Washington, DC is known as an active hub for all types of festivals throughout the year. In terms of music, the biggest festival of ‘em all is the DC Jazz Festival. The festival takes place in June and features more than 125 live performances across dozens of venues in DC. It’s fitting that the nation’s capital is also the center for a veritable American art: jazz. Acts from all over the country converge in DC for this impressive panoply of artistic expression, from experimental jazz to big band and beyond.
The festival’s multi-faced mission includes inspiring audiences from all walks of life with jazz music; giving students from DC public and charter schools first-hand experience with the art form; and enhancing the nation’s capital as a vibrant cultural destination.
DC has a rich and unique jazz history, which it owes to its many historic venues in the U Street corridor. The U Street corridor was the site of the ragtime-to-jazz transition around the late 1910s. Thanks to an influx of visiting performers, the jazz thoroughfare became so popular it earned the moniker “Black Broadway,” a name devised by actress and singer Pearl Bailey. Everyone from Billie Holliday and John Coltrane to Miles Davis and local product Duke Ellington made the rounds at nearby clubs like Lincoln Theatre, Howard Theatre and the literally underground Bohemian Caverns. Relive the street’s heyday with DC Jazz Festival, and relish the revival.
With 63 different venues to choose from, there’s no shortage of places to see a DC Jazz Festival performance. Now what’s left is deciding the kind of vibe you want. Recall the glory years of the U Street corridor at the recently-renovated-to-its-‘30s-era-splendor Howard Theatre or the intimate Bohemian Caverns. If you prefer something Downtown, set a date at The Hamilton Live, which seats 300 and has two bar areas that can hold another 200 folks. Adventurers will also want to make it out to H Street NE, which in addition to the Atlas Performing Art Center also houses the site of a year-round jazz favorite, HR-57. The club was named after the legislation that established jazz as an American art form.
Plenty of restaurants and nightclubs also are getting involved, like JoJo Restaurant and Bar, Tryst, Café Bonaparte and Georgia Brown’s.
Local, national and international artists populate the 10th Annual DC Jazz Festival line-up. Jazz at the Hamilton Live will feature acclaimed acts such as Paquito D’Rivera, Brass-A-Holics and the Roy Hargrove Quintet, who will headline the prelude kick-off concert on June 21. DC Jazz Festival and Events DC Present: Jazz at the Capitol Riverfront will take place at Yards Park, with three days of music, beverages and family fun. Headliners include Trombone Short & Orleans Avenue, Yasiin Bey (AKA Mos Def) and Rebirth Brass Band. Jazz in the ‘Hoods presented by Events DC spreads across local venues, including The Howard Theatre, Bohemian Caverns and the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden.
One of the main shows of the festival is Cyrus Chestnut Quartet’s Dave Brubeck Reimagined, an imaginative tribute to the legendary work of Dave Brubeck, taking place at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue.
DC has spawned its fair share of talented jazz artists—just look at Duke Ellington’s band’s name: The Washingtonians. Speaking of Duke Ellington, his impact in DC is still felt today thanks to his eponymous arched bridge, a park in his honor (New Hampshire and M Streets NW), and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, which inspires children to follow a career in the creative arts.
One such prodigy, Ben Williams, has parlayed his upright bass skills into a 2013 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz. Another present-day musician, Allyn Johnson, splits his time between tickling the ivory—he’s arguably DC’s best jazz pianist—and professing at UDC. Local champions of jazz are also quick to point out that singer and pianist Shirley Horn, pianist Billy Taylor, and saxophonist Frank Wess—all contemporaries of Ellington—also have DC roots.