Washington Women in Jazz Festival founder
Washington Women in Jazz Festival founder Amy K. Bormet at Mr. Henry’s; Credit: Lawrence A. Randall

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The Washington Women in Jazz Festival, now in its 13th year, is one of D.C.’s most influential, ambitious, and consistently interesting jazz events—and you, reader, are not giving it the attention it deserves. It’s almost too on-the-nose to even say this about a festival created to spotlight the perpetually overlooked contributions of women in a male-dominated genre of music. 

To wit: The opening performance of this year’s WWJF, at Blues Alley on March 6, featured a superlative trio led by festival founder and chief-everything-officer Amy K. Bormet on piano. She had written a whole program of almost entirely new music, melodic but groove-centric so that bassist Karine Chapdelaine and drummer Angel Bethea had lots of flexing room. Bormet also sang, in a high, atmospheric, and remarkably haunting voice. Yet they had to cancel the second set due to low ticket sales.

Well, no more of this boat-missing, folks. There’s too much excitement afoot with the WWJF, particularly with this year’s edition. In addition to Bormet’s trio, the 2023 festival also offered the premiere of an 18-piece big band co-led by Bormet and saxophonist Leigh Pilzer called Celestial Spang-A-Lang! and Biomorphic Forms, the reincarnation of onetime quartet featuring flutist Alex Hamburger. The festival is also using the monthlong event as an opportunity to launch its in-house magazine, The Turnaround, offering scholarship, commentary, and criticism by and about women in jazz.

And the noteworthy performances continue with Seven Pointed Star, the second-ever performance by Pilzer’s septet including Bormet, bassist Amy Shook, and New York superdrummer Sherrie Maricle playing Monday, March 20, at Blues Alley, and the Emerging Artist Showcase for young women and nonbinary musicians happening March 24 at Mr. Henry’s

“It’s a big epic thing,” Bormet says jocularly of the festival. “The reach of the festival has expanded—it just gets more and more absurd.”

The festival runs through the entire month of March, as it has done in some past years since its founding in 2011—notably in both 2018 and 2019. Of course, like everything else in the world, the past few years of WWJF were truncated and a bit ad hoc. “In 2020 we had a really small virtual thing—three shows—that I did with the Kennedy Center,” Bormet recalls. “And then in 2021 I did it online: a virtual emerging artists show and a bunch of other virtual events and concerts.” Last year Bormet returned to in-person events with a week of concerts.

Despite its condensed run, 2022’s week of shows was a massive undertaking: At the same time, Bormet was acting as music director of the Kennedy Center’s Helen Hayes-nominated stage production Beastgirl. “This March was cake compared to last March,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Oh, wow! I don’t have to be at rehearsal from 10 to 6 every day? I can actually practice and get organized and stuff?’”

Bormet makes it sound as if she doesn’t like massive undertakings. (As if anyone who founded and runs a jazz festival could be challenge-averse.) Truthfully, she thrives on them. 

“I’m very enthusiastic, and there’s so many people I love collaborating with—it’s all my favorite people,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Leigh Pilzer! Let’s have a big band!’ And she’s like, ‘That sounds like a lot of work.’ And I’m like, ‘It’s gonna be great, you’re gonna love it.’ And she does.”

The big band’s debut is one of two centerpieces for the WWJF this year. Its 18 musicians are mostly local, although it also included players from New York, Tennessee, and elsewhere. All of the charts are original arrangements by members of the band. 

The other centerpiece is Friday’s Emerging Artist Showcase, which has been an increasingly important component for the festival each year. In its earliest days, WWJF faced off its young artists in a competition, but Bormet quickly realized she wanted community, not competition. 

Be careful what you wish for: She originally hoped to put together a lineup of 10 young women and nonbinary artists who are already making waves in the music scene for the showcase at Mr. Henry’s. As of last count (on March 20) she now has 22 performers—jazz students from mid-Atlantic colleges. It’s an ambitious project all its own—and one that could have major resonance on the D.C. scene. As the website states, “say you saw them when they were still in school!”

It’s no coincidence that both these crown jewels are the ones featuring the most musicians, making them not just the festival’s largest events but the most expensive. When Bormet boasts about them, she explicitly mentions how proud she is to be able to finance the two performances. She did so by way of a 90-day fundraiser. “I normally do a year-end campaign, but this year was so, so busy,” she explains. “I didn’t have the head space to do just a year-end fundraiser, plus it’s super competitive because everyone’s doing year-end fundraisers. So I tied the fundraiser into the promotion for the festival, which is really tricky—but also kind of part and parcel because it’s like, ‘I’m doing this, isn’t it cool?’” 

She met her goals, in no small part, because of the jazz community itself, which also produced volunteers to help her organize this year’s event. “I just jump off a cliff,” she says, “and the community continues to catch me in a big, fluffy pillow thing like they have in the movies.”

Which leaves the rest of us to show up to and support these stunning accomplishments. Jazz-loving reader, do your part.

The Washington Women in Jazz Festival runs through March 27 throughout the city. washingtonwomeninjazz.com. Price varies per event.