Women Leaders: Sunny Sumter, President, DC Jazz Festival

Our spring arts 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 DC Jazz Festival.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?   

SUNNY SUMTER: Looking forward to working with my phenomenal team to begin planning the DC JazzFest which has permanently moved to September, and working on strategies with an incredibly smart board of directors that advance my organization’s growth.  

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way.    

SUMTER: I started at DC Jazz Festival by leading partnerships and engagement initiatives for Founder Charlie Fishman nearly 15 years ago.  The organization was called Festivals DC and at that 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 serve as CEO. What inspired me along with way is witnessing firsthand the interactions between artist and audience. Music is such a connecting force and jazz represents the one of the best connectors that is our humanity. I started interning at the Smithsonian Institution with Niani Kilkenny at Program in African American History and working across the Smithsonian campus with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Chamber Music Society and Smithsonian Associates. I worked as program coordinator at the Rhythm and Blues Foundation before taking a position at The Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program. I continued to have a professional singing career that spent a number of years abroad in Italy performing for Sergio Caputo. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove inspired me and encouraged me to return to complete my degree at Howard University where I trained with pianist and composer Geri Allen and vocalist and drummer Grady Tate. I fell in love with jazz, majored in music business, minored in jazz studies and have spent the rest of my days championing this music we call jazz. From the bandstand to the audience, jazz invites everyone to the table. I love my job and I am inspired almost every day to lift up the artists creating the music and to find new ways of presentation.    

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?    

SUMTER: The looming challenge for our nonprofit is solidifying a place for the future of this music called jazz. Keeping our artists, many of whom have college degrees in jazz studies or performance, employed, keeping our audiences (both jazz enthusiasts and casual fans) excited about the experience of jazz and creating opportunities for the music to thrive as an important art form. Creating more experiences that bring casual fans into the jazz village, getting TV One, The Recording Academy, BET, the American Music Awards and other major platforms to give jazz a seat at the table with the other music forms…. Jazz is worthy of the same funding as other art forms. Each and every day I challenge myself to approach private-public 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 being among the first women to lead an arts institution?   

SUMTER: Opening the door and keeping the door open for others to come in is my motto. We live in a different time than our parents and their parents. While the ceiling can seem unreachable, if you want it, go get it. Leading well takes an enormous amount of time and energy — so does equity and inclusiveness, because of the accelerated space at which we operate. Time is just traveling a lot faster than it did even 15 years ago and the consumption of information and work is at a faster pace. I’m glad I have a great deal of energy to keep up. I am grateful to the many who have opened a door for me and gave me, a young black woman, an entryway to work at Aspen Institute in Communications Policy with a music business degree and to learn from the bottom up.   

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?    

SUMTER: I am most proud of watching my two children witness my journey with inspiration in their eyes and watching 38,000 people return to the DC JazzFest at The Wharf after the pandemic with so much appreciation to be together, to celebrate life and interact with each other. [It was great to see] people from all walks of life connecting around jazz, serving as a platform to show us just how connected we all are.

For more information on DC Jazz Festival see here

And, From the DC Jazz Festival Board of Directors, Don’t Miss This Celebration: 






Imagine NOLA’s French Quarter during springtime. Imagine the sound of jazz music carried in the air along with the smell of Creole food. Imagine second line brass band marching down the street. Now, stop imagining! The DC Jazz Festival Board of Directors is proud to present Let The Good Times Roll, a celebration that brings you to New Orleans at Arena Stage.

This VIP masquerade experience for up to 250 includes a performance by Brassaholics, a second line led by Grand Marshal Elliott Ferguson, and culinary taste to match a vibrancy that you would expect down south.

VIP Reception    6:00 PM

Awards Ceremony    7:30 PM

honoring Terence Blanchard,

DC Jazz Festival Chair Emeritus Conrad Kenley,

Library of Congress’ Larry Appelbaum,

and DC’s Sharon Clark and The String Queens

Dance Party    8:30 PM

featuring the Brassholics

Grand Marshal: Elliott Ferguson


Peter Gillon, Debbie Veney, David Gorodetski, Stephanie Peters, Kathy Hollinger, Erik Moses, Karen Marangi, Joseph Askew, Carmencita Whonder, Stacee Crittenden, Sunny Sumter


tagsAmerican Music AwardsBETChamber Music SocietyCharlie FishmanDuke Ellington Jazz FestivalGeri AllenGrady TateHoward UniversityJazzNiani KilkennyRhythm and Blues FoundationRoy HargroveSergio CaputoSmithsonian AssociatesSmithsonian Jazz Masterworks OrchestraThe Aspen InstituteThe Recording AcademyThe WharfTV One


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *