Mondays with Morgan: Sunny Sumter & Willard Jenkins (DC JazzFest: 30 Aug-3 Sep)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with DC JazzFest’s Sunny Sumter and Willard Jenkins. The former is its president and CEO; the latter is its artistic director.

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The festival runs in Washington, D.C. from 30 August to 3 September; a link to the festival’s website (*) can be found at the bottom of this article.

DC JazzFest 2022
Courtesy of DC JazzFest

On name recognition alone, the lineup for DC JazzFest 2023 is on fire.

There are NEA Jazz Masters, like saxophonists Charles Lloyd, Kenny Garrett, and Big Chief Donald Harrison, as well as the revered bassist Dave Holland.

There are GRAMMY winners, like vocalists Gregory Porter and Samara Joy – and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who’s won four in total.

Not to mention other greats, like trumpeters Etienne Charles and Marquis Hill, pianists Orrin Evans and Arturo O’Farrill – the list goes on. But those who run DC JazzFest are looking at a bigger picture.

“I don’t think people are necessarily looking at the names of the artists,” Sunny Sumter tells LondonJazz. “I think they’re excited about coming to DC JazzFest and discovering new jazz talent across all spectrums.”

Given its proximity to cities like New York and Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. is a natural jazz hub; as such, its teeming scene factors into DC JazzFest’s programming.

“We live in a community where there is a lot of jazz presentation,” adds Willard Jenkins. “So, it’s incumbent that as an annual festival, we present things that one might not otherwise have an opportunity to hear during the course of a given year on other stages in our community.”

Read on for more insights about DC Jazz Fest from both Sumter and Jenkins, before the festival hits on Labor Day Weekend.

LondonJazz News: What’s your approach for this year’s DC JazzFest? What surprises can we all look forward to?

Sunny Sumter: I think the approach this year is that we have such an all-star lineup with NEA Jazz Masters. And we know Willard got the class of 2024 NEA Jazz Master distinction, so he’s joined that group. When he programmed the NEA Jazz Masters, he didn’t know at the time that he’d end up being in the class.

We have a lot of our living legends who are still around. And as we found out from the pandemic, we’d better present them while we can. That’s why we have Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland – just these fantastic legends of this music.

Willard Jenkins: First and foremost, we want to reflect where jazz is in the current year – but also, honour the rich tradition of this music with the masters. The issue is to try and present a lineup that reflects a great amount of the breadth and depth of this music we call jazz.

LJN: To you, at what juncture do we stand in jazz’s evolution?

WJ: We’re at a point where we’ve been for many years now, where we have an evolution of musicians entering the scene.

I’ve always said that the healthiest sector of the jazz community is jazz education, and that’s because we see young people all over the world desiring to learn this music. As a result, the music has become internationalised – an international language.

You have artists who are arriving from various scenes and schools, bringing their cultural experiences and language to this music. It’s really broadening the music, and it’s a great development.

Willard Jenkins headshot
Willard Jenkins. Courtesy of DC JazzFest

SS: Jazz is such a global brand. [Willard] and I were both over in Perugia in Italy [for Umbria Jazz Festival]. I just spent some time in Newport. We’re going to Monterey a few weeks after our festival.

I think it’s thriving right now. It’s reached this crossroads that we’re all excited about, because we have so many genres of music represented in jazz.

We have communities mixing their folk music with it, from their various countries. We have jazz and go-go right here in D.C.; that’s got some great legs right now. A lot of gospel musicians are picking up the jazz umbrella.

Even the big band aesthetic we saw with Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band; we’re bringing on the jazz D.C. all stars in our very own big band.

We’re creating various platforms – people meeting people where they are. Somehow or another, they’re drinking the Kool-Aid, because my goodness, we’re getting crowds that we’ve never seen before. A lot of the casual fans are coming out and embracing the music.

LJN: You have someone like Samara Joy, who won a GRAMMY for Best New Artist and deservedly has a giant industry push. Then you have someone like Julieta Eugenio, a fantastic player who’s making moves under the radar. How do you strike a balance between these two realms?

WJ: Samara Joy was a very happy circumstance for us, because we actually booked her for our festival before she won the GRAMMYs. We are certainly benefiting from her meteoric rise, which isn’t about hype. It’s about her artistry. Because if you see Samara Joy, you see someone who is 24 years old, who has an uncommon sophistication and maturity about their artistry. That is a very wonderful development for the music. We know how people respond to voices.

But then you have someone like Julieta Eugenio, who has a very mature tenor saxophone approach, and is emerging and in the development stage. We’re very proud to have someone like Julieta representing our DCJazzPrix emerging bands competition. It shows the quality of artists who are participating.

Sunny mentioned earlier the great masters who are performing on the festival, like Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, Big Chief Donald Harrison, Kenny Garrett, et cetera. But we balanced that out by presenting the next generation of this music.

LJN: Can you talk about the evolving role of Washington, D.C. in the jazz landscape?

WJ: I think Washington, D.C.’s history in jazz culture has always been somewhat underrated. I suppose because it’s so close to New York and Philadelphia, two of the great cities in jazz history. But there’s a rich jazz culture here that we continue to honour.

SS: Jazz is incredibly rich in this town. Because, one: we have 19 universities and colleges; they all have had very rich jazz programmes for decades. When students leave school, they tend to stay here and build community.

The other thing is that we have a very incredible group of audiences, who come and sit down and check out music. I think because you have that direct connection between artists and audiences, this city is one of the most vibrant cultural jazz hubs in the world.

Sunny Sumter talking into a microphone at the DC JazzFest
Sunny Sumter. Courtesy of DC JazzFest

LJN: When I look at the DC JazzFest lineup, it basically consists of acts who fit squarely in the jazz idiom. But I see major jazz festivals who succumb to pressure to book acts far afield from jazz, thereby diluting the aesthetic and ethos. How do you guys fit into this equation?

WJ: We do have some large venues that we use as our stages, including a place called the Anthem, where Gregory Porter is performing at our festival.

We have to be mindful of artists who will make it worthwhile for us to engage those larger venues. And we also have to be mindful of, as you suggest, maintaining the integrity of the event.

So much of what we refer to as popular music today is informed by jazz, and performed by artists who came out of Berklee College of Music, or jazz education programmes around the country.

It’s a balancing act. Because on one hand, you have to take into account your responsibility to sustain the organisation.

Financially, you have to be mindful of that. On the other hand, you have to present artistry that reflects where the music is today, and where it’s going tomorrow.

We are not averse to presenting artists from other genres. But we do look at the jazz influence, or how jazz informed those artists might be.

SS: In addition to the jazz informed, there are jazz inspired artists we represent. If you look at our roster over the years, you’ll see we brought Common; we brought the Roots. We will continue to do that.

We want to bring as many people [as possible] to our home. They may not necessarily be jazz aficionados; they may be casual fans of the music. They may be coming just for the experience. But what we find is that when they come for that, they walk away falling in love with the new jazz artists.

We just passed a five-year strategic plan. When I’m talking to our stakeholders, the one message we send to them is that this will be a premier cultural destination in D.C. for jazz music. And oftentimes, it’s not the jazz fans like you that are coming.

WJ: There is an effort to make it an experience, more than just seeing a rotation of performances. With any major festival, a major goal is to create a real scene around the event. We’re happy with our progress in creating that scene here.

LINK: DC JazzFest’s website

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