DC Jazz Festival 2011: Postmortem
Music festivals tend to be backloaded, primarily to keep people coming back for more, but as a nice side effect it keeps the most happening stuff fresh for critics who do post-festival wrap-ups. Thus this writer is basking in the afterglow of last night's smash "A Night in Treme"—maybe the first time an event at the staid ol' Kennedy Center ended with ushers lining the front of the stage to prevent its being stormed—and still flush with the profound impact of Bobby McFerrin at the Warner Theatre. Well played, DCJF. Well played.
It was a good year for the festival. It regained its keystone, Jazz on the National Mall, and a deep-pocketed sponsor (Bing). And, in addition to the above events, it offered the legendary Heath Brothers (one of whom, Tootie, served as a house drummer throughout the entire festival), DCJF favorite Cyrus Chestnut (who served as house pianist), alto saxophonist Antonio Hart, and The Brass-A-Holics. A pretty good stock of artists, and that's before we mention the usual gang of local talent. Oh, and Tomas Fujiwara, Darius Jones, and JD Allen, the headliners of this year's new CapitalBop Jazz Loft arm of the festival.
That last is a major development. This city is a stronghold of traditional jazz, make no mistake about it, but this year in particular has seen a revival of the post-bop and progressive streams' fortunes in D.C., and these need to be showcased and celebrated as well. The festival took a bold step in enlisting Giovanni Russonello and Luke Stewart to broaden its appeal. Russonello and Stewart went them one better: Allen, for example, has a progressive vision but is not terribly far removed from the mainstream, and CapitalBop could easily have held that line with its full series; instead, it embraced a broad spectrum, adding in the genuine cutting edge pf Fujiwara and Jones, as well as local straightahead-ers (Amy Bormet, The Jolley Brothers) and experimenters (Stewart's OOO Trio). The partnership apparently isn't a definite for future festivals, but its establishment this year did great things for both sides of it. Letting it dissolve could be a significant step backward for both.
Not to say that everything was perfect. I've already discussed the scheduling problems; the festival's broad lineup, impressive as it is, also suffers a little bit in comparison to last year's glorious 24-country kaleidoscope. Furthermore, an old gripe raised its head again this year: the length of the festival. The calendar was stretched a little thin in a couple of spots; its second day, for example, had exactly one act that didn't appear regularly in town—and that one had appeared elsewhere, for free, on the previous night.
Which also brings up an interesting controversy. There have been some debates about the heavy reliance on local acts; that's a valid point for D.C. residents who are looking for something different and see that much of the schedule is the stuff they can see any night of the week. This can be frustrating to me, too—but in the end I can't get too worked up about it. For one thing, this is an inevitable facet of a jazz festival in any city with a thriving jazz scene: Really, how many people at the festivals in New York (Or Chicago, or New Orleans) aren't that scene's usual suspects? For another thing, DCJF attracts a healthy chunk of its audience from outside D.C. As festival producer Charlie Fishman pointed out, those people don't know who plays our clubs, when, or how often, and ought to be told about what we have to offer here. For that matter, there are plenty of locals who know nothing about D.C. jazz beyond the festival, and those people ought to be informed, too. And how about the musicians themselves, who are deserving of the extra publicity? There are those who don't want it (as I've said before, that's between them and the festival); those who do, like Bormet and the Jolleys, or Victor Provost and Lena Seikaly, deserve it. And who doesn't want a major jazz festival on their resume?
None of this, however, has dulled my appetite for next year's DC Jazz Festival. Indeed, I'm curious to see its developments, from the CapitalBop association to how it can possibly top sublime moments like McFerrin. It will also be interesting to see what happens with the traditional NEA Jazz Masters concert (which was planned for this year, but didn't work out) now that the NEA is phasing out the Jazz Masters program. Fishman and the DCJF staff have their work cut out for them; undoubtedly they'll find compelling routes.