In late 2017, Giovanni Russonello and Luke Stewart met at a cafe for a serious conversation. CapitalBop, their grass-roots D.C. jazz advocacy organization, was in an alarming slowdown.
“It was an existential crisis,” Russonello recalls. “A lot of things were really falling to the wayside.”
Russonello and Stewart founded the nonprofit CapitalBop in 2010 as a one-stop shop for jazz in the District. Its website (capitalbop.com, of which Russonello is editor in chief) offers a calendar of gigs around town, concert and album reviews, interviews with local artists and other features. CapitalBop also presents concerts (Stewart’s end of the business), bringing in artists from New York and elsewhere to perform in often D.I.Y. spaces. However, their real focus is on local musicians, offering them paying gigs and opportunities to build an audience.
The pair quickly became an integral part of the D.C. jazz community. “The fact that these cats are out here really shaking the bushes and stirring things up? It motivates me,” bassist Michael Bowie told The Washington Post in 2012.
But seven years in, they seemed to be running out of steam. Both CapitalBop principals have a separate, consuming career. Russonello, 30, is a journalist; he helped cover the 2016 presidential election for the New York Times and then switched to covering jazz for the paper. Stewart, 32, is a working bassist, jazz and otherwise, increasingly in demand for out-of-town gigs and international tours.
Their board meetings stopped happening, and Union Arts — a complex of artist studios on New York Avenue NE, at which CapitalBop held its monthly “Jazz Loft” performance series — closed. (Stewart maintained quarterly “Traveling Lofts” at spaces across the District.) Washington writer Jackson Sinnenberg kept the Web content alive, but his career as a radio producer had its own demands.
“We realized we needed to make a decision,” Russonello says. “If we just keep limping along as is, the future didn’t look super bright. But we’d built up so much momentum, we had such a vision, and we saw the need continuing to exist, we thought we ought to try to keep it alive. So Luke and I sat down and said, ‘Okay, if we’re really doing this, what exactly is it that we’re doing?’ ”
That meeting sowed the seeds for a resurgence that has borne fruit in recent months. In August, CapitalBop debuted its Spotlight Residency program, a monthly series for local artists at U Street restaurant Local 16. In December, they revived the monthly Jazz Loft, this time at the Takoma arts space Rhizome.
After the new year, CapitalBop for the first time announced a full spring season of concert presentations. The season includes regular installments of the Spotlight Residency and Jazz Loft series; two traveling lofts, featuring New York saxophonist Ben Wendel and experimental pianist Angelica Sanchez, respectively; and, in a co-presentation with the Washington Women in Jazz Festival, a rare appearance by composer, pianist and NEA Jazz Master Carla Bley at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
“We’re excited,” Stewart says. “It’s amazing that after almost a decade, it’s finally coming together the way it is.”
The website also is getting a boost. Last month, CapitalBop hired award-winning jazz journalist Patrick Jarenwattananon as its managing editor. The former NPR blogger and producer is tasked with revitalizing the site’s journalistic coverage of the local scene, expanding the contributor base and ensuring that new content is published each week.
A number of recent developments enabled CapitalBop’s expansion. They’ve had an infusion of new funding — including a three-year, $100,000 grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, announced in February. In addition, Stewart’s growing profile in the jazz world has broadened his connections, increasing CapitalBop’s visibility and the scope of its potential programming.
But both Russonello and Stewart say the most important boost to CapitalBop’s renaissance was their addition last June of Jamie Sandel, a former intern and recent Amherst College graduate, as the organization’s managing director.
“Jamie’s a godsend,” Stewart says. “He does all the critical day-to-day stuff that should require multiple people. . . . He’s really been a game-changer.”
Sandel, 24, is more modest, pointing out that Russonello and Stewart still devote countless hours to CapitalBop from afar. “They’re very much at the heart of the decisions that have been made,” he says. “I’ve been spearheading the projects that we have taken on, but I’m just the execution of Gio and Luke’s vision.”
That execution requires Sandel to wear multiple hats. He manages everything from accounting and artist relations to writing news releases and checking out late-night gigs around town. He’s also developing the next component of CapitalBop’s revitalization: an educational program led by puppeteer and website contributor Majeedah Johnson.
The organization’s new lease on life has already brought a positive charge to the District’s jazz scene. The Jazz Loft has been welcomed back by both musicians and audiences. Drummer Dana Hawkins, who held the February edition of the two-night Spotlight Residency, says the new program is just what local jazz musicians need.
“They’re keeping us visible on U Street, where people are coming around and looking for that kind of music,” Hawkins says. “And they do not burden you with expectations. So often you hear, ‘We saw you doing this, and that got a big reaction, so why don’t you do a little bit of that?’ It’s not even close to that with CapitalBop. It’s ‘That’s what you want to do? Come do it with us.’ ”