Jazz Festival Blows Into the City

Barrington M. Salmon | 5/17/2012, 4:20 p.m.

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."