Almost one year into the coronavirus shutdown, we’re starting to hear people reminisce on last March, asking themselves: What was I doing right before the shutdown began? For many of us, a big part of the answer involves going to shows. But now, just 11 months later, many of the spaces where we used to hear live music no longer exist.
For this year’s virtual edition of the Jazz and Freedom Festival, CapitalBop, Shannon Gunn and Eaton DC have produced a series of musical mini-documentaries honoring the legacies of three venues that disappeared in 2020: Twins Jazz, Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society and Columbia Station.
In 2020, the majority of D.C.’s jazz venues — including Eighteenth Street Lounge, Marvin, Sotto, Twins and AJACS — shuttered, unable to meet their fixed costs without in-person business. It’s uncertain that the District will come out of the pandemic with a single dedicated jazz club remaining.
In normal times, the Jazz and Freedom Festival is a daylong celebration of D.C. jazz’s role in activism and community-building. Working with the musician Shannon Gunn, CapitalBop brings together musicians, organizers, artists and listeners, rallying around a different organization each year doing justice work in the District.
But this year, with in-person gatherings still off the table, the JAFF has turned into a video festival. We’ve produced a three-week series of mini-documentaries on three spaces that D.C. lost in 2020, featuring interviews with musicians and staff who knew the venues best, scored by specially filmed concerts featuring DMV-based artists.
While this year’s festival takes a different approach from previous years, we still wanted to use the opportunity to connect our audiences with a worthy D.C. community organization that could use their support. Run by the musician-educators Davey Yarborough and Esther Williams, the Washington Jazz Arts Institute was a no-brainer. Not only has WJAI delivered meaningful education opportunities to countless young students over the past 23 years, but Yarborough and Williams are also hard at work researching and uplifting the history of D.C.’s music venues in their own right. Find out more about their efforts at wjai.org.
The Jazz and Freedom Festival is the brainchild of Shannon Gunn, a jazz trombonist, composer, arranger and producer. She was inspired by a similar event at Michigan State University, where Professor Rodney Whitaker and students performed pieces from Max Roach and Oscar Brown, Jr.’s Freedom Now Suite, as part of a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration in 2003. Gunn first approached CapitalBop to co-produce the first Jazz and Freedom Festival in January 2015, at Union Arts (which, like so many venues, has since closed due to gentrification).
Each year, the festival gathers members of D.C.’s overlapping communities of artists, activists and audiences for a day of music and conversation around a different social justice issue. Every edition of the festival also operates as a benefit for a different community organization doing activist work in the DMV: Empower DC in 2015, Black Lives Matter DMV in 2016, WPFW 89.3 FM in 2017, the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation in 2019, and the ICE Out of DC coalition in 2020.
After a great partnership with the Eaton DC at last year’s JAFF, CapitalBop returned to the hotel to film the music for this year’s series. Since opening in 2018, the Eaton has often fostered both jazz and activism in its spaces, filling the growing void left by venues that are forced to close by gentrification, pandemic and other convulsive forces.
Last January, to begin our announcement for the 2020 Jazz and Freedom Festival, we wrote: “The new decade has begun in chaos.” It’s funny, in a dark sense, to think about what felt upheaval and disruption back then, after nearly a year of strife brought on by the pandemic. But the music always finds a way to carry on. And we can’t wait to show you the notes of hope we heard in the interviews and performances that went into creating the 2021 Jazz and Freedom Festival. Join us!