Black Alumni Chapter Spotlight - Willard Jenkins, ’73

A Lifelong Love of Jazz

Kent State graduate serves as artistic director of DC jazzfest

Since his days as an undergraduate student at Kent State University, one might say jazz has been the soundtrack of Willard Jenkins’, ’73, life.  

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Photo of Willard Jenkins, ’73

Jazz was likely playing as he penned his jazz column for the Black Watch (now Uhuru Magazine) and as he and fellow student activists rapped about and planned demonstrations in support of issues important to Black students and against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. While his undergraduate degree is in sociology, his love for jazz has helped shape his career.  

Jenkins, a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., has been at the center of the DC JazzFest as artistic director since 2015. This year, the 18th annual JazzFest welcomed Kent State alumni to enjoy the sounds, sights and flavors of jazz in Washington, D.C. Jenkins and his team started planning the talent lineup and operations for the festival last year.  They were particularly excited to welcome KSU alumni and all jazz fans back to the city after COVID-related restrictions were in place for the past two years.

“One of the ongoing levels of excitement is the fact that we are a truly international festival – that is incumbent upon us because we are based here in the nation’s capital,” Jenkins said. “That aspect of the festival is very appealing to me personally because jazz is an international language.”

The festival lasted from Wednesday, Aug. 31, to Sunday, Sept. 4, at sites across the nation’s capital, including the Wharf, a new multi-use entertainment and recreation complex along the Potomac River. Musicians from near and far graced the festival's new home, Arena Stage,, including legendary vocalist Dianne Reeves, Latin big band The Mambo Legends Orchestra, Grammy Award-winning jazz bassist Christian McBride & Inside Straight, jazz violinist Regina Carter and The Chien Chien Lu Quintet from China.

Jenkins was also proud that the festival gave local musicians opportunities to showcase their talents at various locations in the community through a series called Jazz in the Hoods.

“We reflect the fact that we live in the DMV (DC-Maryland-Virginia), which is rich with resident jazz talent,” Jenkins said. “We do our best to find places for our resident artists as well.” 

Jazz in the Hoods performances took place at Tacoma station in Northwest Washington, Southeast Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood, the Eaton Hotel and on Capitol Hill downtown, all leading up to the main events Sept. 3-4 at the Wharf.

Because the festival was in D.C., Jenkins wanted to pay homage to Washington’s own Go-Go music. The festival closed with a tribute to Chuck Brown, known as the godfather of Go-Go, with a performance by his original band members.

Jenkins has had a strong relationship with jazz that extends beyond his tenure as the festival’s artistic director. In Cleveland, he worked as a professional jazz critic and was a part of the founding executive team of the Tri-C Jazz Fest, where he spent 18 years as the artistic director.

“When I returned to Cleveland to start my professional career, I got an opportunity to write for the Plain Dealer, and I also wrote for various national and international publications,” he said. “During my years in Cleveland, I gathered together a group of people who founded Northeast Ohio Jazz Society, which presented concerts and performances around the Cleveland community.”

As a jazz journalist, Jenkins admits he is concerned about a lack of young and emerging Black jazz critics – a point he covers in his pending book, “Ain’t But a Few of Us: Black Music Writers Tell Their Story.”

“The book is a series of interviews with African Americans who have written about jazz. The number of African Americans who have written about jazz versus those who have been innovators of jazz music is quite small.” Jenkins said. “This book was not an opportunity to have a public gripe session, but a chance to interview Black writers about their experiences covering this music and how race may have played a part in those experiences.”

POSTED: Monday, September 26, 2022 02:56 PM
UPDATED: Friday, May 24, 2024 06:44 AM