“The Scene Queen”: Amy K. Bormet Talks the Washington Women in Jazz Festival
Saturday night is the opening of the Washington Women in Jazz Festival, now in its fourth year. It's especially welcome this time around, as it sees the return (however brief) of pianist Amy K. Bormet. Bormet founded the WWJF in 2011, and it quickly became a well-attended and well-loved part of the D.C. jazz scene, which made it doubly heartbreaking when Bormet left the District last fall for Los Angeles (where her husband, guitarist Matt Dievendorf, is in a graduate music program). Upon arriving back here, Bormet spoke to Washington City Paper about the festival, the state of Washington's jazz women in general, and the sudden, unwelcome contrast she cuts with a certain other local jazz festival.
Washington City Paper: How are you running a local festival from LA?
Amy K. Bormet: Oh, man, you know this: I did a red-man, blue-man Superman split! I've been doing it from here, so I'm operating at half-power. But I'm Superman so it's not a big deal. Clearly.
[Laughs.] You want a real answer? I'm just doing it. I know everybody in D.C., and I've got my jazz spies keeping me updated on what's happening; I'm from here, I grew up here, and everybody still loves me. It hasn't changed that much in eight months!
WCP: How is the festival developing? What's changed for you in the past four years?
AKB: I just keep adding more things, so that's always good. My Young Artist Contest has really grown, thanks to my awesome pair of interns at Howard University. They gave me a list of 80-some-odd teachers and schools to contact in the area, so I really got the word out to everyone, ever, this year. I ended up with seven awesome contestants this year. It's really come into its own.
And now [drummer and D.C. native] Allison Miller is coming back, which everyone's freaking out about, including me. And we're gonna be playing with [guitarist] Mary Halvorson, which is amazing.
There are people who I feel like, at the beginning of the festival, were not established in the D.C. scene and are now very much so. Opening night, for example, is going to be Integriti Reeves; both Jessica Boykin Settles and I taught her at [Davey] Yarborough's Washington Jazz Arts Institute back in the day. And then she went to Howard, and she was my first intern the first year I did it—she was taking tickets at the door, cutting up surveys. And so going from my first-year intern to my opening night show after doing Betty Carter Jazz Ahead at the Kennedy Center, and Strathmore Artist-in-Residence, now putting out a record...it's just cool to see things develop, to see people using the festival as a stepping stone in their career and development. Seeing people blossom into stalwarts on the D.C. jazz scene.
WCP: Along those lines, I wanted to ask you about drummer Isabelle De Leon, who is your closing night headliner. She was also the winner of the Young Artist Contest last year. I wondered if this high-profile slot in the festival is part of the prize for that contest, or did you just feel she'd matured enough to have earned the slot?
AKB We'll go with both. I think she's great, I think she has a ton of energy and real positivity, and everyone can see that when she's playing. And she has the experience of planning and performing concerts, and taking the initiative as a leader. That was so obvious to everyone who was at the concert last year—that she really had that extra something to make her a compelling voice on stage. Everyone is looking forward to seeing her. And that's why I wanted to schedule her for Saturday night, the same day as the epic Young Artist Contest, so that the contestants can come down there after they perform and check her out. They can all network with each other, check out what everyone else is doing, and really feel like they have a peer group. That's one of the coolest things I think to have come out of this contest.
WCP: It also seems that the historical aspect of the festival is taking on a life of its own. Jessica Boykin-Settles has done several lecture-type presentations now, hasn't she?
AKB: Yeah, the last three years. She did Abbey Lincoln in 2012, and in 2013 she did Betty Carter. And every year, everybody's been like [nasal, high-pitched voice] "When are you doing Shirley Horn? Why don't you do Shirley Horn? It's Washington Women in Jazz!" So she had to. I know no one better to attack it—she's finding random VHS tapes on eBay, buying stuff; gone down to the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. She's a consummate scholar in addition to being a great vocalist; has this ability to dig up stuff that people haven't seen. I think that's really gonna resonate, considering Shirley Horn is the original Washington woman in jazz!
WCP: And trombonist Jen Krupa and saxophonist Leigh Pilzer are doing a concert of the great Melba Liston's music next Thursday at the American Art Museum. Is that part of this same historical aspect?
AKB: Definitely. Oh, definitely. Leigh has been hunting these Melba Liston tunes down. I'm playing on that show too, and she's just been sending me piles and piles of music: "Here's this tune, and here it is four different ways, and I found it this way, and we're gonna do it this way—" Yet again, another one of my incredibly and intelligent scholarly jazz ladies. Every year I have Leigh do something, because she's amazing and puts the utmost care into everything she does. And I'm sure Jen Krupa is gonna crush every trombone part. They're quite a pair.
WCP: And you're working with Transparent Productions, the avant-garde jazz concert producers.
AKB: Yeah, you know, Bobby Hill at Transparent has his own crowd of people. And that's what I've been trying to do, is just draw in some different audiences—the kind of people who will come to a Sunday Transparent Production show—and get them to come to a broader spectrum of jazz events. He's done a really great job of cultivating a scene for that type of music in the District; that's someone I've always admired.
WCP: Is that what you're doing? Cultivating a scene?
AKB: Yeah, sure! I love to be the scene queen! [Laughs]
I love people, and the more the merrier has always been my motto. I love when people come to me at jam sessions and all over the place. I booked this whole festival last summer, while I was still here. I love when people have projects in mind—like Integriti came to me and said, "I've got this EP, and I want to put it out, and it would be so great to do it as part of the festival." And I'm like, "Of course!" This is the best opportunity to have her step up, be on a broader platform, and give more gravitas to the CD release.
WCP: This is the year that the Kennedy Center's Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival brings in male performers—and of all the people I spoke to about that, you were probably the most frustrated. Do you see this festival as a counterpoint to that?
AKB: I wish it wasn't a counterpoint to that. I originally envisioned mine as a complement to that festival, where I could bring in D.C. women; obviously the Kennedy Center has the budget and the pull to bring in women from all over the world. I have always loved the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival; I've gone to it every year since I was in high school and been a part of it for several years.
So yeah: Extremely disappointed is putting it lightly. They felt the need to bring in an all-male act for this year; I think it's sort of strange that they would change directions like that, especially when they could, for example, put an act like that on the Millennium Stage as a complement to the rest of the festival, and still use the Terrace Theater space for women, to be a showcase for women. In all honesty, women are not getting the opportunities they need to showcase their abilities. And that's why I started this festival, because I was frustrated by that. I really wanted to have space for myself, and the people I knew in the District who were not as well known as they should be. People that have been here and been working, and sound amazing, and were not getting the kind of attention that I thought they deserved.
I was lucky to have a special relationship with Billy Taylor [the Kennedy Center's Artistic Advisor for Jazz until his death in 2011], and to hear him talk about the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival—he idolized Mary Lou Williams, and he would go to her house and learn from her, and she taught a whole generation of jazz pianists. I think we're getting more female educators, creating that space, but I've been kind of bummed to see that that space is deteriorating.
The Kennedy Center's festival is always sold out, so on a commercial level I don't see what they're trying to fix with this. But best of luck to them; I still think it's an amazing festival, and a great showcase. There's always so many great musicians that they bring into town. So of course my full support is behind them, with a slight reservation that they felt the need to bring in an all-male act.