Columbia, Maryland, turned 20 in 1987, and many of the town’s pioneers wanted to throw a birthday party that would not only celebrate the anniversary but would also reassert the town’s distinctive identity. A major community-based corporation contributed $60,000 to throw an event called “Hail Columbia.”
On the tail of “Hail Columbia,” a consensus emerged that there should be a Columbia Festival of the Arts that represented all genres; that combined both local and national performers; and that reflected and was accessible to all elements of the community: races, ages, incomes, and genders. The mission was to “present programs of the highest artistic quality that feature distinguished nationally known artists” and to produce an “annual arts event that builds the spirit of community.” Thus, the Columbia Festival, Inc. was founded in 1987.
Following more than a year of planning and fund raising, the first Columbia Festival of the Arts was a three-day event held in mid-June 1989. The main attraction was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performing at the Merriweather Post Pavilion amphitheatre. The rest of the weekend schedule included a performance of “The Belle of Amherst” and a concert by the Library of Congress Chamber Players. Free performances were held at the Columbia lakefront throughout the weekend.
By the next year, it had expanded to a two-weekend, 10-day extravaganza. The three “pillars” of the 1990 event were violinist Itzhak Perlman with the BSO, the art-song duo of William Bolcom & Joan Morris, and the Pilobolus Dance Theatre. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with Fred Sherry also began its long association with the Festival. The lineup also included jazz legend Marian McPartland and then-unknown actor Charles Dutton. Free performances continued at the Columbia lakefront.
The BSO, Bolcom & Morris and the Annapolis Brass Quintet all returned to the Festival in 1991, inaugurating a pattern of bringing back favorite acts so the Howard County audiences could develop an ongoing relationship with them. Also included in the lineup were Sir James Galway, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and the Garth Fagan Dance Company. Other notable acts were jazz legend Gary Bartz, the Capitol Steps comedy troupe, and folk-music legend Tom Paxton.
In 1992, the Festival featured pianist Andre Watts with the BSO and collaboration between the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Columbia Pro Cantare. Other highlights included the bluegrass legends the Johnson Mountain Boys, emerging jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard and folk singer John McCutcheon.
The 1993 Festival inaugurated poetry reading with nationally prominent poets Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell and Lucille Clifton. Other notable bookings included emerging singer Eva Cassidy, the MOMIX dance troupe and ballerina Amanda McKerrow. But the star of the 1993 Festival was fiddler Mark O’Connor. He performed in three different contexts: with a bluegrass band at the free Lakefront, with the Glenn Gould String Quartet and guests, and with the BSO at Merriweather.
The 1994 Festival featured blues legend Taj Mahal, emerging jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut, raconteur Garrison Keillor and the BSO’s last appearance at the Merriweather Post Pavilion.
In 1995, the Festival presented jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson, the Pilobolus Dance Theatre and a collaboration between actress Claire Bloom and flutist Eugenia Zukerman. Other notable bookings included jazz pianist George Shearing, novelist Mary Gordon, actress Tana Hicken in “The Belle of Amherst” and jazz singer Diane Schuur.
In 1996 jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, classical clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and jazz singer Joe Williams appeared. Also on hand were actor William Windom, poet Mary Oliver and go-go music founder Chuck Brown.
The Festival in 1997 featured Hal Holbrook in “Mark Twain Tonight,” the Miami City Ballet, the Parsons Dance Company and the chamber orchestra, I Musici de Montreal. Latin-jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, the Irish folk band Celtic Thunder, soprano Alina Kozinska and the Chicago Blues Explosion were also featured.
The Columbia Festival of the Arts hosted soul-music legend Aretha Franklin in 1998. The other highlights of that year were the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, the Pilobolus Dance Theatre, mambo bandleader Jose “El Canario” Alberto and opera singer Kishna Davis. It was also the first year of the Festival’s collaboration with the African Art Museum of Maryland to host a mini-jazz festival.
The headliners for 1999 were classical guitarist Christopher Parkening, jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, jazz organist Jimmy McGriff and choreographer Doug Varone. Also appearing were the Roadside Theatre, the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, jazz saxophonist Frank Foster and Rick Danko of The Band.
The 2000 Festival saw the return of Parkening, Foster, Lucille Clifton and Mark O’Connor (with Natalie MacMaster), and the debuts of country-music legend Emmylou Harris, jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath, poet Edward Hirsch and five Maryland Poet Laureates, cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci, the Cajun band BeauSoleil, classical singer Jubilant Sykes, and the Washington Ballet.
The Columbia Festival of the Arts became truly international with its 2001 edition. Among the featured acts were Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba, Israeli choreographer Inbal Pinto, the Canadian theater company Le Deux Mondes, the Brazilian percussion troupe Olodum, Indian sitarist Kartik Seshadri, the Cuban dance band Traje Nuevo, Irish-American fiddler Eileen Ivers, the Haitian reggae band Third World, the Senegalese Afropop band Toure Toure, and Israel’s Haifa Festival Orchestra. Representing the home team were choreographer Twyla Tharp, cabaret singer Tom Wopat, the Washington Ballet, FreeFall Dance, jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and jazz saxophonist Vincent Herring.
