Women In Jazz: Taking Back All-Female Ensembles : The Record Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington says now is the time to record an album with only women musicians.
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Women In Jazz: Taking Back All-Female Ensembles

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Women In Jazz: Taking Back All-Female Ensembles


Jazz is supposed to have a certain look - wisp of cigarette smoke rising from small caf´┐Ż tables, horn players in neat dark suits. Kind of images you see in black and white photographs. Be unlikely to see a woman playing a horn or sitting behind a drum set. As part of our Hey Ladies series on being a woman musician today, Lara Pellegrinelli spoke with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and some of the players on her new all-female recording of "The Mosaic Project. "

(Soundbite of music)

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: The recording session was in full swing by the time I finally found the place: an unmarked two-story brick building in the middle of Brooklyn.

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Ms. TERRI LYNE CARRINGTON (Musician): So do that again. (Humming) (Unintelligible) stay on it longer.

PELLEGRINELLI: Behind the mixing board or from her seat at the drums, Terri Lyne Carrington is calling the shots. She's been a professional musician since her teens and a veteran of bands led by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CARRINGTON: Cool. Yeah, that's cool. Let's go to the intro for Geri. You guys are straight.

PELLEGRINELLI: The album she's producing, "The Mosaic Project," is meant to unite the musical perspectives of its diverse line-up, with Canadian, Israeli, Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese-American and African-American musicians - all of them women. An all-female project is not something most of them would ordinarily embrace. Take trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, who played in all-women bands early in her career.

Ms. INGRID JENSEN (Musician): Well, I have to say that when Terri emailed me, I was glad that I was free to do this, which is very rare. If anyone knows me, they know that I'm not, I avoid all-women groups like the plague because I've had enough experiences where the weakest links are overpowering the integrity of the music.

PELLEGRINELLI: After a long day recording, nine of the players sit down to talk.

Unidentified Woman: As long as you're in the...

PELLEGRINELLI: They feel that all-female groups tend to marginalize women musicians. The consensus is that gender shouldn't play any role in the music, as Carrington eagerly points out.

Ms. CARRINGTON: None of us think about being a woman when we play or write songs or, you know, do all the other work that has to be done to organize even just a project like this. If it makes other people attracted to it, that's fine with me, but I think, you know, in the end we're doing what we have to do.

PELLEGRINELLI: All-female jazz ensembles have a long history, dating back at least as far as vaudeville.

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PELLEGRINELLI: The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were perhaps the best known of literally hundreds of all-girl swing bands during World War II. Eighty-four-year-old Sarah McLawler started out as a featured pianist with male bandleader Lucky Millender, but wound up spending much of her career in all-female combos.

Ms. SARAH MCLAWLER (Pianist): It was big hit overnight. Man, they got a girl group down there. The place is jumping. I've got to start making money. And from then on, that guy always brought in girl groups. He always wanted girl groups in there.

(Soundbite of song, "She's Crazy with the Heat")

PELLEGRINELLI: Male club owners booked them as novelty acts. Around 1950, McLawler played opposite singer Dinah Washington in a quintet with guitarist Roxie Lucas, tenor player Margaret Backstrum, and drummer Hettie Jones at the Frolic Showbar in Detroit.

Ms. MCLAWLER: I heard a lot of great, great girl musicians out there and then I noticed the girls weren't being recognized like they should. There was a girl trombone player named Sammy Lee Jett from St. Louis. That was one of the greatest trombone players I ever heard in my life. She never was recognized.

PELLEGRINELLI: The girl groups were consigned to a separate but not equal space. Right now there are a handful of all-female big bands performing, a needed opportunity in what is still a heavily male-dominated field. Guys tend to hire other guys, explains pianist Helen Sung.

Ms. HELEN SUNG (Pianist): I don't limit this to guys. I think people usually like to work with people they know and that they feel comfortable around. And a guy, chances are, he's going to feel more comfortable with his buddy. You know, somebody said to me once, well, Helen, if you want that chair, you're going to have to be twice as good as your male counterpoint.

PELLEGRINELLI: That is, once you get past the assumptions that you can't play, which still linger, says Terri Lyne Carrington.

Ms. CARRINGTON: I still find it interesting after all this time that I've been playing that people still are surprised. I am actually shocked when people are surprised that I play drums, or more surprised that they think I play pretty good.

PELLEGRINELLI: There are worse stories. Ten years ago I interviewed musicians for a number of print articles on women in jazz. Off the record they told tales of a bandleader who conducted job interviews in his apartment, of women being turned down for jobs because there was no one to room with them. One spoke of a popular jam session where she was told she could sit in if she took off her shirt. Another confided that she was sexually assaulted by a club owner. Most of them didn't want to talk about gender at all.

Ms. CARRINGTON: I would just like to make a suggestion that we shift to talking maybe about music and not about women.

PELLEGRINELLI: In the end, then why did Terri Lyne Carrington do this?

Ms. CARRINGTON: For, like, forever I think since I was 10 years old people have tried to put me in all-female situations. And I've always shied away from all-female situations because I just felt like the pool wasn't large enough to choose from, and I wasn't going to do that just because. But now the pool is larger and there are so many women that I really enjoy playing with and it doesn't really matter that they're women. So I thought now's the time to actually do the thing that people seem like, you know, they've been asking for for a long time.

PELLEGRINELLI: And take back all-female ensembles from the realm of novelty on her terms.

For NPR News, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You can download a track by the Mosaic Project on one of our websites, NPRMusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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