DC Jazz Festival: Interview with Sunny Sumter, President & CEO

DC Jazz Festival is a year-round concert presenter and educational organization which, alongside the labor day weekend jazz festival is involved with more than 150 shows annually.

We caught up with president and CEO Sunny Sumter to get a deeper insight into the workings of the organisation and its team, as well as the DC scene in general.

We also touched on a couple of broader points in arts promotion, including these two which particularly resonated with me…

  • On balancing musicianship with audience development: Look at how Robert Glasper, Emmet Cohen, Cindy Blackman Santana, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride, Samara Joy, Benny Green, Orrin Evans, and John McLaughlin do it. They engage the audience on and off the bandstand. 
  • The importance of festivals in the community: Our festival programming encourages visitors to venture beyond the National Mall and into DC’s vibrant communities, often helping to activate emerging neighborhoods.

Read on for the full interview, and thanks again to Sunny for taking the time to answer.

How would you describe today’s DC jazz scene to someone who isn’t too familiar with it? 

DC is fortunate to have a wealth of jazz talents across many styles living right here in the metro area, which we refer to as the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia). 

With 19 colleges and universities, many with jazz departments in the region, DC is a hip scene for jazz all across the city and in neighboring suburbs. 

DC boasts several world-class jazz clubs, including Blues Alley, Mr. Henry’s, Takoma Station, and Keystone Korner a short drive away in Baltimore.

Although the city has lost community jazz staples such as Twins Jazz, Alice’s Cultural Center, CafĂ© Nema, and the historic Bohemian Caverns, a significant number of presenters and concert venues feature jazz on various stages, including the Kennedy Center, the Music Center at Strathmore, the Library of Congress, numerous Smithsonian museums, and neighborhood venues like Union Stage, Westminster Church, Rhizome and Eaton DC. 

DC Jazz Festival brings together many of these presenters under one umbrella for the annual DC JazzFest.

As we think about the jazz scene and connecting artists with audiences, we consider DC to be one of the world’s central jazz hubs.

As someone with a degree in music business, how does an artist’s overall trajectory and strategy influence your decision to book them at the festival?

First, I am a jazz artist and I understand the commitment artists make when they choose jazz as their genre of expression. That personal choice is not without deep consideration of the impact that labels have on music creation.

Jazz artists need places to play and the DC Jazz Festival provides inclusive performance opportunities for artists representing all spectrums of the genre.

The business of music is an interesting world filled with decision-making opportunities for artists, presenters and audiences. I lean on Willard Jenkins, our artistic director, when it comes to selecting the major talent for our festival.

We factor in diversity and musical balance and ensure that at the end of the day we can pay our bills so the festival is sustainable. 

What influence do you feel the DC Jazz Festival has had on the cultural landscape of the nation’s capital since its inception? 

Since its inception in 2004, the DC Jazz Festival organization has made a significant impact in promoting DC as a major jazz hub.

Nearly 20% of DC JazzFest attendees are out-of-town visitors, and their expenditures on hotels, restaurants, retail, entertainment, and local transportation have a direct economic impact.

Our festival programming encourages visitors to venture beyond the National Mall and into DC’s vibrant communities, often helping to activate emerging neighborhoods.

Beyond our five-day festival, we are a year-round presenter and educational organization that employs more than 150 DC-based artists as performers and teaching artists. 

You have a background in education; what are the most important things for the modern jazz musician to learn?  

Creatives period, whether you decide on jazz as a form or expression, or another genre, I think it is important to find your own voice, where you decide to study at university, a conservatory or on the streets of life, be you.

At the end of the day, that will be your guiding light.

The DC Jazz Festival received the DC Mayor’s Art Award for Excellence in Creative Industries. Did that have an impact on the festival from an audience point of view? 

Receiving this award had the most impact on Board and staff morale, as it recognized the organization’s contributions to DC’s creative economy.

Through our longstanding partnerships with dozens of arts centers, clubs, embassies, hotels, libraries, museums, parks, places of worship and restaurants, the DC Jazz Festival presents jazz in 20 neighborhoods across DC.

