NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–As much as she enjoyed performing recently in a festival held at the prestigious Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, the name of the event–“Diet Coke Women in Jazz Festival”–struck a slightly discordant note with soprano saxophonist and composer Jane Ira Bloom.
“If you had told me in 1978 that in 2005 we’d still be having a ‘women in jazz’ festival, I never would have believed it,” says Bloom. “I would have thought that women would have made better inroads.”
Bloom performed in the first-ever women’s jazz festival held in Kansas City, Mo., 27 years ago and has subsequently carved out an impressive career in the field. She was once selected by Time magazine as “one of ten women to watch” and has had an asteroid named after her by astronomers.
Whatever her level of chagrin about female jazz musicians still needing their own festival, Bloom and the other female performers had no complaints about being presented in the inaugural event held in Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, which is located in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new home, the Frederick P. Rose Hall. It is the only performing arts center in the world devoted exclusively to jazz.
“Women have been quietly making a solid contribution to jazz for the last half century,” says Todd Barkan, the artistic manager of Dizzy’s Club and a longtime jazz producer. “They’re doing their own thing on a world-class level.”
Inspiring Younger Women
Barkan says he’s long felt a strong desire to broaden the recognition of women. “It’s just a healthy thing to do all down the line,” says the festival curator, who invited popular female jazz singers like Angela Bofill and Rita Coolidge to perform along with lesser known, up-and-coming artists. “If more women are presented on a more regular basis as headliners, it will inspire the younger women,” he adds.
“The main thing is to get the chance to play,” says Toshiko Akiyoshi, a pianist, composer and bandleader whose trio played to packed houses during the festival. “Otherwise, some women may not have the opportunity to play in the limelight.”
Women have shaped the landscape of jazz from the beginning. The role of the upfront female jazz vocalist, personified by Billie Holiday, has long been established, as has a female presence behind the piano. Pianist-composer-arranger Mary Lou Williams arranged songs for Duke Ellington and contributed scores to Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. She also influenced male jazz artists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell.
But many jazz women, particularly those who play instruments traditionally associated with men, like the trumpet or drums, still don’t receive the same degree of acceptance or exposure as their male peers.
For example, Lenora Zenzalai Helm, a bandleader, composer, arranger and singer, told Women’s eNews that backstage at Dizzy’s a female singer from Italy came up to her and remarked about her bass player Miriam Sullivan.
“She said, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a woman who plays bass,'” says Helm, who adds that when her group is on tour, “people gape at Miriam like she’s a ghost.”
Groupies Have to Walk
“When you’re not part of the boys’ club, it can be rough,” says saxophonist Kit McClure, who is one of a growing number of female big band leaders. She still vividly recalls an instance early in her career, in 1967, when she was playing in a high school band and arrived for a gig that was to take place in an upstairs gym. When she tried to board the elevator, the operator told her, “Sorry, this elevator is only for the musicians. The groupies have to walk up the stairs.”
Even today, when McClure gets a call for her all-female big band to play a gig, the caller will commonly ask, “Oh, can they really play?”
She says it’s not easy for women or men to maintain a career in the jazz profession. “There are few crumbs to go around,” says McClure.
At Washington’s Kennedy Center in May, her group performed the music of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a popular all-female and mostly black jazz orchestra from the 1930s and ’40s.
“These were women who made it against all odds to become a great, great band up there with Duke Ellington,” says McClure, who has made it her mission to keep their music alive.
A Slow Moving Train
While change in the jazz scene can sometimes feel like a very slow moving A train, organizations like the International Women in Jazz and the Sisters in Jazz program of the International Association for Jazz Education provide mentoring, support and encouragement for women jazz artists.
Helm, who teaches music workshops around the United States, says she’s observed that many younger female jazz artists don’t particularly want to participate in women’s festivals.
“They feel ghettoized by it,” says Helm. “I also look forward to the day when there won’t be a need for a woman’s jazz festival. And when I no longer hear, ‘Hey, she plays great for a girl.'”
The nonprofit Lincoln Center says the women’s jazz festival–held this year between Sept. 6 and Oct. 2–was a success and will become an annual event.
One of the more satisfying moments of the festival at Dizzy’s, says Barkan, came when the 87-year-old host of NPR’s “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz” front-loaded her set with female-written songs such as “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory” by Mary Lou Williams and the more obscure “Rain on the Roof” by Anne Ronell.
“She took it another step,” says Barkan, “by celebrating great female composers and arrangers.”
The Diet Coke Women in Jazz Festival featured about 40 female headliners, including drummer Sherrie Maricle and her all-female DIVA Jazz Orchestra, drummer Cindy Blackman, and Grammy-winning singer Rita Coolidge. Violinist Karen Briggs and accompanist for new age music star Yanni, closes the festival on Oct. 2.
Ann Farmer is an independent journalist who lives in New York City. She does general assignment reporting for The New York Times and contributes stories and essays to various publications including Emmy, The Christian Science Monitor, Dance Magazine and others.
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