Correction to This Article
A photo caption with a May 25 Weekend article about the Capital Jazz Fest incorrectly said that Earl Klugh would perform on the festival's first jazz cruise. Klugh will perform Saturday June2 at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Capital Jazz Fest, Thinking Bigger and Better

(Paul Kane - Getty Images)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2007

Producer Cliff Hunte remembers the first year of the Capital Jazz Fest, held at Bull Run Regional Park in Centreville in June 1993. The two-day event featured such acts as Spyro Gyra, Jonathan Butler, Boney James, Earl Klugh, Alex Bugnon and Tito Puente.

"It was successful from the standpoint that we sold a lot of tickets and people showed up at all to an event that was just an idea on paper for the 12 months before it happened," Hunte recalls. "It wasn't profitable until the third year, but the festival itself went over pretty well with the audience."

Apparently. Over the years, the Capital Jazz Fest has become the world's largest showcase for contemporary jazz, as well as soul and R&B. Technically, the Playboy and JVC jazz festivals may be bigger, but they encompass a much wider definition of jazz.

But that may be the very reason Capital Jazz Fest has become a major draw for devoted fans from states up and down the East Coast and beyond who manage to turn Merriweather Post Pavilion into a combination concert venue/lounge and picnic area highly conducive to socializing. To celebrate its 15th anniversary, the festival has expanded to five days, starting Wednesday.

The Capital Jazz Fest is also taking its show on the road or, more properly, out to sea, booking its inaugural SuperCruise in October: five nights on Royal Caribbean's nearly 2,500-passenger ship Grandeur of the Seas, which will depart from the Port of Baltimore and sail round-trip to Bermuda with an entertainment lineup that will look familiar to Capital Jazz Fest regulars.

Such things become possible when you've built a successful brand. What guitarist Chuck Loeb has dubbed "the Woodstock of jazz festivals" has become a destination event, though all those years ago Hunte had "no idea it would draw people from so many parts of the country," he says. "In fact, now the majority of the audience comes from outside the D.C. area," confirmed by tracking ticket sales, audience research and the fact that many people buy tickets and book hotel rooms in January before the lineup is even announced. Sometimes, they book rooms for the next festival as they're checking out after the current one.

"They know the dates," says Hunte, adding that "people buy large blocks of tickets for their different organizations every year and organize bus trips from North Carolina, New York and Illinois." In fact, there's not much room at the inns right now. Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of Howard County Tourism, says that as of a week ago, the Hilton and Sheraton in downtown Columbia were sold out for June 2 and nearly sold out for the night before, while other nearby hotels were at about 80 percent occupancy.

The festival kicks off Wednesday with George Benson & Al Jarreau and Gerald Albright, followed by a Thursday concert featuring Herbie Hancock and the Jazz Attack!, featuring trumpeter Rick Braun, saxophonist Richard Elliot and guitarists Peter White and Jonathan Butler. On June 1, vocalist Anita Baker is the sole act.

The music expands substantially next weekend, with two full stages from noon to 10 p.m. each day. The Pavilion Stage will showcase contemporary jazz, while the Symphony Woods Stage features urban and neo-soul artists. The Pavilion Stage lineup June 2 includes the Jazzmasters (with former Washingtonian Gregg Karukas on keyboards), David Sanborn, Brenda Russell, Amel Larrieux, Bob James and others, while the June 3 lineup features Dave Koz, Ramsey Lewis, Najee, Diane Schuur, Nick Colionne and Take 6, plus a surprise artist.

At the Symphony Woods stage, the June 2 bill is War, Raul Midon, Kindred the Family Soul and Musiq Soulchild, while June 3's includes Isaac Hayes, Hil St. Soul, Victor Fields, Vivian Green, the Brand New Heavies with N'dea Davenport and, decades away from their Howard University birth, the Original Blackbyrds with special guest Kevin Toney.

The festival also will feature a jazz lounge with local DJs, the third annual poetry slam (June 3) and the fourth annual Capital Jazz Challenge (June 2) with a half-dozen emerging artists competing for $5,000 and a chance to perform on the main stage the next day. Both the poetry slam and jazz competition are on the smaller Chesapeake Stage.

Hunte has seen attendance grow from 11,000 in 1993 at Bull Run to more than 50,000 in recent years; this year's five-day festival has the potential to draw as many as 100,000 to what has been the festival's home for four straight years.

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