Sunny Sumter doesn't have to say she loves jazz. The mere mention of the word is the clearest indication of how she feels about it. As she discusses the subtleties and nuances of jazz, her visage lights up, she becomes animated and flashes a million-dollar smile.
Much of Sumter's life has revolved around jazz and for ten days in June, she will preside over a jazz offering she is confident D.C. residents and visitors will enjoy. At the same time, Sumter also hopes people will come away with greater admiration for this uniquely American genre.
All it took was hearing the divine Sarah Vaughan and Sumter knew where her future lay.
"I listened to Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, but I always came back to jazz," she said during a recent interview. "At Duke Ellington [School of the Arts], I started thinking about jazz and when I moved to New York, I got the jazz bug big time."
Before she became executive director of the DC Jazz Festival, Sumter pursued her dream. She studied music at Howard University and also honed her craft under drummer and vocalist Grady Tate and pianist and composer Geri Allen. Sumter began singing at clubs in the District while she was still at Howard, and toured for more than 15 years in Russia, Europe, the Dominican Republic, Israel and elsewhere. She counts among her influences, Vaughan, Phyllis Hyman, and Ella Fitzgerald.
However, Sumter put her career on the backburner to focus on raising her two children, ages 6 and 11.
Jazz remains an integral part of her life. Sumter serves as one of its ambassadors, using her time, efforts and resources to bring people of all ages into the fold, fostering their appreciation and helping cultivate affection for the music that informs so much of her life.
Sumter is excited as she gears up for the 10-day extravaganza which brought more than 60,000 people to the city last year.
"We're poised to be one of the best jazz fests in the world," she said. "We certainly are one of D.C.'s signature cultural offerings. With 100 performances at 60 venues, it's enormous."
"Jazz is a musical language with so much vocabulary to tell so many stories. Jazz vocalists are some of our best storytellers."
One of the most enjoyable parts of what she does, Sumter explained, is imparting her love of jazz to children and young people.
"We serve more than 5,000 kids every year exposing them at an early age," she explained. "At D.C. Public Schools, [and] THEARC, we take kids to some of D.C.'s major institutions including the Phillips Collection, THEARC, and The Atlas Performing Arts Center. It's an absolute joy to see kids come to jazz shows with their parents. It's so cool."
Sumter said projects like "Jazz in the 'Hoods," "Jazz 'n Family Fun Days" and "Jazz Meets Hip Hop" connect the musical dots for children.
"Underneath hip hop is Miles Davis," Sumter said with a laugh. "It's so great to wow kids like that. You meet them where they are and introducing them to the music is really fun. If you wait too late to understand jazz, kids may not appreciate it. I remember in college, friends couldn't get into it. They thought it was too heady."
The festival is the brainchild of Charles Fishman who sought to create a jazz oasis where none existed. This year's theme is titled "Celebrating DC's Jazz Legacy & Beyond – In the Footsteps of the Masters." In remarks on the Jazz Festival website, Fishman lauded the "diverse program [which] is 'chock-full' of outstanding performers who will pay homage to the past, reflect the present, and envision the future. Audiences will be treated to performances by some of the jazz world's most celebrated artists, 'rising stars,' emerging artists, and many of DC's finest musicians," he said.
"He is the founder and executive producer of the Jazz Festival," Sumter said of Fishman. "He managed Dizzy Gillespie and went to all of the jazz festivals all over the world. He was surprised when he came back here to find that D.C. didn't have one. In that spirit, his vision was to have a major jazz festival and that has come to fruition. Its uniqueness is 10 days, 21 neighborhoods."
This year's jazz festival runs from June 1-10 and kicks off at The Hamilton in Northwest with Randy Weston. Patrons can expect to hear jazz greats such as Dianne Reeves, Monty Alexander, Ron Carter, Akua Allrich, Loide, Les Nubians, David Sanchez, Marc Cary, Roy Hargrove, Kenny Barron and Marcus Johnson.
And in keeping with making jazz accessible to the masses, Jazz in the 'Hoods, will allow District residents to enjoy jazz performers at venues in neighborhoods around the city. These include Chinatown, Petworth, Georgetown, Takoma Park, Mt. Pleasant and H Street in Northeast. Big this year is the D.C. Loft Series which features an all-night Jazz Loft Mega Fest: four bands, visual art installations, and food and drink provided by the Taste of D.C.
Partners this year include The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the National Gallery of Art, The Phillips Collection, THEARC, Events DC, CapitolBop, Washington City Paper, The Washington Post and The Washington Informer, and performers will grace stages at venues including The Hamilton, Johnny's Half Shell and Bohemian Caverns.
"We're truly a coalescing force because we have dozens of partners," said Sumter. "Greater D.C. can come to a plethora of jazz activities. We're particularly excited that "Jazz in the 'Hoods" is presented by Events DC and promoted by Destination DC, community partners who will bring people here in June to enjoy and listen to all this jazz. D.C. is the global destination of the world. It's amazing."
The Jazz 'n Family Fun Days is a free and very popular weekend-long event that celebrates the synergy between jazz and the visual arts, Sumter said.
"People come and have a ball," she said of the interactive activities and programs.
At the galleries, art inspires musical interpretation as musicians interpret art through improvised sound. Children can create their own art surrounded by masterpieces by Renoir, Pablo Picasso and Georgia O'Keefe. Featured jazz artists in the past included the Berklee World Jazz Nonet; Michael Bowie Trio; Charles Rahmat Woods Quartet; Reginald Cyntje; and, the DC Jazz Collaborative.
"The Instrument Petting Zoo is a lively part of the festival," Sumter said. "You'd better put on your earplugs."
And in Jazz Meets the Classics, visitors will be able to enjoy and interact with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Master Paquito D'Rivera and the Classical Jazz Quartet of NEA Jazz Masters Kenny Barron and Ron Carter, Stefon Harris and Lewis Nash at the Kennedy Center.
Jazz is quite flexible and lends itself well to any number of other music forms. And it is also a universal language that connects people across cultures, class and status, Sumter said.
"That's what I love about jazz. It is truly a celebration of diversity and there's a little bit of something for everyone," she said.
For more information and for an itinerary, visit www.dcjazzfest.org.