The local arts leader shares what to expect from this year’s DC Jazz Festival and her thoughts on the thriving artist community in the District.
Five minutes with Sunny Sumter is more than enough time to learn she’s an unwavering advocate for D.C. artists. While her role as president and CEO of DC Jazz Festival could be an all-consuming focus, she is making a much broader impact on the city’s creative ecosystem. From carving out more employment opportunities for musicians and helping them develop an entrepreneurial mindset to encouraging local leaders that it’s never too late to pursue a career in arts administration, Sumter is committed to the continued growth and success of the District’s arts community. With the 19th annual DC Jazz Festival just one month away, from August 30 to September 3, we sat down with the community builder to learn more about this year’s stacked lineup of 100 performances spanning dozens of venues around the city. Read on for Sumter’s short list of reasons why the festival is a can’t-miss event, continuing education and business acumen are crucial for our artists, and jazz music is alive and well in the District.
District Fray: What component of this year’s festival feels most exciting to you?
Sunny Sumter: I’m really pumped that we have an all-star lineup in jazz. When we first announced our lineup, we got so many emails from around the world with people saying, “Oh my god.” For the jazz aficionado, this is like the crème de la crème of festivals with Gregory Porter, Samara Joy, Big Chief Donald Harrison out of New Orleans, Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble, Terri Lyne Carrington — I could go on and on. My sweet spot is always trying to introduce this music to folks who don’t really listen to it. For the casual fan, it’s just great because they have so much to choose from.
What activations, interactive experiences and other unique opportunities do festivalgoers have to look forward to?
At The Wharf, we will have our special Meet the Artists tent where patrons can come and really have an up-close view of our artists. It’s a much more intimate conversation people want to have these days when they’re thinking about experiences. Disney is coming on board to create an experience in our Fun Zone at Transit Stage, which is really exciting. We will also have a mini-golf experience. High West Whiskey was a big hit last year, and we’re bringing them back. They’re coming up with a Louis Armstrong cocktail. But the festival is not just at The Wharf. It’s happening all around the city. The Anacostia Jazz Hop is going to be fantastic. Why? Because it’s going to be New Orleans second line meets D.C. go-go. It’s going to be a party with the Brass-A-Holics and the JoGo Project on Friday, September 1. And then there’s the Generations Project at Arena Stage, which is an opportunity for people to listen to emerging artists and some of our masters of the music. It’s four generations in one show, which is going to be really cool.
Why do you think D.C. audiences have such a strong connection with this genre?
DC Jazz Festival in its 19 years has become one of the top jazz festivals in the world, and I think a lot of it has to do with [the fact that] it’s D.C.’s premier jazz festival. This is a cosmopolitan city. It’s an international city. It’s got a global network and jazz is now a global brand. Folks are coming to Jazz Fest not necessarily because of the music. They’re coming for the experience.
How do you think the demographic of local jazz lovers has changed over the years?
When I was a student at Howard University, the demographic was white men between the ages of 45 and 70. That has changed. Our demographic is now 50/50 [between] men and women. Women are coming out to hear jazz music. Black people, Hispanic, Asian — all people from all walks of life are coming to hear jazz now, which was not the case 20 years ago. Our younger audiences are starting to say, “Whoa, I want to go check that out.” Not just our festival, but the Free Jazz Vision Festival in New York, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Monterey Jazz Festival in California — we’re starting to see this young demographic say, “This sounds like the experience I’m looking for.” We know young people are looking for experiences. As jazz festivals, we’re giving them that now. I’m starting to see this really nice rise in young people coming out. It’s great.
I know it’s a full-time job to put together this massive event annually, but what does the rest of your year look like being at the helm of this organization?
You’re right. It does take an entire year to plan such a grand, enormous festival. But we do take time off to do year-round programming. We are settling into our home at Arena Stage at the Mead Center, and we’re looking forward to building out a year-round program here. The idea is to create more employment opportunities for our jazz artists and to invite D.C. public and charter schools into Arena to learn more about this great art form, because they are tomorrow’s jazz fans. And then we have the embassy series with over 40 embassy partners [including] Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Italy, Cuba, Switzerland and France. The other piece is we really want to educate our artists so they become better entrepreneurs. One of the things we learned from the pandemic is how ill-equipped our musicians are to weather most storms. Musicians are small business owners, too. We put together a nice workshop panel for them to really own their art and understand how to be more entrepreneurial. We’re going to do that year-round in partnership with Kevin Eubanks. As we think about DC Jazz Festival as a year-round offering, we want to support our artists, our community and the art form of jazz.
As a local arts and culture leader, you must sit on many boards and support a plethora of creative programs. Are there a few that stand out to you?
There are certain organizations it’s important to be part of so our jazz musicians realize they are creative makers beyond the jazz world. I just joined the board for the North American Performing Arts Managers and Agents (NAPAMA), a national organization that allows agents, artist, managers and presenters to all come together and talk best practices to make sure there’s equity and fairness. I’m going to start an outreach campaign [for NAPAMA] in D.C. In 2019, I became a fellow of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management [at the University of Maryland]. It brings together arts leaders from around the world, and it’s really like getting a master’s degree in arts management. It’s exceptional and I’ve grown leaps and bounds [from the festival’s executive director to CEO]. I want our arts leaders, especially those with smaller institutions or who don’t have the funds to get an advanced degree, to know about this [fellowship] and apply, because it will not only help them personally and professionally but also help their organizations.
What advice would you give young professionals interested in supporting the city’s thriving creative community full-time?
There’s been an exodus of good arts administrators post-pandemic. You can be just as impactful and make a good salary working as an arts administrator, and we need good people. I always say, “Let your passion drive you.” Even if you are working a full-time gig somewhere else, you can start as a professional volunteer or part-time to support an art you love. You can reach out to the organizations you care about and say, “Hey, do you need any help?” Art institutions need professionals who have the mentality of a for-profit entity. We need people who have that skill set. I would encourage you to reach out to that dance company or small museum and say, “Hey, I’ve got this skill set. Can I help?” It just goes a long way, and I’ve seen it work really well.
Don’t miss the 19th annual DC Jazz Festival from Wednesday, August 30 to Sunday, September 3 featuring 100 concerts in more than 30 venues across the city. Learn more at dcjazzfest.org and follow on Instagram @dcjazzfest.
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