DC Jazz Festival Launches Cuba Collaboration

They say music is the universal language. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s often a tool of exchange in cultural diplomacy. 

One of the premier musical cultural institutions in the nation’s capital, the DC Jazz Festival (DCJF), recently announced the start of “a three-year partnership” with the nation of Cuba “through a series of in-person and virtual exchanges.”

“We will use our platforms to build a cultural bridge that celebrates our commonalities under the ambassadorship that is #jazz,” said Sunny Sumter, DC Jazz Festival president and CEO on an April 25 Facebook post. 

The new partnership in international musical diplomacy was kicked off the evening of April 21 at the Embassy of the Republic of Cuba with a jazz concert featuring Cuban singer, pianist, composer and educator Melvis Santa, combined with a showcase of folk art from Havana. Part of the Charles Fishman Embassy Series – named for the founder and Honorary Life Chair of the DC Jazz Festival – the evening was described as the “start of a beautiful friendship between DC Jazz Festival and the Embassy of Cuba.” 

Afro-Cuban Jazz has a notable history in Washington, D.C. In the late 1940’s Bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz pioneers introduced percussive elements from Cuba such as the tubadora and bongo into the rising jazz scene on the East Coast. During the Cold War, western Jazz music was often suppressed by the Soviet Union in eastern bloc countries, but, in Cuba jazz was permitted somewhat freer reign. 

The DC Jazz Festival is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing “enriching and entertaining jazz performances and programs that introduce students and adults from all walks of life to jazz, our nation’s singular original art form,” the group’s website says. They also present “a selection of the jazz genre’s most acclaimed [and emerging] artists,” as well as providing “enhanced exposure for the rich treasure trove of musicians from the Washington, D.C. area.”

Signature programs for DCJF include, “the annual DC JazzFest, presented since 2005; the free year-round DCJF Education Program, which gets kids “jazzed” about learning; the Charles Fishman Embassy Series, which showcases emerging and established artists; and DCJazzPrix, [their] international jazz band competition.”

“Over the past 16 years, our citywide DC JazzFest has served more than 1.6 million people, including visitors from across the nation, international travelers, and online viewers,” DCJF says on its website. “The festival presents a broad range of free and affordably-priced performances and education programs, and serves a diverse populace that includes low- and moderate-income D.C. residents. DC JazzFest presents programming in D.C. communities where jazz performance is otherwise non-existent, further raising the profile for jazz.” DC JazzFest also annually presents approximately 150 DC-based musicians.

During the 3-year collaboration, exchange trips to Cuba will be offered through the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana (OHCH) and one of their travel arms, Cubaexplorer.com. OHCH is “a UNESCO-recognized humanitarian organization responsible for the architectural restoration and preservation of historic buildings and monuments.” The first exchanges are set to begin in January 2024. 

“The Cuban embassy on 16th Street is just beautiful,” said The Georgetowner’s publisher, Sonya Bernhardt, who attended the embassy concert where the collaboration with Cuba was announced. “It was very warm and inviting. The evening was great because you felt like you were in Cuba. The funny thing was the air condition was out, so it was hot and that created a very authentic vibe. The performer [Melvis Santa] was great. She had three male bandmates and she was just runnin’ that show – playin’ the bongoes, the piano, and singing. She was so talented and her voice was just sultry and beautiful with a lot of range.”

(left-to-right) Two band members, Cuban ambassador Lianys Torres Riverale, singer Melvis Santa, DC JazzFest CEO Sunny Sumter and Peter Gillon, chair of DCJF. Photo by Sonya Bernhardt.

For Bernhardt, DC Jazz Fest’s collaboration with Cuba is most exciting, given the rich tradition of Latin and Afro-Cuban Jazz in the District. “Cuba is such a unique place and we don’t get an opportunity to travel to Cuba that often,” she said. “You know, Jazz is homegrown music in D.C. and we’ve had Duke Ellington, who’s from the area and such a long history of Jazz. While this was Cuban Jazz, it was inspired by American Jazz. And to have the DC Jazz Festival in D.C. is to carry on this rich tradition of [musical] education.”

Bernhardt credits DC Jazz Fest’s CEO Sunny Sumter for her remarkable work helping to promote jazz music and educate the public about its legacy and vital importance. “She just brings such energy,” Bernhardt said. “She’s a singer herself and she’s been doing this since the beginning of the Jazz Festival. And now honoring founder Charles Fishman, she’s carrying the torch bold and strong. She does an amazing job.” 

“I just think there’s some type of jazz for everyone and the DC Jazz Festival brings us such a variety,” Bernhardt said.

This year, the 19th Annual DC Jazz Festival will be held on Labor Day Weekend, Aug. 30 to Sept. 3. More than 100 concerts in more than 30 local venues will be held, including Arena Stage and the Anthem at the Wharf. 


One comment on “DC Jazz Festival Launches Cuba Collaboration”

  • I thank you (DC ) for having this Jazz Festival in collaboration with the Cuban Embassy! We should also make a sincere attempt to get Cuba taken off of the US State sponsored terrorist list today! This is criminal.

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