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Readers of this space, and to a large extent followers of D.C. jazz in general, need no introduction to CapitalBop. The website launched last summmer as an online portal to the city’s jazz scene; in the winter it expanded its reach to producing its own shows, and quickly became an indispensable part of the scene it wanted to tell people about. So impressive was the accomplishment that within six months of its launch, CB had been asked to partner with the DC Jazz Festival in its 2011 iteration. Ahead of its weekend of concerts for the festival (tonight featuring bands led by two phenomenal young tenor saxophonists, DC’s Elijah Balbed and New York’s JD Allen), CapitalBop’s head honchos, Giovanni Russonello and Luke Stewart, spoke to Washington City Paper about how the partnership got started, what they wanted to do with it, and where they’ll go from here.
Washington City Paper: You guys had been doing these jazz lofts for several months before the festival started; how did you integrate it into the festival?
Giovanni Russonello: It started with a meeting I had with Sunny Sumter, the executive director, and Anu Thapa, who works at the festival as well. Basically I got an e-mail from them that said “We’d like to meet with you, because CapitalBop is really cool and we appreciate what you’re doing.” And I appreciated that, so we set up a meeting—just a lunch, at Kramerbook, about three months ago. We just sort of rapped back and forth; they were interested in buying ad space, which they did, and then we got onto the topic of, “I just want to mention that we’ve been doing shows ourselves.”
I said, “We’ve been doing these jazz lofts and they’ve drawn a really diverse crowd, a young-skewing crowd.” Their eyes sort of widened up and they said, “Oh, look at that; that’s the one thing we haven’t figured out how the hell to do, get younger people in the door.” So we said, “Let’s do a jazz loft.” And we just took it from there, and Luke and I started planning it: I came back to him later that day, and he was like “Holy crap, we gotta start working on it because that’s a great idea.”
WCP: So was it you, then, Luke, who decided to take it in a more avant-garde direction?
Luke Stewart: In a way. I don’t like to portray it as trying to bring in, quote-unquote, “avant-garde.” But I do want to nurture a different take on jazz that the District of Columbia hasn’t nurtured as much in the past, especially since the closing of d.c. space, where a lot of those acts would come in. In the jazz scene here, one particular facet of the scene is very heavily represented, almost to the point where it’s the go-to thing for jazz. And it also represents a whole national debate, the whole “what is jazz.”
I just feel like it’s important to really emphasize the other facets of jazz, which I like to call “forward-thinking,” or “progressive.” There are people who are doing these cutting-edge things with music, and they’re attracting younger listeners with that approach—it’s not your grandmother’s jazz. They’re taking new approaches and they’re making them palatable to not only younger listeners, and from my angle that’s where the future’s gonna be.
GR: And to that point about the false dichotomy that’s framed by the debate—there’s gotta be either avant-garde, or straightahead. That creates more problems than it needs to, in and of itself. So Luke is right, obviously; we both agree that there’s only hard bop in DC. That’s an exaggeration, certainly, but when you think of DC jazz you think of that hard, four-to-the-bar swing.
LS: You think of those straightahead jam sessions at HR-57.
GR: But like I said, that dichotomy doesn’t need to exist. And if you look at the programming for our series, it’s not all stuff that would be written about in Down Beat as “avant-garde.” Tomas Fujiwara is in his own way on the vanguard, but he’s very tied to the tradition in certain ways, and he escapes from it in very different ways than, for instance, the Tri-O Trio, or separately, the Darius Jones Trio. So what we do is, we really just decided to do stuff that’s new, stuff that’s different, and stuff that’s original. And it wasn’t like it needs to fit within this really cool category that would make people say “Oh, they’re a free jazz festival,” or “They’re a composition-oriented avant-garde festival.” No, they’re just doing stuff that otherwise you might not see at the festival, but that’s new.
WCP: And has it brought in the younger crowd the festival was hoping for?
LS: Well, just due to the fact that our other shows have been donation-based admission, and it’s a smaller space in a place that’s traditionally been for DIY indie-rock shows, there’s already a built-in younger audience. But this time, we started charging ticketed admission, and that shut out a little bit of that crowd.
GR: But if you looked at the audience at the Fridge [the venue for the festival’s first loft show], if you’d turned off the audio and just looked from the stage outward, you would not have said “I’m at a jazz show.” It was significantly a young crowd, and a diverse one, if not as diverse as we would have liked.
WCP: Has the festival been satisfied with the audience you’ve brought in?
LS: I think so. I think they’ve been surprised.
WCP: Do you anticipate this being a onetime thing for the festival, or do you expect to be partnered with them year in, year out?
GR: Who knows? Maybe we’ll do a big announcement article sometime soon about something big that might be brewing. Or maybe we won’t—we’ll see. We’re trying to figure out whether we want to take a bold step or not, and if we do we’re not really sure what that would be. There are some thoughts obviously. Whenever you experience a lot of success and you see a lot of people enjoying themselves, you want to keep it going, you know?