By: Orrin Evans
As the time comes to end my appointment as the Artist-in-Residence of the DC Jazz Festival, I am filled with appreciation, admiration, and respect for everyone involved in operating the festival with efficiency and love. Over the past two years, I've met so many beautiful people who make it possible to run a festival such as this, and believe me, the DC Jazz Festival is an outstanding example of what it means when we hear, "It takes a village." As I continue my musical expedition, these last two years will be a template for many of my decisions as a band leader and small business owner. Learning from masters like Sunny Sumter and Willard Jenkins has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and my gratitude is overflowing.
Sunny Sumter, President and CEO of the DC Jazz Festival (DCJF), contacted me during a very challenging time for all of us. We were in the middle of a pandemic and almost everything was unknown, so receiving a call about the future was almost comical to me, yet inspiring and intriguing. It was official after a few phone calls, emails, and Zoom calls. It was announced that I would serve as DCJF’s Artist-in-Residence for two years. Then the question became: What does it mean to be an Artist-in-Residence? Honestly, the answer may vary depending on the institution or festival. I never really asked Sunny what being an Artist-in-Residence meant for DCJF.
In anticipation of starting my run as the Artist-in-Residence, I received an email that said "AIR MOU." Despite not knowing what those letters meant, I opened the email and smiled while reading what the next two years would entail. Projects with special guests, interviews, commissioning of new works, curated staged productions, educational activities, and some much-needed time in the vibrant city of Washington, DC were all on deck for the immediate future. Now, what is the AIR MOU all about? After reading the email, I laughed, realizing the shutdown affected my brain and AIR was simply an Artist-in-Residence. I could have left this earth without mentioning that harebrained mistake, but then I couldn't make this next connection. When I saw AIR, I instantly thought of "fresh air" and that Sunny was looking at the Artist-in-Residence as someone who would bring a surrounding or pervading influence to the festival. A fresh look to the atmosphere. Looking back, I realized I was correct, but the fresh air was reciprocal.
Dr. Fred Irby changed my life when I was invited to a fellowship with exceptional students of Howard University during my AIR Time. I've taught music at the middle and high school levels, and now I'm teaching at the university level at Rutgers University. I've come to appreciate when educators love their jobs. Dr. Irby breathes life into every student by showing them creative possibilities and business opportunities and introducing them to his long list of successful students. My time at Howard University ended with a fantastic concert where I received the Benny Golson Award, and the amazing Cyrus Chestnut and Allyn Johnson both sat in and blessed the audience.
If this was the beginning of my new and unique relationship as AIR of the DC Jazz Festival, I couldn't wait to see what was next. DCJF Education and Outreach Manager Heidi Martin surrounded me with fresh AIR. She placed me in situations with deserving students, appreciative teachers, and educated audiences. After more than 20 years as a member of the Mingus Big Band, it was extraordinary to share the Mingus legacy with young students. Their questions and desire to know more were exciting and inspiring. Opportunities to share some AIR time with the legendary Rusty Hassan in front of a live audience, interview NEA Jazz Masters Dave Holland and Donald Harrison, and talk with Allyn Johnson about our similar musical heroes all in concert and classroom settings brought fresh AIR to my life. The accessibility of music starts with making it available in the schools, and the DCJF does an excellent job of creating possibilities. Despite the length of time I've been teaching, the introduction to new ways of getting the word to students was priceless. That fresh air and boost of energy continued right to the stage.
DCJF has, over the years, built a lasting legacy, garnering praise for innovative programming, enhancing the concert experience with multimedia and creative staging, showcasing the works of diverse composers, and attracting new audiences to its jazz festivals. Willard Jenkins, Artistic Director, has worked to ensure a great lineup, so what kind of AIR can I bring to the story? As I said earlier, the AIR is reciprocal. Watching the care and attention that Willard and Sunny put into understanding their audiences was admirable. They showed me it was possible to give people what they wanted while introducing them to something new. They embraced my ideas while showing me the possibilities. Over the last two years, artists like Dianne Reeves, Buster Williams, Kenny Barron, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Robert Hurst, Ingrid Jensen, Jazzmeia Horn, Benny Green, Bobby Watson, Tia Fuller, Janelle Gill, Mike Boone, Oliver Lake, Lenny White, Captain Black Big Band and many more were on call to help breathe new life and AIR into my musical ideas, all under the guidance of Sunny and Willard. The introduction to the music of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio is one I'll always value. Not only did I have the opportunity to learn new music by E.S.T, but through the DCJF I was able to perform and connect with Swedish musicians while participating in the 2022 Nordic Jazz Festival.
Guided by DCJF's committed team, I've learned, laughed, observed, listened, and grown. Watching DCJF’s highly competent Asha Moses juggle several different shows and events while making everyone feel special, hearing producer Omrao Brown say, "I'm on it," and seeing the engaging social media and website promotions by Josh Brown and Lois Gilbert were all workshops in leadership and efficiency. Walking into DCJF’s offices at Arena Stage always felt comfortable and welcoming. I also appreciate the lessons I received from Arena Stage staff as they navigated the pandemic, changing schedules and meeting artists’ needs to guarantee incredible concert experiences.
Working with DCJF and everyone involved was the fresh AIR I needed to continue my journey. I'm inspired, renewed, rejuvenated, educated, and ready for more. When I started my AIR time, I needed to be introduced to something new to dry out, purify, and refresh while bringing exposure to the music that has loved me for years. This time has allowed me to breathe and feel a constant encouraging breeze. Whether it's a verb or a noun, AIR is necessary. I'm grateful for the time to give and receive a breath of fresh AIR.
Thank you for allowing me to serve as the DC Jazz Festival Artist-in-Residence. I look forward to all the fresh AIR in DCJF's future!