2017 was a tough one.

There was no singular, defining ax fall this year, the way there was with the loss of Bohemian Caverns in 2016; however, there was also no real recovery from last year’s challenges. The key to the Caves’s high status was that it was the rallying point: musicians, people on the scene such as myself, fans, and just passers-through all converged there. It was irreplaceable. Likely a new headquarters will emerge; it has not happened yet.

Instead, there is a dispersal of that energy. Mr. Henry’s is a hip spot, thanks to Herb Scott and Aaron Myers’ tireless energy in building its weekly jam session and its weekend hits. (This year they also debuted the Capitol Hill Jazz Festival, firmly establishing that they have a real contribution to make.) Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society has cut a real niche for itself (and for the people!) on Brookland. Takoma DC’s Rhizome seems well and truly entrenched as the avant-garde’s prime hang, with Trinidad’s DC Fringe as its backup. The Kennedy Center just gets more and more interesting in Jason Moran’s hands. Blues Alley, Twins, Columbia Station, and Jazz Night at Westminster Presbyterian show no signs of slowing down. But they all serve different factions of the scene. None of them (yet) constitutes a core.

Those of us documenting the scene have had a harder time, too. CapitalBop is a shell of its former self; Luke Stewart and Jackson Sinnenberg work hard to keep it happening, but things have undeniably changed with founder Giovanni Russonello now (much deservedly) holding the chair at the New York Times. The bizarre, abrupt, entirely childish dismantling of DCist was a huge setback, and the turmoil at Washington City Paper surely needs no recounting here.

That said, there is a tentative new precinct developing back in the place where it all started, nearly 100 years ago. I speak of the intersection of 14th and U Streets NW, Jazz Central in the Jazz Age and for a long time after. Jeff Stacey continues to book JoJo at 15th and U, polarizing some but building a great stable of residencies and regular clientele. Musician Joe Herrera has recently become the talent buyer at Marvin, bringing in some of the best in town. Meanwhile, down 14th a few blocks, Omrao Brown has staged his own comeback as the talent buyer for Sotto—the hip basement charcuterie and bar that is in the old HR-57 address.

Meanwhile, hope and stability creeps back into the jazz press…and music? Was there great music? See below.

Luke Stewart

Never has this question had such an obvious answer. Stewart began the year as the subject of a Washington Post profile that viewed D.C.’s jazz and creative music scene through the lens of, well, him. He ended it with a weeklong residency at Rhizome, which also allowed him to spotlight his fellow travelers. Between those two benchmarks, he’s done a bit of everything, from performing with Wadada Leo Smith to touring with James Brandon Lewis to making (at least) two extraordinary and compelling records, as well as keeping CapitalBop’s lights on with a quarterly concert series. Vive le Luke, the artist of the year.

Kris Funn, Corner Store

Already a virtuoso on the four-string upright, Funn demonstrates equal virtuosity as a composer and a musical thinker. The self-titled debut by his Corner Store ensemble is a beautifully illuminated psychic map of his personal and artistic evolution, from a childhood in west Baltimore to a beloved U Street residency and beyond.

Kenny Rittenhouse

Rittenhouse has long deserved higher honors than this paltry notice. A virtuoso who hails from the Clifford Brown/Freddie Hubbard school (of course, doesn’t everybody?), he has a shining sound that also, remarkably, wears its sympathetic pathos on its sleeve. There’s some inescapable je ne sais quoi in his tone that adds beautiful depth to every note he plays.

Shannon Gunn 

As before, the competition in this category comes down to Reginald Cyntje and Shannon Gunn, and both have had quite exciting years that involved new directions for them. Gunn has the edge, though, simply because her work in 2017 has been that of a remarkable creative growth.

Sarah Hughes

On the subject of creative growth, wow. Hughes has sustained the most stunning arc in recent memory, and moments of that came in defiance of a nightmarish assault and theft earlier this year. Conceptually, technically, improvisationally, she is one step ahead of damn near all of us—keep your eye and ear on her.

Elijah Jamal Balbed 

Back living in Washington, Balbed is as busy as ever, but also newly focused on his justly celebrated Jo-Go Project—the DCest thing that ever DC’d—and incidentally sounding better than ever on his horn.

Leigh Pilzer

Pilzer can (and does play any sax, but there’s something special about the rich, heavy tone she gets out of the bari. (Rich and heavy even by bari standards.)

Marshall Keys

We may have another perennial winner on our hands here—Keys’ gorgeous work defies gravity.

Allyn Johnson
Sam Prather

For some reason I haven’t seen Johnson play live this year—at least, not in person. His habit of running Facebook Live video of his hands on the keyboard has shown that he’s as great as ever. Prather, on the other hand, I have seen live (and not just on piano), and his imagination and dedication are a treat.

Kris Funn 

Pushing 40, Funn is a Not-So-Young Lion. But he’s lost none of the intensity or hunger of youth, even as he’s gained in maturity, wisdom, and technique. Watching him work is a genuine thrill.

Mark Prince

Every time I see and hear Prince’s smart, versatile, effortless (seemingly instinctual) work behind the kit, I say to myself, “I have to remember this at Jazzies time.” Seeing him this year with Marshall Keys’s trio, I knew there could be no further delay.

Victor Provost 

I told you.

Lori Williams

What a beautiful instrument Williams has, and what care and skill and tremendous emotional weight she brings to it. Every time one hears it, one is startled anew at her raw talent and the way she’s honed and purefied that talent into something

Reginald Cyntje 

Last year’s impressive Moods and Colors cycle was placed on indefinite hold when Cyntje engaged with the turbulence of the times. His current cycle, The Rise of the Protester, reflects and makes art of that turbulence as well as anything you’ve heard this year.

Tyler Leak

A new category, perhaps unique to this year, but eminently worthy to mention Leak. The young drummer (who shares a hometown with this writer, and bassist Herman Burney to boot) has an aura of joy in his craft that evokes New York great Brian Blade, and Leak seems to be in pursuit of Blade’s imagination and precision as well. He’s gaining on it.

DC Jazz Festival

The best news, all in all, is that there are now enough jazz festivals in DC to justify a “best festival” category. But the big one is still the best one, even if its association this year with the Howard Theatre didn’t do much to help either partner.

Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra 

The nation’s resident is easy to overlook; it has eight concerts in its season, doesn’t do much in the way of marketing, and has that institutionalism that makes so many music fans suspicious. But it’s got some of the best musicians in the country, let alone the town (two of them on this list), and this season one of its most ambitious, interesting programs yet. Duke Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert? Sign me up!

Kris Funn and Corner Store

Every time I’ve seen this band this year, it’s been a completely different lineup (Funn the only constant). Yet it’s always got fierce soul and fiercer groove, the kind of stuff you’re always hearing jaded elders say is missing from jazz in the 2010s. Go see Corner Store—then you can tell those elders you’ve got news for them.