Women Leaders: Sunny Sumter, President, DC Jazz Festival
Our spring art preview featured 20 women cultural leaders in Washington, D.C. We wanted to amplify their voices in our online newsletters, spotlighting each of them individually. Our Thursday, April 18 newsletter features Sunny Sumter, President and CEO of the DC Jazz Festival.
THE GEORGETOWNER: DC should have a kind of “spring awakening” after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?
SUNNY SUMMER: I look forward to working with my phenomenal team to begin planning for DC JazzFest which moved permanently in September, and to working on strategies with an incredibly smart Board of Directors that advance the growth of my organization.
GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your professional journey and your inspirations along the way.
SUMMER : I started at the DC Jazz Festival leading partnerships and engagement initiatives for founder Charlie Fishman nearly 15 years ago. The organization was called DC Festivals and at the time produced the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival named after DC’s most famous jazz artist. Growing with the organization, I became Managing Director, Executive Director and now CEO. What inspired me at the same time was to witness the interactions between the artist and the public. Music is such a binding force and jazz represents one of the best connectors that is our humanity. I began an internship at the Smithsonian Institution with Niani Kilkenny in the African American History program and worked on the Smithsonian campus with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Chamber Music Society, and Smithsonian Associates. I worked as a program coordinator at the Rhythm and Blues Foundation before taking a position in the communication and society program at the Aspen Institute. I went on to have a professional singing career which spent several years abroad in Italy playing for Sergio Caputo. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove inspired and encouraged me to return to complete my studies at Howard University where I trained with pianist and composer Geri Allen and singer and drummer Grady Tate. I fell in love with jazz, majored in the music business, minored in jazz studies, and spent the rest of my days championing this music we call jazz. From the bandstand to the public, jazz invites itself to the table. I love my job and am inspired almost daily to elevate the artists who create music and find new ways to present.
GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?
SUMMER : The challenge ahead for our non-profit organization is to solidify a place for the future of this music called jazz. Keeping our artists, many of whom have college degrees in jazz studies or performance, keeping our audiences (jazz aficionados and casual fans) excited about the jazz experience, and creating opportunities for music to thrive as a form of important art. Create more experiences that bring casual fans into the jazz village, get TV One, The Recording Academy, BET, the American Music Awards and other major platforms to bring jazz to the table with other forms of music…. Jazz deserves the same funding as other art forms. Every day, I challenge myself to approach public-private partnerships with an infectious level of enthusiasm that invites corporate sponsors and city stakeholders to find the DC Jazz Festival and jazz presentations irresistible. Because it is.
GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel about being the first women to lead an arts institution?
SUMMER : Opening the door and keeping the door open for others to enter is my motto. We live in a different time than our parents and their parents. Although the ceiling may seem inaccessible, if you want it, go get it. Good leadership takes a tremendous amount of time and energy, as does fairness and inclusiveness, due to the accelerated space in which we operate. Time is simply passing much faster than 15 years ago and the consumption of information and work is at a faster pace. I am happy to have a lot of energy to maintain. I am grateful to the many people who have opened doors for me and given me, a young black woman, a doorway to work at the Aspen Institute in Communications Policy with a music business degree and to learn from the bottom up.
GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of having accomplished in your position?
SUMMER : I am so proud to see my two children attend my journey with inspiration in their eyes and to see 38,000 people return to DC JazzFest at The Wharf after the pandemic with so much appreciation for being together, celebrating life and interact with each other. [It was great to see] people from all walks of life connect around jazz, serving as a platform to show us how connected we all are.
For more information on the DC Jazz Festival, see here.