Arts Desk

The DC Jazz Festival’s Shorter, Stronger Calendar

DC Jazz Festival

Here we are again in the first week of June, when D.C. jazz brings out everything but the kitchen sink. Yup—it's festival time.

This year brings a lot of changes to the DC Jazz Festival. Its previous two-week duration has been trimmed down to 10 days (June 1-10). After regaining its signature "Jazz on the National Mall" concert last year thanks to a sponsorship from Bing, both the sponsorship and the Mall are now out again. (And perhaps for good: the Mall's current rehabilitation includes demolition of the Sylvan Amphitheatre.) Instead, the posh digs at The Hamilton serve as the festival's flagship venue.

These particular changes don't bode as badly as they may seem at first blush. Much as the organizers enjoyed having two weeks to work with, those longer iterations had a tendency to feel too long—exhausting, even. Those schedules were also heavily padded with the District's regular nightly or weekly jazz gigs. (Make no mistake: Those gigs are still a big part of the festival, and I've argued before that that's not a bad thing. But when a whole day of the fest's schedule is stuff you could see every week, you're stretching it a little thin.) A shorter calendar brings by necessity some programming discipline. Likewise, while the loss of the Mall is lamentable, an ongoing central hub serves to tighten things up, too.

But not too tight. In fact, the lineup for 2012's DCJF might be its most ambitious yet. Acts at The Hamilton include Randy Weston, Monty Alexander, and John Scofield, plus hungry young players David Sanchez, Ben Williams, and Jon Batiste. In addition, festival favorites Jimmy Heath, Antonio Hart, Roy Hargrove, Cyrus Chestnut, and Roberta Gambarini grace its stage. In every case, they're paired with a dynamic area jazz artist, offering concertgoers the best of both local and national jazz.

There are also some major additions. Last year's festival brought in CapitalBop, D.C.'s foremost advocate of jazz for young audiences (whose dedication landed the site a nice profile in The Washington Post yesterday). Their indie- and avant-garde-minded "Jazz Loft" approach to the music gets top billing this year, including bass clarinetist Todd Marcus and experimental supergroup Tarbaby. It culminates in an innovative, 11-hour nonstop "MegaFest" on June 9. Say what you will, but you can't say that the festival's not taking chances.

Finally, D.C.'s gain is also the festival's. Last fall the Atlas Performing Arts Center launched a jazz program, courtesy of curator and local sax-of-all-trades Brad Linde. Though the series' season is technically over, Linde and Atlas have assembled a lineup especially for the festival, including hugely influential (and underrated) saxophonist Mark Turner as well as renowned local musicians Rodney Richardson, Lena Seikaly, Ted Brown, and Linde himself.

And there's much more, from festival favorite Anat Cohen's return, to the continuation of the popular Jazz n' Families Fun Day at the Phillips Collection, to the inclusion of the much-ballyhooed, revived Howard Theatre. The same old festival, in other words, but with renewed vision and focus. It's gonna be fun.

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