Q&A with DC Jazz Festival Artistic Director Willard Jenkins about the 2021 DC JazzFest returning to Washington, D.C., over the Labor Day weekend (Sept. 1-5), including the signature event, DC JazzFest, at The Wharf on Sept. 4-5:
1) After presenting a virtual festival in 2020, what was the artistic thinking behind this year’s event with the shift to a September presentation?
When our 2021 festival was shifted to September in an effort at getting behind the pandemic, artistically we recognized that we wanted to come back with an artistic program that reflected not only jazz mastery, but the next gen as well with emerging artists.  We’ve sought to present a broad range of artistry reflective of the rich heritage of jazz and the fact that jazz music is not confined to one style.  Our sense of jazz music is that, as opposed to one style, this great music firsts and foremost born from the African experience in the Americas, cannot and must not be pigeonholed in one style or way of playing. Instead we view jazz as a range of stylistic perspectives, all of which reside under this aesthetic umbrella we call JAZZ.  So not only are we presenting piano soloists, we are also presenting jazz from orchestral perspectives.  And the two jazz orchestras we’re presenting strongly represent that range – from the original compositions and arrangement style of NEA Jazz Master Maria Schneider’s Grammy-winning Orchestra, to the Afro-Caribbean perspectives of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.
2) DC JazzFest prides itself on being a citywide festival. Obviously, health concerns have restricted that aspect in 2021, but talk about some of the September 1-4 activities preceding the big closing weekend at The Wharf.
In addition to our major, culminating festival weekend at The Wharf, from September 1-4 we’re presenting programming at sites around the community, reflecting our deep investment in DC and our community partnerships.  We’re presenting programs in partnership with the Howard University College of Fine Arts, Westminster Presbyterian Church, THE HAMILTON LIVE, The Kreeger Museum, Mr. Henry’s, and The Phillips Collection.  So in the true DCJF tradition, as always we will be on campus, in church, and at museums, restaurants, and clubs across DC; as well as at embassies including our opening ceremony featuring Joshua Redman at the House of Sweden.  Complete schedule information can be accessed at www.dcjazzfest.org.
3) What are some of the artistic highlights of the festival’s big weekend at The Wharf on Labor Day Weekend?
From my perspective, it’s all a “highlight”!  But if I were to urge folks as to what not to miss, I’d say pianist-composer Orrin Evans’ Brazil-inspired project Terreno Comum; the Maria Schneider Orchestra; the Pedrito Martinez Group; saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin’s Pursuance; guitar master John Scofield; The Tribute to Dr. Bully Taylor’s Centennial, and DC’s own CarrKeys, with two of our DC saxophone masters, Paul Carr and Marshall Keys.

4) The hallmark of any great festival are those one-time presentations that won’t happen at any other festival.  What would you say are those programs this year?
Our Saturday, September 4th day at The Wharf will include a very special gathering of strings, A Grand Night for Strings, that will honor the often overlooked jazz string tradition, with the great MacArthur “genius” award recipient and multiple poll winner Regina Carter, Jenny Scheinman, and The String Queens plus bassist Michael Bowie’s trio.  We will honor the great Dr. Billy Taylor, who grew up largely in DC, in his centennial year with pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Allyn Johnson, plus the superb Howard University vocal ensemble Afro Blue.  CEO Sunny Sumter sits down with Kim Taylor-Thompson to discuss her dad, Dr. Taylor and some of the wayshe has impacted civil rights. And we’ll close on Sunday, Sept. 5th with a sizzling jazz/dance set from the renowned deejay D-Nice.

5) Talk about some of the newer, emerging artists you’re looking forward to “introducing” to the DC JazzFest audience?
From an emerging artist perspective, don’t dare sleep on Lakecia Benjamin, vocalist Lauren Talese, and saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins.  DCJF’s annual DCJazzPrix emerging bands competition Finals will be Sunday, Sept. 5th at Union Stage featuring three bands with a real international flavor, from Cuba, the Bahamas, and the UK!  We’ll also be presenting the winners of the last two DCJazzPrix competitions (we were obviously not able to present our 2019 winner): the (pianist) Ernest Turner Trio (from North Carolina), and DC’s own saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed Quartet.

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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