How To Throw A Meaningful Women In Jazz Event

Because sometimes you're just craving worms, and you need to open up a new can.

Maria Schneider

Maria Schneider: Minnesota's finest. Photo Credit: Margot Schulman/Kennedy Center

A week and change ago, I had the privilege to attend the closing night of the Kennedy Center's 14th Annual Mary Lou Williams Women In Jazz Festival. I'll admit that I wasn't initially attracted to the show to explore the hidden gender constructions embedded within such an event, and consequently unpack them on the Internet. Rather, I was just following the maxim that one should always see Maria Schneider's jaw-dropping orchestra live if it is remotely within one's capacity to do so. (In other news: this Kool-Aid is delicious, and you should try some.) But hearing and seeing the words "Women In Jazz" at every turn throughout the evening (amid recent chatter around the jazz blogosphere), it proved difficult to ignore the programmatic intent behind the concert.

Assuming that it is an inherently good thing to promote female participation in jazz, a world which has historically shut women out of its dominant narratives and still features significantly more guys than gals, a festival like the Kennedy Center's invites the question: is this helpful? More precisely, does billing an event as "women in jazz" celebrate the against-the-grain accomplishments of women at the possible expense of reinforcing the achievement gap itself? Do Women In Jazz festivals constitute a sort of affirmative action, complete with all the thorny issues therein?

I'm not confident that I have a firm answer. But in an interview with DCist's Sriram Gopal, bassist and Berklee instructor Esperanza Spalding — who headlined the festival's first night — clearly did: "I have an aversion to all things 'women-in-whatever.' I don't see a purpose for it," she said bluntly. "Wouldn't it be offensive if there was a Japanese in folk music festival? You're isolating that demographic." Seen differently: if the ultimate goal is to make biological sex a non-issue in performing jazz, could isolating female talent smack of tokenism, or worse, counterproductivity?

Of course, Spalding still took the gig, so it certainly wasn't a deal-breaker for her. Moreover, none of this is to say that the Kennedy Center doesn't have its heart in the right place. I e-mailed Kevin Struthers, director of Jazz Programming at the venue, for his explanation of why it puts this on every year. He says it was originally pianist and jazz ambassador Dr. Billy Taylor's idea: "The philosophy behind the project is to 1) carry on the legacy of Mary Lou Williams — an influential figure in jazz history as a composer, musician, arranger, and humanitarian; and 2) to highlight the talents of female jazz musicians who traditionally have not been given the same prominence and opportunities for exposure to the public," he wrote. Hard to find anything but earnest do-goodery in that.

And ultimately, the Kennedy Center frequently picked out great performers. Star ascendant Spalding and Anat Cohen (with full jazz orchestra) the first night; the venerable Dee Dee Bridgewater and compositionally-minded percussionist Annette Aguilar the second; the aforementioned Maria Schneider and a luminescent Carmen Lundy for the finale. If "Women In Jazz" served merely as an excuse to put great acts together, it would be awfully difficult to complain with any meaningful force.

Carmen Lundy

Carmen Lundy is good at 1) music 2) wearing eye makeup. Photo Credit: Margot Schulman/Kennedy Center

Still, it strikes me that a slightly better model can be found for presenting women jazz performers. And I'm inclined to say that violinist/violist Tanya Kalmanovitch and music journalist Lara Pellegrinelli (who occasionally files for NPR) have hit upon one.

On Thursday and Friday nights in June, Kalmanovitch and Pellegrinelli are curating the musical lineup at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn. In a sly nod to saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, they're calling it the Bloom Festival, and they're booking an interesting lineup: along with Bloom and Kalmanovitch leading their groups, the schedule includes drummer Allison Miller (with Jenny Scheinman and Todd Sickafoose), free pianist Kris Davis, baritone saxophonist Claire Daly (with another bari sax and a bassist), plus an art-rocker, a singer-songwriter, a Burlesque dancer and an author. A full calendar is available at the Tea Lounge Web site.

The beauty of their method, beyond the fact that it promotes innovative jazz artists in the same arena as (for lack of a better phrase) music that "normal" people listen to, is that it doesn't set out to be a Woman Empowerment Event. The curators and bandleaders are all females, but there's no air of separation: all the socio-cultural work is being done quietly among the trenches of the New York jazz marketplace. It's a subtle but conscious move; I asked Lara to comment about traditional Women in Jazz events, and she wrote me back a short e-mail:

My feelings are mixed about women in jazz festivals. You want to see people get work and attention, but it would be nice if they didn't need separate events in order for that to happen. I imagine it was probably different back in the 1970s, when Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg founded the Women's Jazz Festival in Kansas City. That came at the time of second-wave feminism and I imagine women felt greatly empowered by such events — ones that they were programming themselves. That's not so much the case 30 years later. You can still have women's events that are inspiring and meaningful — like Lilith Fair, which will be returning next summer — but I suspect that there also has to be a broader audience for the music, a less gendered audience than what we have in jazz.

Of course, a smallish cafe in an already diverse, tolerant area of New York is no Concert Venue Of America — and probably doesn't feel the burden to be so openly, actively pro-Gender Equality. But Bloom Fest still strikes me as a more sensible way to promote the interests of innovative female jazz musicians because it seems to view them primarily as underheard artists stuck in a capitalist system — not as part of a traditionally underserved demographic worthy of special promotion (an interpretation the Kennedy Center event invites, even if it doesn't intend). Perhaps, the programming seems to say, if we can get more female performers to appear on everyday stages with the simple fanfare of competence, jazz audiences might just slowly come to reorient their perceptions of gender roles in the jazz arena.

In the end, I witnessed a great program from the Kennedy Center, which is what matters most. But Bloom Fest FTW.

P.S. As for the K.C. show itself, I'll mostly defer to others' opinions. Suffice it to say that Anne Drummond demonstrated solid, writerly ideas; Carmen Lundy is one of the more musical singers I can recall — her forthcoming Solamente will feature her performing nearly all the backing instruments — and Maria Schneider's concept sounds like everything you could possibly associate with winning the Olympics. My two cents, anyway.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.