The Jazzprix competition, which will have its inauguration this year, is a major innovation from the DC Jazz Festival. Where most jazz competitions focus on either individual players or educational ensembles, the Jazzprix is a recognition for working bands, specific combinations of people and visions that aren’t enforced by a curriculum. It has the potential to become very important in jazz circles. 

This winter, before finalists (who compete on June 18 at Yards Park) were announced, Arts Desk spoke with DCJF executive director Sunny Sumter and Jazzprix project manager Sara Donnelly about the origins and goals of the competition, and how exactly it will work. 

Washington City Paper: So tell me about the genesis of the Jazzprix. 

Sara Donnelly: I was brought on as a project manager to create a competition. Sunny said, “My board is looking around at other festivals, and we see an opportunity to be a festival that promotes a competition, and we’re not quite sure what we want the competition to be about at this moment, but we want to reach out and engage audiences, and support artists, in a different way. 

Sunny Sumter: But we were clear that we didn’t want it to be an individual competition. We wanted it to be about ensemble, about band, because we’ve learned over time—especially in this city—there’s so many amazing musicians that develop a sound together. And it is through that ensemble that they create such exceptional work. And we thought, why don’t we focus on that? That way, when we have musicians that are in our education programs, like Jazz at Sitar, that are starting to think about “oh let’s make these sounds together,” they actually have something to work toward. 

I think the starting age is 18? 

SD: Yeah, it is 18 to 40. And it also was about how can we come up with a competition that is different from the abundance of competitions that are out there? And so what I saw was, there’s this real tendency for education departments to create youth bands, high school youth bands, that will go travel and compete in a band competition. 

WCP: Yeah, I was thinking about the Mid Atlantic Jazz Festival, and their school big band competition. 

SD: Yeah, and there are so many of those. If you look at what is in Savannah, with Marcus Robert, what’s at Monterey… 

SS: At Jazz at Lincoln Center, with Essentially Ellington. 

SD: They’re all geared toward a vocabulary around youth bands, combos, vocal ensembles. Maybe this could be a vehicle to attract not just the bands that are connected to institutions, but to really get behind bands that need support because they’re standalone.  

And there needs to be a situation for bands to thrive! In jazz, the personnel frequently shifts around; individuals are always trying to go to the next best scenario; they’re playing in so many different operations, or touring, or what-have-you, that it’s hard to sustain that one unit with the same personnel. And that’s how the music gets richer, and how new music gets written, because these collections of people are doing it together. 

WCP: So why that age range, 18 to 40? 

SD: We hope that doesn’t seem arbitrary. We didn’t want to say “young people,” per se, because that sounds again like those youth ensembles. So we just set that parameter.  

At any rate, the other piece of this is the professional development component, and recognition of the fact that a winning band is going to be aligned with the festival for a year. We’re gonna create an association with that band for the year, and that’s where Willard comes in a lot, with his contacts and abilities to give the band a lot of visibility for a year.  

WCP: Can we talk a little more about that? “Professional development” is a nebulous phrase, like “marketing support,” another thing the festival attaches to the award. 

SS: I know that as an artist myself, one of the things that I remember about working with jazz musicians is the idea of financial literacy. Making sure that they’re savvy about their careers: that they understand the marketing space, and how they can play well at it. These are things that we’d like to play a hand in. 

SD: It’s gonna be created based on the band’s needs; that’s why we didn’t get too specific about it, because we don’t know yet what we’ll be providing until we know what we get to work with.  

SS: In some cases, it may be a photo shoot; it could eventually be around distribution. We’re looking at partnerships with a record label. And there’ll be performing opportunities as well. It’s a residency program, essentially. They’ll probably be doing some clinician work at Jazz at Sitar, for example.  

WCP: So if Band X wins this year, are they then guaranteed a gig in the festival next year? 

SD: Yeah, there’ll be a major engagement at the festival, on the main stage, and they’ll be paid scale.  

SS: This makes me think of [DCJF artistic director] Willard Jenkins, who gets around 60 submissions a day from around the world—people saying, “I want to be in your festival.” And some of them are not ready yet—hence comes the career development. So one of the things that Willard said was, make sure that we build a database. And a lot of the people that actually sent submissions to Willard will now get an invitation to apply to the Jazzprix. 

WCP: And this is a nationwide competition? 

SD: Absolutely. Initially there was a lot of thought to make it global, too; there’s a lot of desire, because of what D.C. is and because of our partnerships with all the embassies, to look at ways to consider international work, but we thought let’s just start with a national competition and see what happens. 

WCP: And I know you set the cap at 40, but even so you’re going to get a lot of mid-career musicians in that bracket, to a degree. 

SS: Jazz ensembles, the more that they work together, the more exceptional they become. We wanted to  make sure, when spreading the word, that it’s clear that we’re talking about exceptional ensembles. And a lot of times, those are in the thirties, because it’s taken a lot of seasoning to get to exceptional. 

SD: We’ve gotten a lot of “already”-type questions—what if you’ve already got a recording contract, what if you’ve already played a jazz festival. So I’m working on an FAQ for those types of questions. It’s open to interpretation, though; the reality is that when you’re a major, established jazz person, you don’t have the desire for the competition. Your ego is at a place where you’ve already progressed beyond the competition stage. So we don’t anticipate—and we don’t want—people who are already well known, per se. But if you have had festival dates, and you have recorded—though not with a major label, whatever the major labels are at this time—the fact that you’ve recorded and played dates is fine. Yeah. We want to know where you are in the professional realm. It’s about artistic quality, and does this experience really have impact for this band. Is this a good fit?

WCP: What does the jury for this look like? 

SD: It’s totally confidential at this time. But if you look at Portland’s Jazz Festival, PDX, they started a competition about two or three years ago, and whoever they’re booking that year, some subset of who they’re booking is going to adjudicate the competition. So they use the name recognition of those artists as bait.  

Eventually we might decide to publicize that kind of information. We may also decide to defer to the jazz legacy that is here, and pull in people in D.C. that really have great knowledge and awareness. But we haven’t decided yet how to promote that. 

SS: Willard has put a list of people together who are well qualified to serve as a juror. We will not reveal those names. 

WCP: Ever? 

SS: Ever. I mean, never say never, but…never! (Laughs) 

WCP: So they won’t be sitting in a box by themselves at the competition? 

SS: They’ll be in the crowd like everybody else. 

SD: We want it to be anonymous, but they will certainly be exceptionally aware. This is the first year of the competition, and if we wanted to have huge names associated with it, we’d have to pay those names! But we’ll see what happens.