Willard Jenkins Finds ‘The Next Faces of Jazz’


AMP Trio is one of the featured performers of the Jazz in Progress: The Next Faces of Jazz series.

(Photo: Gulnara Khamatova)

Journalist, author and arts presenter for more than 40 years, Willard Jenkins’ career has grown out of a serious love for jazz and its attendant culture. More than most, he knows what it takes to engage jazz audiences.

“I’ve always been a firm believer that we haven’t come close to maximizing the potential audience for jazz,” said Jenkins, who also is an occasional DownBeat contributor.

“Jazz in Progress: The Next Faces of Jazz” is a platform for engaging that audience. In partnership with the D.C. Jazz Festival and presented at the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Tribeca Performing Arts Center, this three-concert series will feature the winner and two finalists from last year’s DCJazzPrix Young Bands Competition. The shows begin Feb. 10 with AMP Trio, which features vocalist Tahira Clayton, continue on Feb. 24 with the Ernest Turner Trio and conclude March 30 with SULA, a group led by drummer Diego Joaquin Ramirez.

During a recent chat with Downbeat, Jenkins traced his career as a presenter and artistic director for notable live jazz events, including Cleveland’s Tri-C JazzFest, the DC Jazz Festival and “Jazz In Progress.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s chart the path you’ve followed, particularly your roles as an artistic director and presenter.
Not long after I was contracted as artistic director of the Tri-C JazzFest [in 1994], a few years after that, there was a program that was kind of hatched by a visionary sister by the name of Mikki Shepard, who was the founding director of 651 Arts in Brooklyn. There was a journalist I knew from writing, a brother named David Jackson. He had this idea for what he called “Lost Jazz Shrines.” The idea was to commemorate those great old venues that were important to the development of jazz around the country. And so, we put together this plan where we would encourage a kind of network of presenting organizations around the country to be a part of Lost Jazz Shrines. That lasted for about a year. At this point, I was freelancing and was engaged to become the co-ordinator of that particular project.

Then I met Linda Herring, who is the executive director for BMCC’s Tribeca Performing Arts Center, and she decided that she wanted to be a part of this network of presenting organizations around the country. She contracted me to consult with her on what programming they were going to do in Tribeca. At the time, 651 Arts was also part of this national project, so they covered Brooklyn. And Aaron Davis Hall, which is now Harlem Stage, was part of the project, and they were going to cover uptown. So, we decided that at Tribeca, we were going to concentrate on the lost jazz shrines below 14th Street; there’s dozens of them. I did a lot of research at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, coming up with all kinds of compelling reasons for programming. And Linda, being new, she decided that the concept has a lot of traction, and I was coming up with a list of all these venues: The Five Spot, Café Bohemia, The Loft in the 1970s, Bradleys—all these places that we could celebrate. … For 18 years now, we continued doing the Lost Jazz Shrines [series].

A few years ago, she decided that she also wanted to have “Jazz In Progress,” our young jazz artists series, so we went to the Thelonious Monk Institute. There was never any contractual relationship between us and the Monk Institute. So, every year, we would present the finalists of the Monk competition: Ambrose [Akinmusire] was part of it, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Charenee Wade, Marcus Strickland. ...

Rather than reinvent the wheel, this year, we just came up with the idea to present the three finalists of DCJazzPrix at TPAC. DCJazzPrix is our own competition at the D.C. Jazz Festival. Our third annual competition is coming up and we’re currently accepting applications from bands, as ours is a band or ensemble competition.

As a longtime presenter, what does it take to make a festival or live jazz series successful?
It’s almost like you envision a spider web, with all of these different threads running through it, all these different aspects. It’s a pleasant prospect but it becomes almost like herding cats.

Unlike certain festivals that I go to every year because I know they’re great—like Monterey and Newport, those are festivals that are presented in a somewhat contained way. They have their historic traditional venue, where everything is contained right there.

In our case, we’re a citywide festival. D.C. is broken into [Northwest, Northeast, Southwest and Southeast]. We literally present in all four quadrants of the city. We’re in 22 different neighborhoods: in parks, community centers, clubs, museums, at the Kennedy Center.

So, for those 10 days, we’re presenting across the community and we pride ourselves on being a citywide festival. That means there’s a web of partners, what we call “Jazz in the ‘Hoods,” around the community. It’s a matter of marshaling those different aspects and to make sure that everything meshes and that we’re not conflicting with each other. A lot of those programs are free, so that’s important to the community. So, there are all those kinds of considerations. Now, when you get to the music, there’s always a consideration for wanting to represent a diverse, stylistic festival. We want to try to present as broad a range of the music as we can. And I think we’ve achieved that. DB

For more information about Jazz in Progress: The Next Faces of Jazz visit the BMCC Tribeca website.

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