This enables us to bring jazz into residents’ own communities, including under-resourced areas where jazz opportunities are otherwise scarce or non-existent.

From an audience standpoint, I hope the award underscored our dedication to DC. 100% of the DC Jazz Festival’s activities take place in DC, and we are committed to employing and showcasing DC’s resident jazz artists.

How does the festival go about building an audience; any particular strategies which are working well to raise awareness?

DC JazzFest presents jazz music with high artistic merit across stylistic boundaries and across generations (from the emerging to the masters).

Occasionally, we include jazz-informed artists who have achieved a certain critical mass and who stylistically prove to be a good artistic fit for our festival.

Such artists brings casual fans to this music called jazz to experience and discover jazz artists for first time. To witness that connect can be magical.

What do you wish every musician knew about promoting live music in 2023? 

Promotion is a multi-prong approach, social media, community engagement, connections between artists and audience is multi-dimensional.

Look at how Robert Glasper, Emmet Cohen, Cindy Blackman Santana, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride, Samara Joy, Benny Green, Orrin Evans, and John McLaughlin do it. They engage the audience on and off the bandstand.  

It’s a lovely exchange and it happens all across the artistic industry, not just music.  By letting audiences in, within reason, there is a sense of connection that make the live experience that more transformative.  

I’ve seen it time and time again—that kind of promotion is priceless.

From an artistic point of view, where are your go-to places for discovering new music?

DC has such a rich jazz scene. For me, the live experience wins over virtual every single time. I enjoy CD listening parties that take place around the city, from the local clubs to the performing arts center.

As my children grow into adulthood, I can spend more time traveling to festivals around the world to discover new talent. Cima Funk blew me away at Newport Jazz Festival. Westminster Church is one venue I look forward to going to more now I have more free time since the kids can drive themselves to activities.

NEA Jazz Master Todd Barkan is presenting great talent at Keystone Korner in Baltimore. I am open to travel around the globe to hear get inspired by the music.

Heading to Monterey soon to see my friend Tim Jackson to see what he is cooking up for his final entrée. And, of course, I listen to WPFW to hear my friends introduce new music.

Can you outline the booking process of the festival across each 12-month period? 

As a year-round jazz presenter, DC Jazz Festival constantly sifts through the scene and develops presenting options and work to get the major talent lined up well in advance.

In planning our annual festival, which takes place over Labor Day weekend, we strive to have a good sense of our festival menu at least 12 months in advance. Artistic Director Willard Jenkins (NEA Jazz Master Willard Jenkins), sends his wish list early.

Our community curators like Bobby Hill, Michael Phillips, Kristina Noell, and our Embassy partners are already thinking about next year and beyond.  

What’s next for the educational programmes you’re involved with in DC? 

Last year, the DC Jazz Festival organization moved its headquarters to the Mead Center at Arena Stage. This provides us with unprecedented access to Arena Stage’s performance spaces. We are building out our programming, which recently expanded to include jazz performance field trips with an educational component for hundreds of DC public school students.

In addition, we are launching a financial literacy educational series for DC-based jazz musicians. 

What are you most excited about at DCJF 2023? 

Thinking about our annual festival, I’m very excited about the many National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters performing at this year’s DC JazzFest; the introduction of the JazzDC All-Stars; the great DC-based artists performing on all five days of the festival; our “Generations” concert featuring a multi-generational lineup of incredible musicians; and seeing my family and friends from all over the globe making memories at the 19th edition of DC JazzFest.

Institutionally, DCJF just launched a five-year strategy to build a jazz pipeline beyond anything we could have imagined.

The team here at DCJF is committed to that strategy and each individual from staff, to board, to advisory council, to consultants, to stakeholders, bring a unique skill set that support that will advance the work we do in extra-ordinary ways.  

And the artists in DC, wow, the artists excite me, they are making things happen—it is a pleasure to call DC home and to be part of such a dynamic group of regional artists who are musician, educators, presenters, community leaders, and change-makers.   

All in all, I am inspired by the jazz community in DC—that excites me!

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