It started as an idea to promote the music they love and has become a full-time passion – with the attendant headaches of fundraising and working 24/7 for modest, if any, return.
Giovanni Russonello, a writer and music critic, and Luke Stewart, a bassist spanning many musical genres, started CapitalBop, now a 501c(3) nonprofit, as a jazz calendar at www.capitalbop.com, but it has become so much more. It has blossomed into a community of its own with monthly DC Jazz Loft shows, a digital magazine on its website, www.capitalbop.com, and a large presence annually in the DC Jazz Festival.
The Duo Behind CapitalBop
Russonello, 28, a native of the area, has been a music critic for the New York Times and has also written for The Washington Post, JazzTimes, and NPR Music, and has hosted “On the Margin,” a books show on WPFW-FM radio. A Tufts University graduate, he says of his jazz background that his parents “were kinda into it. (Brubeck/Desmond, MJQ, Sarah Vaughan, Bill Evans).” He adds, “But more importantly, they subtly encouraged me to explore my love of history, of American society, and to do so in a curious way. That makes African-derived improvised music, that is, jazz and its extensions, a natural place to go to nurture and expand that exploration.”
He says of starting CapitalBop in 2010, “There was a disconnect between DC’s jazz bandstands – their vibrancy and culture of cross-generational engagement – and the relatively meager jazz audience, whose members generally tended to be unaware of each other and how many shows were happening. I started the site as a calendar with some editorial writing. Luke became part of it literally on day one, and has been co-directing our operation consistently since then. The presenting thing really started thanks to an idea I had, a related idea Luke had, and then really Luke’s initiative and his use of this studio space he had.”
Stewart, 30, originally from Mississippi, has also been a journalist for the website and is a programmer on WPFW-FM radio, where he hosts “Jam Session” every Wednesday at midnight. As a musician, he recently self-released his debut album, “Works for Double Bass and Amplifier.”
The Calendar and Programming
The comprehensive jazz calendar at www.capitalbop.com is a detailed resource to find jazz every day of the week, every month of the year, with listings including main jazz venues like Blues Alley, Twins Jazz, Westminster Presbyterian Church, and the Kennedy Center, but also dozens of clubs and restaurants and other venues that regularly have jazz, like Columbia Station, the 18th Street Lounge, Sotto, and Jazz and Cultural Society.
CapitalBop’s shows and concert venues have ranged from the small and cozy, such as old Red Door and Union Arts, to larger spaces, such as the Abramson Family Auditorium downtown, which was sold out in April for Michael Formanek’s band Ensemble Kolussus. Monthly loft shows these days are often at Capital Fringe on Florida Avenue in Northeast DC, at the Fridge on Eighth Street Southeast, and at Rhizome in upper Northwest.
This year’s CapitalBop DC Jazz Festival shows in June featured harpist Brandee Younger, vocalist Christie Dashiell, guitarist Mary Halvorson, saxophonist Brian Settles, Odean Pope’s Saxophone Choir, and trombonist Reginald Cyntje.
Russonello says of the CapitalBop shows that he has enjoyed “bringing people closer to the music,” but also says that “we need more private supporters (or general-operation grant support), which will allow the organization to really become a reliable warrior, with a lot of roles, on the DC jazz scene.”
Stewart, who has experienced it as a musician, promoter, radio programmer, and journalist, says, “The act of presenting concerts of marginalized music like jazz is always a challenge … I’m very proud of the fact that we have, and DC has, comparatively, one of the most diverse jazz audiences. However, the young concert-going audience in DC tends to be from the ever-growing transplant population with few ties to or knowledge of the city’s music legacy … We were able to attract young listeners from the outset because we placed the music in a venue that is already within the sphere of young hipsters … All that was required was to put jazz in there, and the scene was created for young audiences.”
Russonello says CapitalBop does fundraising and writes grants for the majority of its budget. “We take in at least a few thousand each year in private/individual donations, and much more than that in grants,” he says. They have no regular staff. “We pay staff on an ad hoc (gig by gig) basis. We also use a lot of volunteer labor.”
For the future, Stewart says, “We are looking to enhance our presentations … and work with more national presenting organizations in setting up tour networks for some of the more high-profile artists, always with the goal of pairing them with local musicians to keep the momentum of local interaction.”
The digital magazine on the website features stories, reviews, and interviews on a regular basis, including a recent interview with bassist Linda May Han Oh; a review of the Andrew White concert at Blues Alley in April that celebrated the local saxophonist’s 75th birthday; a review of legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s “The Unfolding,” an orchestral suite; and a review of area bassist Michael Bowie & the Blast in June at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
There are also maps that easily locate DC jazz clubs and other venues. And there is an extensive directory of musicians. “Here is an ever-expanding list,” says the site, “of the musicians who call D.C. home, links to hear their music, and contact info” – with website, Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and other links. There is also an “Ex-Patriate” list, which has information on “a number of Washington-area natives who have become full-time jazz musicians now reside elsewhere – many in New York.”
Willard Jenkins, artistic director of the DC Jazz Festival and a radio programmer for WPFW-FM and writer and educator on our jazz scene in the area for many years, says of CapitalBop, “Through their CapitalBop vehicle Gio Russonello and Luke Stewart bring a fresh perspective on the cutting edges of jazz music to the DC JazzFest. Their efforts at elevating jazz in particular, and some of the more creative programming in the DC area throughout the year, are laudable and in keeping with our mission.”
Saxophonist Tedd Baker says of Russonello and Stewart, “When they teamed up and started the loft series I thought it was a great idea that harkens back to the ‘loft hangs’ in New York from the early 80s. It’s all about making a new scene for folks to be creative.”
Allyn Johnson, one of our veteran top pianists and the jazz studies director at the University of the District of Columbia, says, “CapitalBop has become a very important force in the DC jazz community because it helps foster the movement and vitality of jazz as a living and breathing art form.”
Paul Carr, saxophonist, educator, and organizer of the annual Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival, says Russonello and Stewart represent “the new breed in jazz presenting. The many services they provide … enrich the jazz scene and the community. They make DC Even hipper!”