DC Takes the International Stage

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The Chuck Brown Band performs on the Wharf during the DC Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Jati Lindsay)

It was in 2017, during the 14th annual DC Jazz Festival (DCJF) at the Yards, when Sunny Sumter first recognized that the festival had ascended beyond being a local event; it had elevated to headliner status within the international jazz festival ecosystem. That year’s lineup boasted such heavy hitters as Gregory Porter, Kenny Garrett, Youngjoo Song, Jacob Collier and the Robert Glasper Experiment, among more than 125 performances at more than 40 venues throughout Washington, D.C.

“We brought a lot of international talent that casual jazz fans don’t come to see,” remembers Sumter, who then served as DCJF’s executive director. She’s now the festival’s president and CEO. “Many people in the crowd didn’t know some of the performers. But by the end of that festival, they were hooked.”

Six years later, the DC Jazz Festival continues hooking major crowds of both casual and hardcore jazz fans with its exemplary lineup. For this year’s Labor Day weekend extravaganza at the Wharf waterfront, both Garrett and Porter will return. Also featured will be Terri Lyne Carrington, Samara Joy, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, Warren Wolf, Omar Sosa, Leigh Pilzer and Veronneau. Orrin Evans will also be there, concluding his two-year stint as the fest’s artist-in-residence.

During Evans’ first year, he led his Captain Black Big Band and invited Dianne Reeves to sing; it was their first musical encounter. He also hosted various jazz workshops, master classes and jam sessions around the city. This year, Evan will curate his Generations series, in which he’ll pair seasoned musicians with burgeoning hopefuls.

“What makes jazz such as cultural phenomenon is the passing of the baton from one generation to the next,” Sumter says. “So, this year, we are going to present Orrin with Benny Green, Patrice Rushen and other legendary pianists performing this incredible Generations project.”

One of the missions Evans set for himself as artist-in-residence is to break down barriers within jazz. “Those barriers could be generational, ethnic or gender,” he says.

Two years ago, the DC Jazz Festival moved its headquarters to Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theater. That significantly bolstered its programming that includes educational components (DC JazzBops!, Jazzin’ InSchool and Jazz and Go-Go) and the DCJazzPrix, an international band competition that awards $15,000 as a grand prize, complemented with business development and career impact services. This year also signals the festival’s evolution into a year-long presenting enterprise.

Sumter believes that the festival’s founder, Charles Fishman — a Grammy-winning producer, who served as Dizzy Gillespie’s personal manager — always envisioned it becoming a year-long presenter. When Fishman launched the festival in 2005, it was branded the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival until 2009.

“When Charlie was on the road with Diz, he would go to all these great jazz festivals around the world,” Sumter says, “He knew a lot of the festival presenters and recognized that they were not just throwing festivals; the organizations had become jazz beacons in their respective communities.”

Sumter recalls that it was Fishman’s idea to incorporate educational programming because he felt like the elementary, high school and college kids in the District were not receiving proper knowledge about jazz history, particularly the city’s own renowned legacy, which includes such trailblazing icons as Duke Ellington, Shirley Horn and Dr. Billy Taylor all the way up to modern day renegades like Marc Cary, Meshell Ndgeocello and Ben Williams.

DC Jazz Festival also makes use of one of the District’s most fascinating features — its international embassies. In the past, it has partnered with many including those of Japan France, South Africa, Sweden, Canada, Germany, Morocco and Turkey to present riveting cosmopolitan cultural exchanges. This year, it’s entered a partnership with the Embassy of the Republic of Cuba to showcase virtual activities and cultural exchanges performances opportunities with Cuban musicians playing in the District and American musicians traveling to the island nation.

While D.C. is certainly a cosmopolitan city, it’s still considered Chocolate City to many long-time residents, even though its once-Black majority population has reduced to 41.4%, according to the U.S. 2020 Census Bureau.

“I was born and raised in Washington, D.C.,” Sumter says, “And it will always be Chocolate City to me. There are many generations of Black Washingtonians who will never leave this city. There is some real beauty in that.”

It’s not lost on Sumter that the DC Jazz Festival is one of the few in the country that’s led by an African American. Willard Jenkins, its esteemed artistic director, is also Black. “I feel so proud to lead this festival alongside Willard and celebrate who we are as Black people,” Sumter says.

“Now everybody comes to our party,” Sumter continues. “We invite our Black and white, Latino and Asian friends, because everybody can play. In our mission, we remind people that jazz — this amazing music — is rooted as a Black American art form.” DB



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