Last year, I made this point in summing up the 2015 DC Jazz Festival: “The arrival of Willard Jenkins as the festival’s artistic director has been a much-needed injection of new blood, new perspective, new ideas.”&
At that time, Jenkins had been involved in about 75 percent of the festival’s program. This year, he’s responsible for all of it. And he’s got ideas, brother.
I was an advocate (and yes, critic when necessary) of the DC Jazz Festival going all the way back to its beginning; I started covering it in its third year. Most of the time it was pretty damn good, sometimes very good. But there was an element of boldness that was missing from it. To book Steve Coleman, the towering figure of experimental/avant-garde jazz in his generation, would have been inconceivable in those years. (He might have been part of CapitalBop’s showcase, admittedly—but he wasn’t.) This year, Coleman isn’t just part of the festival. He’s one of its headliners, with a standalone performance at one of the most prominent stages, the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.
And that comes right in the middle of things. The opening attraction is the young bassist Ben Williams, no stranger to these shores seeing that he was born and raised in D.C., but he is also an important embodiment of the spirit of young innovation in jazz. The closer? Even more so. That would be L.A.’s Kamasi Washington, who has taken jazz and the larger music world by storm with talent that’s matched by ambition. In between all of these are forward thinkers like The Revive Big Band, The Matthew Shipp Trio, E.J. Strickland’s Transient Beings, and Cecile McLorin Salvant. Then you have the aforementioned CapitalBop, D.C.’s sentry guards at the cutting edge of jazz, who are presenting new work by Michelle Rosewoman and New Yor-Uba, Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band, and a twofer of Chicago innovators, trumpeter Marquis Hill and drummer Makaya McCraven.
What we’re talking about here is an incarnation of the DC Jazz Festival that’s got a serious eye on the music’s future, and what its advance men in the present might be able to tell us about that future. But at the same time, it’s not taking its other eye off DCJF’s longtime concerns with an international perspective on jazz, or with celebrating the tradition. On the former front, there are concerts sponsored by the Italian and Japanese embassies, the Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles (a DCJF regular) as well as the usual company of Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, and African jazz. As far as the tradition goes, there’s the great hard bop pianist Harold Mabern, trombonist Steve Turre, soul-jazz saxophonist Maceo Parker, and an exploration of the music of organist Jimmy Smith courtesy of the nation’s resident repertory ensemble, The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.
Speaking of The SJMO, it should never be forgotten that the festival has a mission to support and promote Washington’s jazz—some of the best in the world. And once again it delivers on that front, with the usual rotation of club and bar dates that will hopefully have an increased profile thanks to the festival’s presence. But there’s also a performance by the great local all-star Washington Renaissance Orchestra, outdoor gigs for Akua Allrich, Fred Foss, and the capper—a Monday night tribute to the Howard University Jazz Studies program at the Kennedy Center.
But it’s those cutting-edge acts that are the new and exciting element here. And it’s only fair to include the new JazzPrix, the festival’s competition for new bands, in that category. What, after all, is more cutting edge than a new jazz band that’s found its sound with a combination of new individual talents?
Those are some damn good reasons to be excited by this festival, even more so than usual. I certainly am.
The DC Jazz Festival runs from June 10-19 at venues across the District. More info here.