Both internationally-recognized and local jazz musicians hit four stages at The Wharf last weekend, rounding out a stunning stack of performances at the DC Jazz Festival.
DC Jazz Festival, an annual week-long celebration of jazz, was packed with dozens of soulful performances and engaging educational programming to expose the D.C.-influenced musical genre to locals and tourists alike. A diverse mix of artists lined the program throughout the week, honoring classic jazz sound and introducing new elements to the exploratory genre.
Chien Chien Lu, a Taiwanese-born vibraphonist and percussionist, brought fresh and unconventional sounds to the festival Saturday through her intricate and heartfelt playing of the vibraphone on jazzy tunes like “We Live in Brooklyn Baby” and “Fall Moonlight.” The audience couldn’t help but groove along to the Mambo Legends Orchestra as the Latin band brought a jazzy salsa sound to the festival while the sun set behind the stage.
Under colorful spotlights, jazz and rock drummer Cindy Blackman Santana rocked the house with a jam session as each instrument joined in one by one, building up to an energetic union of the band. The band’s setlist mixed rock originals like “We Came to Play” with the softer classic “Blue in Green” by Miles Davis.
Willard Jenkins, the artistic director of the festival, said the festival’s lineup balanced emerging and master-level artists with local roots and international fame. He said through partnerships with foriegn embassies in D.C., the festival has reeled in several international jazz artists from countries like Taiwan and France this year.
“We have this aggregate of artists coming to town and performing in different combinations,” he said. “It broadens the jazz perspective of our community, in terms of an opportunity to hear new artists and to hear what some of the great masters are up to in their particular projects at this particular time.”
Thirty groups of musicians performed between Union Stage, Pearl Street, District Pier and Transit Pier at The Wharf alone in addition to several other musical performances, panel discussions and film screenings throughout the week that culminated in an all-encapsulating homage to jazz. Top headliners like singer Dianne Reeves, double bassist Ron Carter and R&B and soul group Chuck Brown Band attracted sizable and enthusiastic crowds that moved along with the music, even in the heat of the summer days.
He said the festival celebrates D.C. as “jazz city,” making a point to hold performances in all four quadrants of the city. D.C. served as a cultural hub for jazz music starting at the beginning of the 20th century and produced iconic jazz musicians, including pianist and orchestra leader Duke Ellington and singer and pianist Shirley Horn.
“Jazz is an international language because it’s learned and played all over the world now, and we have a responsibility to reflect that, I think, being in Washington D.C.,” Jenkins said.
Sunny Sumter, the president and CEO of the festival, said this is the first year the festival has established Arena Stage – a three-stage venue that spotlights American artists a block away from the Wharf – as one of the festival’s core venues. Performances from Grammy award-winner Dianne Reeves and jazz pianist Orrin Evans graced the new stage last Friday, and a screening and discussion of a documentary about world-renowned trumpeter Roy Hargrove offered an enriching glimpse into the work of an influential jazz musician last Saturday.
Sumter said the venue will continue to program performances after the festival year round.
“We do want to create employment opportunities for D.C. artists year round,” she said. “We do want to have an opportunity for people to come whether they’re residents or visitors to hear jazz in traditional, non traditional jazz spaces around the city.”
Chien Chien Lu, who performed at District Pier and Union Stage during the festival, said she was performing a few concerts for the Taiwanese embassy in celebration of Taiwan’s birthday when the festival asked to participate in the DC Jazz Festival.
Lu said after completing intensive classical music training in Taiwan and touring Asia with a percussion group, she realized she never enjoyed covering music and wanted to pursue original music instead of feeling “like a machine doing the show.” She said she decided to enter the world of jazz to cultivate her own music, and soon after discovering the genre, she came to the United States to explore the style of music and collaborate with other musicians.
“Jazz is, to me, to explore or to mix with more people,” Lu said. “I think that’s a human nature.”
She said she loves to see more young people from around the world experiment with jazz, because while these musicians are less experienced and knowledgeable, they have the “groove” and “spirit” to forge a new atmosphere within the genre.
“When people accept that kind of new style or new music, that means we successfully stretch the music so the music becomes more flexible,” she said.
Wiley Brown – a musician in the jazz and go-go group the Chuck Brown Band, which performed for their fourth year at the festival last week – said the festival is a “pivotal” event in D.C. culture, given the vast array of diverse artists included in the lineup each year. He said artists at the festival particularly shine during their solos within their groups because the audience can see “what each musician is made of.”
“These jazz musicians, they’re going to express themselves in ways that will definitely be memorable,” Brown said. “And overall performances from each band, I know everyone is going to bring something different to the table.”
Brown, who is the son of the “Godfather” of go-go music Chuck Brown, said he accompanied his father when he performed in the very first DC Jazz Festival in 2005. Chuck Brown was not only an award-winning pioneer of go-go but also a local legend in the District for hits like “Bustin’ Loose,” which is known for minting the go-go sound, marked by a syncopated rhythm and percussion instruments like the bass drum, conga drum and cowbells. He said he hopes attendants will research and engage with participating artists even after the conclusion of the festival.
“It really just sparks a light in each person’s mind that, ‘Hey, you know what, there’s more to explore,’” Brown said. “Let me go check out this band, let me go check out this other band, and it can have them become new fans to something that they didn’t even know about.”
Jordan Yee contributed reporting.