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) on Friday, June 7.
“They remind me of the first jazz show I saw when I was 15 years old –you know how they used to be all suited-up?” Yaa-Anna said of the band. “They’re a first-class group.”
Dial 251 describe themselves as “Jazz Messengers-inspired funky hard bop—a fusion of straight-ahead jazz, Latin, soul, and rhythm and blues.” The link between Dial 251 and classic jazz musicians is apt.
Nod to Jazz Pioneers
The name is a nod to the pioneers of modern jazz and their drive for constant innovation. Dial Records was a post-WWII label that released their 200 series albums featuring jazz pioneers like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Dexter Gordon. “The ‘251’ was chosen because it refers to an essential chord progression in Western music and for the retro imagery of the word ‘dial’ in a world of touch-screen cell-phones,” said trumpeter and band founder Charles Whalen.
Dial 251 is very much a Capitol Hill band. Whalen met an early member of the band, guitarist Mark Johnson, at the 21 at 21 jam sessions, an intimate monthly performance held in the townhouse of David Weiner on Gessford Court.
The current members of Dial 251 also met through the music. When Whalen performed in the Capitol Hill based big-band DC Swing, he recruited band director Matt Leonhardt, a former US Marines pianist. Whalen met bassist Jon Steele when both played in a big-band based in the Adams Morgan area.
Whalen met other members at jam sessions, including drummer Greg Reaves at a jazz jam at Takoma Station and sax player Bryan McEntire at the DC Jazz Jam. The band also features local drummer Greg Reaves, often noted for his precision and his intricate improvisations.
McEntire said that he initially thought that Whalen put the group together to do a single show in Maryland, but they soon began headlining their own shows.
“Then Charles kept getting more and more gigs,” McEntire added, “but the big break to keep our group together was getting the reoccurring gig at Mr. Henry’s.”
Dial 251 has had a regular gig the first Friday of every month at Mr. Henry’s (601 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) since March 2015. Over the past five years, they’ve played annually at the US Botanic Garden as part of its holiday music series as well as at DC JazzFest, the National Cherry Blossom Festival, and DC Art All Night.
In Service of the Music
Whalen himself no longer lives on the Hill –or in DC. But his dedication to the band has not wavered. Having moved to upstate New York two years ago, he regularly returns to DC to practice and play with the band, facilitated by a supportive spouse and a flexible appointment at SUNY Buffalo Law School.
“It’s kinda’ funny, I guess, that I came to DC to help shape US economic policy and instead rediscovered jazz, which I had long ago put aside in favor of that more serious pursuits,” he said.
Hill resident Peter Glick is a regular at Dial 251 shows, especially First Fridays at Mr. Henry’s. He said that the key to the band’s longevity and draw is the craftsmanship in the music.
“In addition to being very talented musicians individually, as a group they are incredibly tight —they rehearse regularly and it really shows in the crispness of their ensemble playing,” Glick said. “I always enjoy dropping in to Mr. Henry’s for a night of great jazz and to see what material they’ve been working on.”
Sax player McEntire said the group has now been playing together long enough that they know “each other’s brains”.
“We’re doing it in service of music that’s as vibrant now as it was when it was written and at the highest point of its popularity,” he said. “We try to do it justice historically, but this is not a stuffed shirt and bowtie affair.”
“It’s just people having fun, making noise and getting into the music as much as we can.”
Come have fun and make some noise with Dial 251 as they play the Hill Center, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, June 7. Tickets are $18 in advance and $20 at the door. Stick around after the performance for a wine reception with the musicians.
See more details, including video by visiting https://www.hillcenterdc.org/event/jazz-quintet-dial-251/. Dial 251 is back at Mr. Henry’s on July 5. Learn more about First Fridays and Mr. Henry’s regular Jazz line-up by visiting http://www.mrhenrysdc.com/events/friday-feature/.