Washington Women in Jazz Festival Founder Amy K. Bormet Explains Vision, Growth


Pianist Amy K. Bormet founded the Washington Women in Jazz Festival in 2011. The festival returns March 10-31.

(Photo: Aleta Elsayed)

Pianist Amy K. Bormet was hoping to create a grassroots network of female jazz musicians in Washington, D.C., when she started the Washington Women in Jazz Festival in 2011. She ended up building a network that stretches across the United States and includes not only musicians, but a new series of women’s jazz festivals, some of them proudly displaying Bormet’s influence.

Ahead of the March 10 opening of the ninth annual WWJF, Bormet spoke to DownBeat about her vision for the festival, her metric of its growth and why starting an artist’s competition within the festival wasn’t the best idea.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

What was the genesis of the festival?

It started when I went to the Kennedy Center’s Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program in 2010. Besides myself and [vocalist] Christie Dashiell, there were not really any other women there. [Pianist and then-artistic advisor for jazz] Billy Taylor invited me to perform on the [center’s Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival], and I met all these other D.C. women jazz artists who were on the festival with me, and I suddenly thought, “Wait a second—why do we not have our own women-in-jazz thing happening in the city?”

I wanted to have a space to network and play with women jazz artists.

How has the festival grown since then?

When we started in 2011, we fit five concerts into one venue, Twins Jazz Club on U Street, and then did jam sessions at the [since demolished] Red Door loft space downtown, and that was the whole festival.

But it wasn’t just about the number of events. I wanted to connect several different jazz scenes that were happening in D.C. So, we had the scenes that I was a part of, around the music department at Howard University where I was getting my master’s and at Duke Ellington High School for the Performing Arts, where I was teaching at the time. But then we also had military band musicians and people from the University of Maryland, and singers that don’t often hire women instrumentalists. That was the real growth I was looking for: finding the women in all these different spheres of the D.C. jazz community and getting them connected.

Was it just women in the city that you were interested in networking with? Did you involve women from out of town, too?

Yes, but doing so has always related to what the core of local women musicians were interested in doing. I’d studied with Geri Allen at the University of Michigan, and I brought her in. One of the women here, the saxophonist Sarah Hughes, wanted to work with [guitarist] Mary Halvorson, so we brought her in. Bassist Karine Chapdelaine wanted to work with Fay Victor, so we brought her in, too.

So, this wasn’t a case of us having an open call for women from everywhere and anywhere. We kept it very community- and partnership-focused. I’m looking for women who want to form connections and have collaborations with women who are working in this city.

Can you talk a little bit about the educational component?

Primarily, it’s a young artist’s showcase; the first year I did a young artist’s competition and that was a terrible idea. I wanted to create a community of younger women jazz musicians to support each other, and all it did was foster a competitive environment, which I think people have enough of.

Turning it into the showcase was one of my smartest moves. Last year, I had 23 women from all over the country come and perform, and we all hung out and had dinner, and it was just general chaos. It was great. They made a Facebook group, so now we have a Facebook group of people who are connecting and doing gigs together in different places.

So, now I’ve blown it up to two days, and we have a business workshop, as well as lectures. We’re really doing a lot more to empower young artists to take care of the business side of their careers, and also to create shared experiences of what it’s like to be one of maybe two women in your jazz program—if you’re lucky.

We’re also doing something new this year called Jazz Girls Day, which is an all-day event. We have a full band of women that will be playing jazz, teaching and talking about jazz, geared towards middle- and high-school girls.

We should also talk about the influence you’ve had. At least one other women’s jazz festival, in Seattle, claims you as their inspiration.

Aw, yeah, those are my buddies! I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me: Seattle Women in Jazz, Alabama Women in Jazz. This year, I’m going down to play at the Knoxville Women in Jazz Jam, whose founder also reached out to me when she was starting it.

A group of women from a past young artist showcases all went together to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and they just started a woman-focused jazz festival there called We Create Jazz, which will start in April.

One of the keys is to reinvent the jazz festival as something that’s not focused on bringing in tourist dollars from everywhere else. My goal is to keep it D.C. focused; that’s what I think makes it unique, and that’s what I encourage when other people reach out to me. DB

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