DCist reported before this year’s Duke Fest began that it had lost $200,000 in corporate sponsorships. Charlie Fishman also reminded me that with moving the festival from fall to early summer, the staff had only seven months to pull the whole thing together, including fundraising and booking. That meant that the festival lost some of its trademark features, including its big events at the Lincoln Theatre, National Museum of Women in the Arts, and Voice of America.
It also meant a very heavy reliance, particularly in the first half of the fest, on local jazz musicians—-about which I heard a few grumbles, to the tune of “So much of it is gigs that happen every week anyway! Shouldn’t a festival be about special events?”
The local focus should get a pass. The budget difficulties were pretty big for the festival this year; besides, D.C.’s jazz musicians need all the extra publicity they can get. If there was a problem with the festival, it was the 11-day duration—-too long. The cushioning of the schedule with local musicians might not have been necessary if there wasn’t so much space to fill. An event of such length needs to justify that length with its programming. The forthcoming Montreal Jazz Festival is 13 days long and that’s the largest in the world, with at least two major artists performing every day; Umbria Jazz, the most important jazz festival in Europe, is 10 days and again has a major artist playing on each.
By contrast, two days of this year’s Ellington Festival had only one event, period —- the free concerts at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, which are already available 365 days a year.
There are ways to do something special with local musicians so they’re in a festival’s context. The performances this year at the Phillips Collection were well programmed and clever (though there’s no reason that Phillips couldn’t do this themselves at any time of year), and trumpeter Thad Wilson and a group of his colleagues made an exemplary contribution to the New Orleans theme, playing a Louis Armstrong tribute at Bohemian Caverns last weekend. But those could be scheduled in a smallter time window, too.
Don’t get me wrong—almost every performance I saw was fantastic, as I communicated here. I love the local D.C. scene and the national and international jazz scenes. I had fun. And I did enjoy the expansion of “Jazz at the National Mall” to two full days of performance. It was just tough, as a spectator, to sustain.
It’s entirely possible that future festivals, with restored financial security, will justify that 11-day span that will now be permanent on the District’s calendar. So consider that an official “wait and see.” Meantime, I’m exhausted.