The 2003 Festival featured dance legend Mikhail Baryshnikov, composer Philip Glass, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, comedy troupe The Second City, rock’n'roll legend Bo Diddley, the bluegrass Del McCoury Band and the poet Sekou Sundiata. Rennie Harris and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company also returned.
The 2004 Festival featured two concerts at the Merriweather Post Pavilion with crooner Harry Connick Jr. and alternative-rockers the Indigo Girls. Making return visits were BeauSoleil and MOMIX. Making debuts were Latin-jazz saxophonist David Sanchez, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, actor Frank Ferrante in “An Evening with Groucho,” the South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company, the Pennsylvania Ballet, and the Shangri La Chinese Acrobats.
New Orleans’ The Neville Brothers and The Second City comedy troupe headlined the 2005 Festival, which also included the Imago Theatre’s FROGZ, the Nebellen Dance Company, Canada’s Scrap Arts Music, jazz saxophonist Don Braden and the Celtic-rock band featured in the film “Titanic,” Gaelic Storm.
Headlining the 2006 season was Blood Sweat & Tears with special guest artist Chuck Negron (formerly of Three Dog Night), bluegrass legends The Seldom Scene, Irvin Mayfield & The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, The Flying Karamazov Brothers, The East Village Opera Company, Ireland’s Gráda and premier pop-up book artist Robert Sabuda. Also featured were the Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers, The Langston Hughes Project, comedians Ty Barnett and RENO, and off-Broadways’ longest-running musical, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. The Festival closed with the sold-out cirque-like Diavolo.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary against the backdrop of Columbia’s 40th birthday, the Festival presented a very special black tie event in May, An Evening with John Waters. During the regular 2007 season, June 6 through 23, many notable artists from past Festival’s were presented including Wynton Marsalis, MOMIX and The Second City. First time appearances were made by the iconic folk rock group, America, the extraordinary troupe of Canadian fiddlers, Barrage, The Spencers: Theatre of Illusion, and the Grammy-nominated Hampton Rock String Quartet. Collaboration was a key element of this milestone year, pairing violin virtuosos Mark O’Connor with the Columbia Orchestra, the Minnesota Dance Theatre with the choral group Columbia Pro Cantare in Carmina Burana, and an array of local residents were featured in Squonk Opera’s presentation of Columbia: The Opera. With fireworks and multiple performances by Autralia’s Strange Fruit atop 12 foot poles, it was an unforgettable celebration.
Headlining the 2008 season was folk icon Judy Collins, Tony award-winning choreographer Garth Fagan Dance, Luna Negra Dance Theater, and author Manil Suri. Also featured were the physical daredevils of STREB vs. Gravity, Fred Garbo Inflatable Theater Co., Sweet Plantain String Quartet, and the winner of NBC’s hit reality program Phenomenon, illusionist Mike Super. The Festival closed with the triumphant return of The East Village Opera Company.
In 2009 the Festival featured the timeless comedy of the legendary Smothers Brothers, the Latin-infused modern dance of Ballet Hispanic, and the string bending virtuosity of The California Guitar Trio. The Festival also welcomed the improvisational comedy of Chicago City Limits, novelist Laura Lippman, and the high energy fiddlers of Canada’s Barrage.
Headlining the 2010 Festival was folk legend Arlo Guthrie, the traditional New Orleans jazz of Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and the modern dance virtuosity of Parsons Dance. The season also featured guitar virtuoso Alex de Grassi, novelist Sheila Kohler, and the genre-bending string band beatlegras. Comedy was well represented by the Winners’ Circle Comedy Tour featuring John Heffron, Jon Reep and Iliza Shlesinger as well as Patrick Combs’ one-man-show Man 1, Bank 0.
In 2011 the Festival welcomed jazz legends The Manhattan Transfer, television and film star Ed Asner as FDR, comedian Paula Poundstone and Charles Ross’ One Man Star Wars Trilogy. Featured musical artists included soul singer Bettye LaVette and the traditional Irish music of Celtic Crossroads. The free LakeFest weekend featured multiple performances by the aerial acrobats of Wise Fool New Mexico and the big band spectacular of MarchFourth Marching Band.
Celebrating its silver anniversary in 2012, the Festival kicked off with the annual free LakeFest weekend in Columbia Town Center. Highlighting the weekend were Cirque Carpe Diem’s high-flying acrobats and the return by overwhelming demand of MarchFourth Marching Band. The season lineup featured other popular performers from prior seasons including The Flying Karamazov Brothers, Charles Ross (in his One-Man Lord of the Rings), The Second City, and the genre-bending dance company MOMIX. Joining them were first-time Festival artists Rosanne Cash, the Ahn Trio, Australia’s family-friendly ERTH’s Dinosaur Petting Zoo, Baltimore’s storytelling series The Stoop, authors Edith Pearlman and Tayari Jones, and a screening of the award-winning documentary Breaking Through the Clouds by local filmmaker Heather Taylor.