Best DC jazz presenter: Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center presents more jazz in 2009-10 than all the other US government cultural institutions combined — some 40 concerts of new and established talent in all styles. No surprise, public performance being the Center’s reason for being, while the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution are mandated for research and archival activities. But who supports the KenCen’s jazz?

Congress appropriates monies for the Kennedy Center’s maintenance and operations, not programming. Claiming to put on more than 2000 shows annually, for audiences topping 2 million, the Center pays for its programs through ticket sales (though it has a free, streaming and archived concert every day from 6-7 pm), funds from the U.S. Department of Education and competitive grants, contributions from individuals and corporations. In the past, the KC Jazz Club, in which about half this year’s jazz concerts take place, has been underwritten by Cadillac and GMAC. This year there’s no single corporate sponsor — yet programming hasn’t been cut back. 

Starting Sept. 25 with singer Melissa Walker and group featuring bassist Christian McBride and drummer Clarence Penn, the Center’s jazz continues through June 11 with something for everybody: Kenny Barron, Dave Holland, Bill Frisell, McCoy Tyner, Jon Irabagon, Stefon Harris, Lee Konitz, Sonny Rollins, Dianne Reeves, John Pizzarelli, Mark O’Connor, Carl Allen-Rodney Whitaker, Delfeayo Marsalis, Toshiko Akyoshi, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Jonathan Batiste, Maurice Brown, Alison Brown, George Benson, Mavis Staples, Diane Schuur and more. Pianist Dr. Billy Taylor, first appointed artistic advisor on jazz for the Kennedy Center in 1994, works with Kevin Struthers, director of jazz programming, on the schedule. 
The  Millennium Stage, where each evening’s free concert (not just jazz, all kinds of performance) occurs, has its own financial endowment to cover artists costs, and its own artistic director. (Since 1999 those shows have been webcast and archived, too — watch them here and I’m going for the Nov. 27, 2008 90-minute special with DC saxophonist Buck Hill and pianist Larry Willis’ trio.) The Millennium Stage is site of annual performances including Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead residency for young people and mentors, sets in conjunction with the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, concerts under the Smithsonian’s Jazz Appreciation Month umbrella, and it presents jazz student groups from the local Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Howard University and George Washington University.
The Kennedy Center also offers theater rental opportunities for outside producers wishing to take over its spaces; Jazz at Lincoln Center did that during Barack Obama’s inaugural festivities to feature Wynton Marsalis with retiring Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor in an invitation-only but nationally televised concert called “Let Freedom Swing!”
None of this explains how the Kennedy Center finances its jazz programming, does it? Erin Dowdy, senior press representative of the Kennedy Center, explains that some individuals and corporations contribute not to specific programs but to the Center in general, providing funds which higher-ups can distribute to programs as they see fit. Would a downturn in contributions across the boards necessitate a cutback on performances? Oh, no, Ms. Dowdy says. 

“President [Michael M.] Kaiser believes the Center should never cut the arts programmikng — that we present great art, well marketed, and it shouldn’t suffer, because great art is how we keep this institution alive.”

But great art in institutions connected with the cultural image the U.S. wants to project requires funding, too. In a future series, I’ll look at corporations and individuals underwriting jazz on nationwide basis. If you have information on any doing that, please forward it to this blog. 

This is the third in a three-part series on  major, federally-supported institutions and jazz
Part I Library of Congress
Part II  Smithsonian
Part III Kennedy Center
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  1. Deepak Ram says

    I am an exponent of bansuri (indian classical flute) and have recently moved to DC.
    I am working on interpreting Jazz standards, through the philosophy and methodology of Indian Classical music