Here’s the mark of an impressive festival: This writer managed to catch 28 jazz acts in the 11 days of this month’s D.C. Jazz Festival—and can’t stop agonizing over how many gigs were missed. At this time last year, I was musing about how slim the 2017 DCJF was compared to past iterations. That can’t be remotely said of this one, year 14 for the fest. A few dozen performances took place just during its final two days at The Wharf. For a lot of top-tier jazz festivals—including Newport, the crown jewel—that would have been the entirety of the program.
Make no mistake; The Wharf represented the festival’s triumph. With a main stage on the District Pier, a second stage on the Transit Pier, and a small perch for unaccompanied solo performers on the edge of Pearl Street, not to mention the big-ticket keynote performance at The Anthem, jazz was inescapable on the Southwest Waterfront. But no one seemed to want to escape it. A sizable crowd had already gathered at District Pier for Ben Williams’ new ensemble I Am A Man early Saturday afternoon; it was packed to the gills by the time of Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah’s evening set. Staffers said that the turnout exceeded their wildest expectations, and that’s not even accounting for the people who came to see Akua Allrich & The Tribe, or Reginald Cyntje’s sleek, hip new quartet at Transit Pier. If you happened to venture to the second floor to watch Kris Funn’s Corner Store win this year’s DC JazzPrix (against a monumental roster of competitors—I myself couldn’t choose between Corner Store and saxophonist Roxy Coss’s quintet, voting for both), you encountered festival volunteers who were bouncing people from a small room that was already well above capacity.
The Wharf wasn’t even the festival’s central hub. That was City Winery, the New York-based food-and-drinkery that took over the massive former Dream/Love nightclub in Ivy City. Admittedly, just about anywhere would be a step up from last year’s disastrous base at the Howard Theatre (which is a disaster even when it doesn’t have a festival based in it), but this was a singularly gorgeous room with great sound, a great piano, and staff that were enthusiastic about proving the merit of the place. (They were a little understaffed, and some kinks in the menu still need to be worked out, but that’s the province of other critics.) Not that the programming hurt, with superlative acts that included the Washington Renaissance Orchestra, The Bad Plus, the still-brilliant-at-77 Pharoah Sanders, and Ben Williams’ tribute to D.C. bass patriarch Keter Betts, featuring three other local bass greats and singer Sharon Clark. (My brother, in town for postgraduate work, said it was the best jazz show he’d ever seen.)
Highlights were to be found everywhere across the District. Aside from the above mentioned, there was a wonderful performance by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra of the works of Leonard Bernstein, featuring typically masterful work by bassist James King, and trumpeters Tom Williams and Kenny Rittenhouse, and especially baritone saxophonist Leigh Pilzer. There was a set both amorphous and remarkably structured by avant-jazz trumpeter Jaimie Branch and Fly Or Die at Union Stage. A dazzling, moving display of virtuosity by the great violinist Regina Carter at The Hamilton. (Welcome back, you guys!)
That said, a mea culpa is due. In my previews for this year’s fest, I talked up Frederic Yonnet’s astonishing harmonica chops and sound as the headliner of the DCJF’s opening ceremony. I stand by my judgments on his chops and sound; I regret my promising good things for that set in particular, though, which was cacophonous and… frankly kind of awful. He is forgiven, though, because Yonnet is responsible for connecting the DCJF with Dave Chapelle for his late-night pop up performance at City Winery.
A few other minor complaints come to mind, too. At least one night (Monday, the 11th) was pretty thin. Either of its main offerings, Tia Fuller at City Winery or Tom Teasley at UDC, was a good choice, but the lack of any other choices was still a bit of a bummer. The late, unexplained disappearance of an AACM tribute to Muhal Richard Abrams from the festival schedule rankled. And—not for the first time—there were some significant sound problems at the District Pier stage. Ben Williams, in particular, and his band found a valiant battle against rumbling feedback. Perhaps this is just an occupational hazard of outdoor concerts, but that doesn’t make it less irritating.
The scenes at the Wharf, though, will for a long time be etched in my memory of DC Jazz Festivals past and present—the music, the vistas, the variety, the hordes of people who clearly loved it. One hopes it’s a prophecy of DCJF future. If one wanted to declare one singular “best year” for the fest, this one was a good place to start.