Growing up in Silver Spring, Akua Allrich would often go to the annual Silver Spring Jazz Festival to hear the successors to her idols like Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba and Bill Withers. Other greats such as John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk were on heavy rotation in her childhood home, as was the late Aretha Franklin.
“Jazz was really big in my house. A lot of Motown stuff, too,” Allrich said of her early years. “My parents were big on giving us a different option other than the radio.”
Allrich would go on to study music at D.C.’s Howard University and soon afterwards embark on a performance career of her own — one that will her bring her full circle on Saturday when she performs at the Silver Spring Jazz Festival.
The festival runs from 3 to 10 p.m. Saturday, with Grammy winner and festival headliner Dianne Reeves performing at 8:30. Allrich and her group, The Tribe, will precede Reeves at 5:45 p.m.
The afternoon’s first act will be the revered Jazz Academy of Music, an ensemble of middle-school-age players based in Silver Spring. The ensemble was founded and is still led by Paul Carr, who wanted to continue to preach the evangelism of jazz after he himself had been blessed to learn from musical greats while growing up in the inner city. The Jazz Academy, he said, also offers a way to encourage young people to explore that most American of art forms.
Carr said his ensemble has been involved in the Silver Spring Jazz Festival since 2005, when the Jazz Academy players rode through the streets on a float, similar to the street parades of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. “We would pull up the float right up in front of the judges and each band would perform,” Carr said of his group’s early participation in the festival. “And, I think, that first year Wynton Marsalis was a judge.
“It had a lot of logistical problems, but it was really a good thing because people would come out and see the bands play as they were going down the street. We were actually fortunate enough to win that year.”
Once again, Carr will bring the Jazz Academy band this year, although he said the ensemble has long since ceased taking part in the parade and competition aspects. Furthermore, with the school year just commencing, he felt his group would not have enough time to prepare to compete.
“We consider it a huge honor to play there every year with the kids, and the parents really come out and support” the students, Carr said. “I have parents from previous years — their kids are in high school or they’ve gone on and graduated from college, and they still come back to see the Jazz Academy perform.”
Despite being a longtime fan of the event and growing up so close by, the 2018 iteration will be Allrich’s first time performing at the festival, she said. Even with the proximity to her childhood Silver Spring haunts, she said that the road from attending to performing has been long and difficult.
“Everybody doesn’t get that chance to just be ‘discovered,’ if you will,” she said. “Mostly, it’s going out and paving the way for yourself, and not sitting around waiting for other people to pave it for you. This is the business; it’s not easy in that way.”
Allrich said she looks forward to rubbing elbows with Reeves and speaking with the other jazz musicians on the bill. “Whoever will talk to me, I’ll talk to them. I get a little bit shy because [performers] have their own space and they don’t want to be bothered,” she said. “I’ll definitely go and pick somebody’s brain and see what advice they can offer me because I’m still learning as well.”
Meanwhile, Carr said the festival will give his young charges a chance to experience the music up close and personal. “I’m a performer and an educator, so I just love the adrenaline and the amount of focus on the students’ faces when they know that the red light comes on and they have to perform,” he said. “And everyone out there receiving all the energy and positive vibes from the crowd is what I look forward to. It’s really a holiday.”
Allrich, who described her own musical style as “people-friendly,” said that the original compositions she will perform speak to her eclectic jazz upbringing just down the road. “It’s jazz with soul, and so people are always talking about my stuff as ‘soul jazz,’” she said, adding that her music boasts a “pan-African” pedigree. “I get people involved in singing and dancing. So, they’re definitely not going to get a boring experience.”
Carr said he wants this year’s Silver Spring Jazz Festival to be the biggest yet, noting that there’s no reason the annual festival should not continue to grow in size and prestige in the years to come.
“If you’ve come before, tell all your friends about it, because this is an event that needs to be supported,” Carr said. “It has an emphasis on jazz education, and that’s what we really need to focus on — not only to keep the music vibrant and relevant and growing.”
The Silver Spring Jazz Festival takes place Saturday, Sept. 8, 3 to 10 p.m., at Veterans Plaza in Silver Spring. Admission is free. For information and a schedule, visit www.silverspringdowntown.com.