Arts Desk

“I Wanted to Create This Community”: A Chat With Amy K. Bormet

Amy K. BormetWhen pianist Amy K. Bormet started the Washington Women in Jazz Festival in 2011, it consisted of four nights of performances—one per week in March—at a single venue. Just two years later, it's a densely programmed week that touches all four quadrants of the District. It's become richer, too, including all varieties of music as well as educational events and a competition for aspiring young musicians. The WWJF is well on its way to becoming a local juggernaut.

Its third iteration opens tonight at the Atlas, when the WWJF All Stars ensemble performs with drummer Kimberly Thompson. To mark the occasion, Arts Desk spoke to Bormet about the festival's genesis and its quickly changing trajectory.

Washington City Paper: The festival is big this year—certainly compared to the last couple.

Amy K. Bormet: Yeah, It just keeps getting bigger. People keep coming to me and saying “I want to do this!” I say, “Let’s do that—that sounds like a great idea.” And then I add their thoughts into the mix. It’s working out. It’s my own version of conquering! Bringing people in and converting them!

WCP: Can you walk us through the festival’s origins?

AKB: (intoning, mock-seriously) Back at the beginning—the beginning of time—there was man and there was woman. And woman had no gig! (Laughs.)

This is the third year, and I started the festival because I wanted to create this community in the D.C. jazz scene of female jazz musicians. I knew people from all over: I knew [saxophonist] Leigh Pilzer from when she played with DIVA Jazz Orchestra at the Kennedy Center; I knew [vocalist] Jessica Settles from when she taught at Howard University; and I knew [vocalist] Christie Dashiell when we went to school together, and did Betty Carter Jazz Ahead [the Kennedy Center’s educational program for young musicians] together.

You know, just people from all over the scene, and I wanted them to hang out together, and play music for each other, and bring their own audience into the fold of all these other amazing female jazz musicians. Make one big happy family. So that’s the big reason I started doing this, and also because I love all these people personally and musically, and wanted to see them brought to the forefront of the jazz scene and see them create a giant behemoth that cannot be ignored. And it worked really well!

WCP: And how did it grow so quickly? In 2011, when it started, you were just doing a weekly series at Twins for a month.

AKB: Well, the Twins thing was just the beginning of the idea. Last year I feel like I really got into the swing of things, and I had a lot of help from everybody I know in town at all the various venues. I’m really good friends, obviously, with Brad Linde, at the Atlas, and he’s been a huge help in having the staple of the festival being the Atlas. This year I’m doing the opening and closing nights there.

We’ve been able to move out of just the club scene and into the Smithsonian, Westminster Presbyterian Church, and some nontraditional jazz venues. For instance, this year we’ll be at the Hill Center, which I adore, and they have a lot more educational outreach things—senators go down there and speak and stuff like that. I wanted to get Leigh Pilzer out there, because she’s a genius and I love hearing her talk about jazz history; she’s schooled me many a time. And so I’m having her come down there and do a show, but also her telling different stories about early jazz and things like that.

It’s been huge that I’ve been able to bring down huge acts to work with the D.C. scene. Last year I brought down [drummer] Allison Miller, it brought a lot of notoriety to the festival; I also brought [trumpeter] Ingrid Jensen, and that was a huge sell as well. This year I’ve got [drummer] Kimberly Thompson and [pianist] Geri Allen.

WCP: You’d said you were integrating other people’s ideas into the festival, but it sure sounds like you’re doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

AKB: (Laughs.) Yeah, I’m definitely doing a lot of the heavy lifting: It’s still all me. I’m just bringing in more and more people. I’ve got [cellist] Janel Leppin coming in this year and that’s going to be amazing—Bobby Hill and Transparent Productions coming in and doing a show with Janel at Bohemian Caverns. She’s bringing a whole new element that we haven’t really been able to have before in the festival: That’s the improvised music scene, which I think is a big part of D.C. and the area in general. So bringing that in has been really cool.

WCP: When you bring in big names like Geri and Kimberly, do they think of it as just another gig, or are they in on the cause, so to speak?

AKB: I think that both Kimberly and Geri are on board. Geri is hardcore on board—she’s been on board since I told her about the festival, told me how great it was and how proud she was of me, and has been e-mailing me and seeing how things were going and just keeping in touch. She’s totally on board, and her manager Ora Harris has been really interested in the festival, and they’re both very supportive of what I’m doing.

Kimberly Thompson has been really cool, too. Everybody’s bringing original music to the all-stars show, being able to create a collaborative performance. Last year’s performance with Allison Miller was perfect, it went off without a hitch, and I have nothing but faith that this year is going to go just as well.

WCP: What’s your schedule like for this? Is there a busy season where you get things going, or do you start working on next year’s festival as soon as you finish this one?

AKB: I’ve already started working on the next one! That’s partially due to booking larger venues: Brad and the Atlas are doing all that booking pretty far out. He and I have already been discussing possibilities for who to bring in for 2014. And of course I have the Young Artist Contest, and the winner of that will be featured on next year’s festival. So there’s a couple of slots filled already.

I’m also going to be doing a lot of work this summer, to try and get a nonprofit status, and move forward with that. Maybe get some grant money and just get bigger and bigger and bigger!

WCP: Talk a bit more about the Young Artist Contest.

AKB: I started this last year; the idea was to get younger women, 21 and under, involved. I do a lot of teaching with the Washington Jazz Arts Institute, which is Davey Yarborough’s program. There were a lot of women down there that I just wanted to get involved with the festival, and I wanted to bring them in to meet the women I’m working with—and play a gig, with a trio, on a stage at a real jazz club. I wanted them to have that experience.

From there it expanded: Last year I sent out a call for people to audition, and that worked out pretty well. This year I’ve made it even broader, and there are actually six musicians who’ve made the cut. I’m going to have three instrumentalists—a piano, a drummer, and a saxophonist—and three vocalists. And they’re all over the place: One of them’s a 12-year-old from a private school, all the way up to an Ellington high school student and a saxophonist from Peabody, vocalists from Howard and [George Washington University].

They’re going to be performing at HR-57 on Saturday at 1 p.m. Last year everyone’s parents did not like when I kept the kids out till midnight on a Tuesday night. So we’ve moved it to Saturday, and it’ll be in the afternoon. So it’ll be really chill, and we’re gonna have all of them come up to do song with the house band, me, [bassist] Karine Chapdelaine, and [drummer] Lydia Lewis. And then I have three fabulous judges: Jen Krupa, Keanna Faircloth, and Janine Gilbert Carter. I’m really excited about that.

Oh, and Danielle Wertz, who won last year, is singing with Shannon Gunn and the Bullettes at Westminster on Friday night. That’s her prize. She was super excited about that; her and Shannon have been getting charts together and thigns like that. And she’ll also be at the competition as well, doing an intermission set while we tally the results.

WCP: That scene you were hoping to create…does it exist outside of just festival time?

AKB: Oh, yeah! The idea was not to create a completely separate female community, it was just to bring the women that I like to play with, and who are on the scene, to the forefront of the overall jazz scene. And I think that that’s happening. There’s been a sea change in D.C. in the last three years: The Bullettes started a couple years ago, and the BCJO’s been around. Different things are happening, incorporating women into the jazz scene. And I think this festival has been a big part of that.

The festival begins tonight with the Washington Women in Jazz Festival All-Stars at 8 p.m. at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. $15-$25.

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