Art Works Blog

Spotlight on DC Jazz Festival

Attention all jazz fans: There’s one summer activity you don’t want to miss. NEA grantee DC Jazz Festival is hosting their 12th annual festival in Washington, DC this year from June 10-19. This multi-day festival invites world-renowned jazz artists—including some of our very own NEA Jazz Masters—to celebrate, appreciate, and teach the important role of jazz in our nation’s capital. To learn more about the festival, we spoke with DC Jazz Festival Executive Director Sunny Sumter. As Sumter points out, the festival is an “opportunity to discover something new” for people across the nation with a love for music. Read on to find out more on how the organization teaches jazz through arts education, how they’re keeping young audiences engaged with the music, and what they hope visitors take away from the experience. 

To follow the festival on social media, use #DCJazzFest. For more information on the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters click here.

NEA: What is your origin story as a musician and what led you to the DC Jazz Festival?

SUNNY SUMTER: I am a Washingtonian. I grew up in DC. I ended up studying jazz and I graduated from Howard University with a degree in jazz. I have performed all around the world and got to study with some great masters like Grady Tate and Geri Allen. I got the chance to work closely with Keter Betts, who lived here and was Ella Fitzgerald's bassist for many years. When I became a mom, I decided that maybe I should put a pause on travelling so much. I worked in a number of institutions, including the Aspen Institute. I was there for about six years, and it was a wonderful experience. I also worked for the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship. I worked with a number of partners in DC institutions. The founder of the festival, Charlie Fishman, brought me on board to help this partnership—to help bring people together around this great music. I started out in partnerships and growing the education program. From there, I went on to managing director and I've been executive director for four years. 

NEA: What sparked the need to create the DC Jazz Festival? What is the goal of it?

SUMTER: Charlie was on the road with Dizzy Gillespie as his road manager. When he came back, he realized there was no jazz festival in DC. Charlie had traveled to some of the great cities in the world, and they all had jazz festivals. He was shocked when he came back and we didn't have one. He went to two stakeholders in DC and got their support. They gave him the seed money for the 2004 festival. At that time, ABC7 anchors Leon Harris and Maureen Bunyan came on—they are both huge jazz fans. The Washington Post decided to wrap their arms around the festival. It was then called the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival and we had 12 concerts. Fast forward to 2015, we are now strong with over 50 performances, 21 neighborhoods, and 40-plus venues. We like to call ourselves the younger sister of New Orleans Jazz Festival because it's the same concept. We really present a neighborhood. We meet people where they are in DC, so they can come right out into their own neighborhood and either walk a few blocks or take a cab ride to hear some great music. We wanted to say, "This is the nation's capital. We need to have a jazz festival right here in DC."  

Esperanza Spalding playing the guitar on-stage.

Esperanza Spalding performing at the 2015 DC Jazz Festival. Photo by Frits Photo Graphics

The really exciting thing about DC is that some of the most amazing, proficient jazz masters happen to reside in the DC area. We have such an amazing potpourri of jazz artists...all walks of life, all ages, all colors. It's so diverse. It's indigenous of this great nation. They have been teaching younger children. We have great jazz programs at schools now in DC, but also in Montgomery County, and in Fairfax County in Virginia. These kids are growing up in the music, growing up in jazz bands. They're pursuing careers. As a result, they're performing in our restaurants, they're performing in our hotels, they're performing in our jazz clubs, but also in our non-traditional spaces. They're creating jazz wherever they can find it. We have such a great patronage to jazz. We have people who know this is such a vibrant town for jazz that they're coming from Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York. We definitely get a huge base from DC. We also have a number of visitors and tourists that come out just for the festival. 

NEA: What are the challenges in putting together this festival?

SUMTER: The biggest challenge is resources and sustainability with our finances. We have a festival model that is parallel to New Orleans. The festival is 10 days. Our budget is $1.3 million. The other jazz festivals that are as big as ours, they have multi-million dollar budgets. The challenge for us is, how do we present this amazing product with limited amount of resources? We have to reach out to partners in DC and come up with creative ways. If you take our support away, there's no jazz festival. Our partners are really considered part of our family. We have a three year strategic plan that we laid out to really help us define more financial opportunities to be able to do what we do. We're also looking at what other people are doing so we can do nice pairings, and have a true diversity of music. 

NEA: Jazz has certainly evolved over time. How do you keep the younger generation interested in jazz?

