There's no better guide to a city than someone who lives there, so we asked Sunny Sumter, singer and executive director of the DC Jazz Festival, for her take on culture, food, and drink in the town she calls home.
You might say Washington, D.C., suffers a bit from its overexposure. With so much daily—nay, hourly—attention laser-focused on the White House, the Capitol Building, and the people who dwell there, it’s easy to forget that D.C. is a town of neighborhoods, a town of generations-old families, a town where creatives ensure vibrancy and originality on otherwise unremarkable corners and down unlikely alleys. Sunny Sumter can attest to all of that. Executive director of the DC Jazz Festival since 2009, she gravitates towards talent and anything that is, for lack of a better word, hip. Moreover, she’s a born and bred Washingtonian and a graduate of the city’s Howard University, so she has a thorough and deep-seated understanding of our nation’s capital and how it’s changed over the past few decades. We checked in with her to get the skinny on what goes on there, well beyond the bluster and chatter of Capitol Hill.
ALL THAT JAZZ
The DC JazzFest brings world-renowned artists to the city each June, and under Sunny’s watch, the dazzling array of musicians has gone well beyond traditional jazz and included artists like Common, The Roots, Maceo Parker, and plenty more. But even with the talent that she brings to town, she says, “We believe the finest jazz artists in the world live in DC.” And she’ll point you to any number of venues that back up that claim on a regular basis. Mr. Henry’s, for one, is a Capitol Hill joint that looks like an unassuming neighborhood joint from the outside, but go in and it’s a music-lover’s nirvana. Sunny loves the Wednesday night jam sessions, led by local fixtures Herb Scott and Aaron Myers. “Aaron is a comedian in addition to an amazing singer. And Herb plays loops around the sax. The sax has to work to keep up with him!” she says. “It’s a really cozy place. You always feel like you never want to leave.” The session is free, so it’s no surprise that it gets pretty crowded. She advises reserving a table ahead of time so you can eat while you’re there. And speaking of dining, The Hamilton, which fast developed a local following since it opened in 2011, features casual American fare and a subterranean music venue. “It's small enough that you can touch the artist and big enough that they can bring in big artists,” she explains. And happy hour here is not to be missed.
When she has fellow musicians in town, she always makes a point to take them to Blues Alley in Georgetown, the longest-running jazz club in D.C. “They do a great job every single week serving up the jazz in there, all forms of jazz,” she declares.
EAT YOUR HEART OUT
There are several Pizzeria Paradiso outposts around the region these days, but Sunny has been going to the original brick-walled location at 21st and P for as long as she can remember, and it’s the one she’d point anyone to for a quick helping of delicious pie. The menu seems simple, barely covering a single page, but considering there are about 50 toppings to pick and choose from, you’d have a hard time not finding a perfect meal for even the pickiest eater.
One of the fun parts about eating out in D.C. is using it as an excuse to explore the neighborhoods. “People think of it as a federal city, but I think of it as a local city. It’s unique, truly a neighborhood town. You go to different neighborhoods and each has its own flavor,” she says. Ivy City, for instance, is a neighborhood in transition. Once a warehouse district, that industrial vibe has been stylishly appropriated at the rustic Tavern at the Ivy City Smokehouse, which specializes in house-smoked seafood. Its wood tables and floors and chalk-written menus give it a cool, laid-back vibe, making it a top pick for “date night” in Sunny’s book. They also have a market that offers a wildly popular takeout menu.
No market, however, is more popular than Eastern Market, the sprawling bazaar where area farmers, food purveyors, and craftspeople sell their bounty on weekends. It’s been one of Sunny’s go-to's since her college days. Staying in town for a while? Forget the grocery store and head here to stock up on everything from local cheese, bread, and produce to meats and smoked fish, or just wander the aisles and sample the tasty goods.
OUT FROM UNDER THE SMITHSONIAN’S SHADOW
Washington, D.C., is the envy of much of the rest of the nation when it comes to its museums. After all, the many branches of the Smithsonian are free to enter. Sunny's pro-tip: Don’t limit yourself to the Smithsonian, varied though its options may be. Just north of bustling Dupont Circle, the Phillips Collection is a serene and approachable space that features work by a vast array of artists and designers. “They’re so thoughtful in their installations,” she says. “And they do a good job featuring unknown and established artists, both iconic and modern, American and international. You wouldn’t even know it’s so ginormous from looking at it, but you can spend an entire day there.” Sunny admits to doing so herself. With an outside garden, a café called Tryst (“their cappuccinos are really good!”), it’s what she refers to as her “go-away spot” when she needs to get her mind off programming JazzFest for a little while. And parents, take note: There’s a kid-friendly arts and crafts room.
Sunny is an unapologetic thrift shop forager, and she recommends anyone who shares the obsession make a day trip to Savage, Maryland. This quaint town about 20 miles north of DC is home to a range of stores, some of them located in an historic cotton mill that’s been converted to a very modern shopping complex that encompasses everything from antique palaces to galleries to second-hand boutiques. She’s partial to Charity’s Closet, which sells items for $5 and donates proceeds to an affiliate shop that provides clothing to unemployed women. While you’re there, might as well make a day of it. There’s a walking trail near the river and, for when you’re ready to recuperate, Rams Head Tavern is a dependable place to refuel with elevated pub grub and craft beer. It’s one of a handful of spots in town with live music.