AMP Trio featuring Tahira Clayton.
AMP Trio featuring Tahira Clayton. Credit: Fritz Photographics

Cleaning out some old papers this weekend, I came across the programming brochure from 2016’s DC Jazz Festival. A comparison to this year’s lineup allows me to confirm my pre-festival suspicion that 2017 is a leaner year. But it also requires some clarification: I had previously suggested that the disappearance of The Hamilton as a venue from the schedule may have made a substantial part of the difference. In fact, the Hamilton’s absence made the entire difference.

All of the other programming tracks amount to more or less the same number of performances this year as last. But in 2016, The Hamilton offered eight nights of concerts. The Howard Theatre, which this year partnered with DCJF instead, offered three—two of them on the festival’s first two nights.

It seems odd to suggest that quantity should trump quality. The Howard’s triple threat—Lalah Hathaway, Ron Carter and Roy Haynes, and Edmar Castaneda and Hiromi—was damn near unimpeachable, whereas previous years’ Hamilton marathons were often spotty. But believe it or not, that’s rather beside the point. Those eight or so nights of headline jazz constituted a spine for the DC Jazz Festival, a reliable through-line at a great room with superb sound (and good food and drink). Each of the shows would either sell out or come close. In every one of those respects, The Howard Theatre falls short.  

(The bookings also had regrettable timing: The Washington Post published a damning exposé of The Howard on the same day as Castaneda and Hiromi’s performance, reinforcing already extant reasons to doubt that the venerable venue and D.C. icon will last long enough to participate in next year’s festival.) 

So let this critic be the first to suggest that, from a concert goer’s perspective, The Hamilton and the DC Jazz Festival were the best things that ever happened to each other. Perhaps there are other spaces in the District that could step up as home bases for the DCJF—Atlas Performing Arts Center? The Lincoln Theatre? Lisner Auditorium, which hosted concerts one year, or another local university’s auditorium? And it’s always possible that The Howard Theatre could right the ship; The Lincoln managed to pull it off. If they terminate their relationship with the Blue Note Entertainment Group, as hoped, they’d be very smart to talk to former Bohemian Caverns owner Omrao Brown about booking the place. (Likewise, Blues Alley owner Harry Schnipper was an early and enthusiastic bidder for The Howard’s operation.) But in the meantime, The Hamilton/DCJF partnership is worth salvaging, if indeed it can be done. It will make things better on both sides. 

There was, of course, a lot more to the DCJF, and a lot of it went very right. The other top-line acts on the agenda included Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett and her Afro-Cuban band Maqueque at Sixth & I, and legendary guitarist Pat Metheny and his quartet at the Kennedy Center’s concert hall. The former was spectacular on every level, from the opener (D.C. vocalist Aaron Myers, doing his best work) to Maqueque’s exquisite mix of folk-music rawness and art-music polish to the electric audience chemistry. 

Metheny put on a massive nearly three-hour show, running through his four-decade discography with a tight and energetic young band. It was a bit too much fan service for these ears, but you won’t hear a lot of complaints from Pat Metheny ticket buyers. 

The festival’s real signature piece, though, is its three-day outdoor presentation at The Yards Park, where audiences face the Anacostia riverfront. This year pulled out all the stops, with a maze of food trucks and caterers, other fun sponsors, and lines of merchandising vendors along its boardwalk—on its own, Jazz at the Yards was on a scale of some smaller festivals, like our own Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival, in their entirety. The music matched the surroundings, with alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett and Robert Glasper both absolutely crushing on Saturday evening. 

The one flaw in the proceedings was one that the festival couldn’t control: miserable heat and humidity all throughout the weekend. But the crowd never seemed to succumb to the scorching sun and wilting dampness; Sunny Sumter, Willard Jenkins, and their crew are doing something right. 

As are their partner presenters: The single best concert of the festival was at the Atlas on June 12, where composer/arranger/bandleader Miho Hazama led the Brad Linde Ensemble through a new commission of Thelonious Monk arrangements for his centennial year. These were charts that had great respect for the boisterous melodies and rhythms of Monk’s compositions, but also a fascinating set of moving parts (especially the low end: What Hazama did with bass trombone, baritone saxophone, and bass clarinet—the latter two both played by Linde—was riveting) that made them great fun to listen to. 

A close second, however, was CapitalBop’s dual presentation (at NYU’s downtown D.C. campus) of local trombonist Reginald Cyntje, giving a somber-meets-entertaining performance his new suite of compositions called The Rise of the Protester, and the pure exhilaration of Odean Pope’s seven-horn saxophone choir.   

Then there’s the JazzPrix, the DCJF’s two-year-old Battle of the Bands that’s poised to become one of the great prides of the festival. Its inaugural winners, New Century Jazz Quintet (who this year played both The Yards and the open time during the JazzPrix jury’s deliberations), were easy to spot during last year’s finals; at this year’s, held at UDC’s Performing Arts Recital Hall, any one of the three bands would have made a fine winner of the $15,000 cash prize. New York’s AMP Trio, featuring vocalist Tahira Clayton were the final choice, besting SULA and The Ernest Turner Trio when factoring in both the jury’s and the audience’s Twitter vote (you can read my long-winded, torturous deliberation here). This is an aspect of the festival that will only grow in importance and prominence.