Taking a listen to a music track on jazz musician Elijah Jamal Balbed’s website, it is undeniable that the music is of good quality. Balbed said with frankness, however, that his musical journey, which involves continued growth, continues on. “There’s never, like, an arrival point,” he said.
Balbed is one the musicians who have brought and are continuing to provide music to the DC Jazz Festival. A regular participant, he has been part of the festival community for a decade. This year, he will perform on Friday, June 15, at 8 p.m. at Mr. Henry’s in Capitol Hill.
“Building this festival is the culmination of a year’s worth of activity,” said Artistic Director Willard Jenkins. He is already planning for next year’s festival.
As artistic director, Jenkins is responsible for setting the artistic course of the festival, which includes working on various themes, booking the artists and matching them up with venues. Jenkins wants to appeal to as wide a constituency as he and his colleagues can — not just adults, but children, too. “I hope they get an opportunity to enjoy great music,” he said.
Both Balbed and Jenkins came to jazz music from an early age, but through different paths.
Balbed’s mother attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and used to be a percussionist. Though she stopped being a musician, she strongly encouraged her son to have music in his life. Among the instruments that were fixtures in Balbed’s childhood environment, the harmonica was the first that he played. Then, in fifth grade, he started studying music and discovered the alto saxophone, then the tenor saxophone. When he was older, his band teacher, Joan Rackey, said that he sounded good, but that he needed to listen to more jazz.
Jenkins, who grew up in Cleveland, said that he was exposed to jazz through a record collection and the radio. Though he has never been a musician, he has written about jazz for jazz magazines, newspapers and online outlets. He was drawn to the art of curation and started doing organizing work in Ohio, then took up his position with the DC Jazz Festival in 2015.
Jenkins has a sense of mission in what he does. “This is not a so-called popular music,” he said. He is aware of the large numbers of young people in schools and conservatories who hope to be professional musicians and, in contrast, the small percentage of these people who actually become professional musicians. He wants to give these aspirants the opportunity to show their stuff and to an appropriate audience.
One of the highlights of this year’s festival that Jenkins pointed out is an event at Sixth & I on Thursday, June 14, at 7:30 p.m., when drummer Terri Lyne Carrington will celebrate the life of pianist Geri Allen, who died of cancer a year ago at the age of 60.
Balbed — whose main instrument is the tenor saxophone, but who also plays soprano, alto and baritone saxophones — appreciates what the DC Jazz Festival brings to life, which is the coming together of a certain scene. “It can be tricky to facilitate a scene,” he said.
The 2018 festival runs through Sunday, June 17. For the full schedule, visit dcjazzfest.org.