Sunny Sumter Wants D.C. to be America’s No. 1 Jazz City
In the earliest years of the DC Jazz Festival (back when it was still called the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival), Sunny Sumter was on the talent side of the event. Sumter is a longtime D.C. jazz singer who was well-known on the local scene throughout the '90s and into the 2000s. But she joined the administrative side of the festival a few years into its existence and quickly rose to become its executive director. On the eve of the DC Jazz Festival's 10th anniversary, I spoke with Sumter about the history of the festival, its mission, and its current configuration.
WCP: This year the festival is truncated to just six days. Is there a particular reason?
Sunny Sumter: Well, because it's our 10th anniversary, we wanted to do it with a big bang. The idea was that in order to do that with the resources we have as a nonprofit, let's pack everything into six days and really try and spend all of our money with the shorter festival. But I think what we learned is that we have some partners that wanted to do some prelude things, so for practical purposes, it ended up being 11 days anyway. (laughs)
So it was all for naught!
Yeah, exactly. Omrao, at the [Bohemian] Caverns, calls and says to Charlie [Fishman, DC Jazz Festival's founder and president], "Oh, we're gonna do Houston Person," and then there's this other guy Jon Irabagon working with the Bohemian Caverns Orchestra. The Hamilton is doing Dr. John, which is not under the festival but everyone thinks it is!
It's the festival's 10th anniversary. Where did we come from, and how did we get here?
Charlie did such an amazing job of being the visionary and dragging us all along. He's been so amazing in seeing a big picture when I think some of us had trouble seeing it. But you know, he started with 12 concerts in 2005. And we've now grown to 125, and we have so many venues in 16 neighborhoods. And we have so many consistent partners; the only partner that's not with us this year is the Kennedy Center, and I think that's more a calendar issue than anything else.
I think it's been great, because Charlie's vision was "Let's have a major jazz festival in D.C. I've gone everywhere, traveled the world with Dizzy [Gillespie]; why doesn't D.C. have a major jazz festival?" There are so many great jazz presenters in the region, Strathmore and the Kennedy Center among them, but this whole idea of a festival experience kind of took off on its own. We now get over 60,000 people coming in; we serve the DMV, but people from all over the nation and even internationally are coming to D.C. for our festival! We're getting calls from Newport, and New Orleans, and Monterey, saying "You guys are doing a great job." We're well on our way to being able to say we've got one of the best jazz festivals in the country and it's really an enormous effort and I think it's really a partnership effort.
Was it outreach on your part that brought all these constituents, or partners, into the fold? Or was it them reaching out to you? Or both?
It was both. I think the good thing about arts presenters in our area is that there's an appreciation for the work that we do. You've got Culture Capital, which used to be Cultural Alliance; you've got these umbrella organizations that allow us to come together pretty often and exchange ideas. I think it's through sharing those ideas that we create partnerships, and we brainstorm and come up with creative ideas. Charlie knocked on the Kennedy Center's door and said "I'd love to do Jazz Meets the Classics," and that's become a staple there. Although this year Paquito d'Rivera is doing that at the Hamilton—but also, he's actually done a recording out of that idea that was written on a paper napkin by Charlie!
And Jazz and Families Fun Day, when we first started the festival, we were about six days doing Jazz and Families Fun Day. And then we found out about the Phillips Collection doing this family day, kids day, as part of Dupont-Kalorama Weekend. So we called them up and said, "How would you like to do Jazz and Families Fun Day?" And we've grown that into an event of 5,000 people over a two-day weekend, and it's always free, and the kids come and they get to experience the music. So I think every partnership is a little different in how it comes together. But every one is very authentic, and true, and very collaborative.
I'm old enough to remember when you were on the program as a performer at this festival. How did you get involved on the back end?
(Laughs.) Well, you know, I started working for the DC Jazz Festival to support its educational efforts. I came on board in 2008, and since that time [my role] has grown into more of the administrator of the festival and making sure all of our partners and collaborators are happy. And I have an expertise in strategic thinking and planning and those things because I worked in public policy.
I am executive director now, and that means really overseeing the day-to-day operations of the festival, and the organization as a whole. Helping the board to get the festival to a place where it's not only sustainable but the No. 1 jazz festival in the world. That's a part of our mission, and to get people to come to the District of Columbia and hear jazz here in the city.
It's also a huge part of our mission to make sure we're building new audiences for jazz, because I remember performing and wondering where the audience in D.C. was going. There were clubs closing down; there was less and less opportunity for jazz musicians to make a living. And I think that one of the things this festival does well is that it employs jazz artists. And we have year-round activities too, so it's not just during the annual festival; but we also have the Charles Fishman Young Artist Series, which is an embassy series; we have our education program with D.C. Public Schools; and we have a wonderful after-school program at Jazz at Sitar.
So what's the future of the festival?
The future of the festival is really to continue to do what we're doing. To shine a spotlight on renowned jazz artists, international, national, and local, and to provide a platform in the nation's capital for folks to come and celebrate this music. That's really what we want to do. A lot of us as jazz presenters, as festival jazz presenters, that's what we want to do. We want to be an economic driver in the same way that the Kennedy Center, the Folklife Festival, the Cherry Blossom Festival are. We want people from everywhere to come to the nation's capital, to experience jazz in the nation's capital, and to also go to the restaurants and stay in the hotels, go to the museums and the shops. For this to be a real cultural experience in D.C.
Photo courtesy of Sunny Sumter.