Arts Desk

DC Jazz Festival: Should We Get the Same Headliners Year After Year?

DC Jazz Festival

Every year, you hear some grumbling about one aspect of the DC Jazz Festival from the circle of local jazz snobs of which, for better or worse, I'm a member. The complaint? The festival's repetitive programming.

As regular festivalgoers surely have noticed, there's a small coterie of musicians who have headlined the festival over and over again during its short eight-year life span: Cyrus Chestnut, Roy Hargrove, Roberta Gambarini, Brass-a-Holics, and Antonio Hart. Each of these musicians is extremely high-caliber, among the best in their class, and worthy of being in the top tier at a major jazz festival. But the same musicians in the top tier, year in and year out? Nobody can be blamed for wanting the festival to shake the roster up a little, or even a lot. Some ennui would seem to be inevitable.

Except that it's apparently not inevitable. Word came last night that each of the above artists sold out their sets (in some cases, two sets) at The Hamilton this week.

We snobs can and should—and will—complain about the redundancy of the festival's bills. But in the end, these musicians keep coming back because they clearly fill a demand of D.C. audiences. They're audiences, we should add, that are almost certainly not comprised of jazz snobs. At least, they're not jazz snobs in the sense that they're hitting the local clubs and venues every weekend or making day trips to New York just for jazz; these are by and large folks who look forward every year to seeing Cyrus Chestnut or Roberta Gambarini again, and they're the ones putting money back into the festival's coffers.

Certainly this writer (among others) like to see a bit more variety in the festival's core headliners. But it seems to be a minority view. Judging from these sellouts, artistic director Paquito d'Rivera and producer Charlie Fishman won't be doing any serious shakeups anytime soon. And honestly, all things considered—why the hell should they?

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  • Ron Weinstock

    I have been thinking about this point, and I would hope rather than have the same old headliners (with the exception of Paquito since he is musical director) appear as part (headliners) of the festival every year, the Festival should perhaps producing shows regularly with some of these names and perhaps try to bring in more fresh names during the Festival.

    Also, the Festival seems more like a bunch of really good club and theatre bookings but the more imaginative bookings are the Capital Bop series and the East of the River. Hopefully they can get back outdoors next year.

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  • Evan Milberg

    As a current DC Jazz Festival intern, speaking only on behalf of myself and not the festival as a whole, let me address a few things:

    We are incredibly underfunded. If people would like to contribute more money to the festival, it would be greatly appreciated. Currently, we simply do not have the budget to incorporate a major shake-up to the line-up. We're also incredibly understaffed, which means that a majority of our time has to go into planning the logistics of the festival; a difficult task for a 10-day festival with 125 performances at over 50 venues. Because so much time energy goes into planning how the festival itself will run, it forces us to lock down artists we KNOW we can get and already have on file that have worked with us already. It's all a matter of feasibility. We've worked hard to give everyone the best festival within our means. I know Charlie and Sunny would love nothing more than to give you all new headliners, but we need additional help and resources in order to do so.

    I hope that adds some perspective to your critique.

  • Michael J. West

    Hi Evan,

    Thanks for the comment. But I don't know if my post was really a *critique*, per se. My point was actually to *defend* the programming choices here, and to defending it means acknowledging that the complaints exist. As I said, given the success of these acts, there's real reason that you guys SHOULD shake things up. Hardly a criticism.

  • Michael J. West

    NO real reason, that is.

  • Efuntayo Awoyade

    I don't mind seeing some of the same artists annually, either. Guests like Roy Hargrove, in particular, I enjoy because he switches up the group he brings (the quintet this year, RH Factor last year, etc.). I also thought the "Jazz Meets the Classics" twist was a great way to put a new spin on a perfomance by some familiar faces.

    I didn't make it to as many shows as I would have liked, but I was definitely happy with the quality of the shows I did see, and I was satisfied with the variety of offerings.