SUMTER: When I was growing up, you could hear jazz on the radio. There was jazz being played in the record stores. It's very difficult to find jazz these days. It's not playing on mainstream radio. There are some great streaming options for jazz, but you have to want to go to that. The good thing is, we have wonderful jazz institutions where there's jazz ensembles at the middle school and high school level. We're doing jazz concerts, providing young people opportunities to hear jazz and appreciate jazz. We try to meet everybody right where they are. We're partnering with Capital Bop to do the DC Jazz Loft Series at Yards Park. After you go and do your picnic and hang out at the Yards outdoors, you go inside and party till one o'clock in the morning hearing very groundbreaking, cool music that is more appealing for 20-somethings. We also have a wonderful relationship with the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage called "Dis is Da Drum" series. We have some of our younger artists presenting the drum, using some electronic—something that is going to be appealing to the sounds that our younger people are hearing. We're getting a huge base. Last year, 18 percent of our audience were under 30. The good thing about jazz is that every single generation is represented. 

NEA: How would you like to expand your arts education programming?

SUMTER: We established our education program in 2008. The goal of the education program overall is to build tomorrow's jazz family. The idea is that if you teach a child at a young age to have an appreciation of jazz, they'll become jazz fans for life. That's what happened to me and what happened to my children.  

We have a toddler's program. We introduce kids to jazz through storytelling. They have instruments they drum on. They get to hear about Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and they get to do it in fun ways. The kids are anywhere between 18 months and five years old. We're teaching them math skills, how to count with percussion, and we're teaching the reading skills by helping them to read. We put the book right in front of them. We show them the words and they spell the words and put it into a song. We love that program. 

From there, we do an after-school weekly program. We teach kids who are coming there just for the arts. They don't know they're coming for jazz—they know they're coming to have an arts experience. It's an after-school program for three hours, once a week. Some of them might be picking up an instrument for the first time, some of them have been picking one for three to four years. We give them instrument lessons and at the same time, we give them jazz appreciation. We tell them about the jazz. We tell them about some of the NEA Jazz Masters. We use the NEA Jazz Masters curriculum online. We have had three kids that have gone on with scholarships to study in the summer, as high school students, at the Berklee College of Music in Boston from our program. These kids knew nothing about jazz before they got introduced to it through our program. I think we touch kids one at a time through education—they don't all become musicians, but they all get exposed to the music. 

NEA: What’s the relationship like with our NEA Jazz Masters and emerging artists participating in the festival?

SUMTER: There is such a passing of the baton. Our young people are looking up to our masters. They are studying their music. They are listening countless hours to their recordings. Whenever I have an opportunity to present a NEA Jazz Master, the younger artists are just surrounding them with so much love and with so much honor and respect.

We want [the younger musicians] to feel like they are truly part of a jazz takeover in DC. We want them to know that every year, they are part of a jazz celebration…a national jazz celebration right here in DC. You should see how proudly they wear their arts credentials. They are so proud to be a part of it. That's 300-plus musicians hanging out in DC for 10 days, performing. They love every minute of it.

NEA Jazz Master and two performers on-stage performing jazz.

2012 NEA Jazz Master Jack DeJohnette performing for the 2015 DC Jazz Festival. Photo by Jati Lindsay

NEA: What impact has the Jazz Festival had on the larger DC community?

SUMTER: I think it has a tremendous impact on the DC community. DC is rich with art, rich with culture. There are so many amazing institutions that do fine work here in arts and culture. Jazz is particularly unique because it is America's national treasure. It's America's original art form. I think that a lot of people, when they go to Smithsonian or when they see the art installations there about jazz, and when they read about it in publications and online, there is a sense of amazing pride that this is our own. You could just see that when people come, they're going to hear what they are interested in. They can discover a new artist that they never have seen or heard before. That's the most exciting thing about the jazz festival.

Crowd gathering around an outdoor stage as they enjoy the festival.

2015 DC Jazz Festival audience gearing up for live music at The Yards Park, Washington D.C. Photo by Jati Lindsay

NEA: Complete this thought. The arts matter because…

SUMTER: It is all around us. It captures the human experience. We as human beings, continue to be amazed. We continue to marvel at the wonder of what art can create. I think it can influence our daily lives. It can make us happy when we're sad. It can cheer us up when we're going through challenges in our lives. It's such a part of everyday life. That's from an artistic perspective. 

From a citizen's perspective, I think art matters because it is truly a resource that supports our economy. People going and hearing live music, people going and buying records, downloading records, people going to get an art supports everything. They go and have dinner and then go to a show. They go to sleep in a hotel bed and go to a show. When people go to visit great cities in the country, they include an art and culture experience in their travels. It truly is part of human experience. 


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