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The Ninth Annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival

During the first fifty years of its development, the vast majority of women performers who broke into jazz were either singers or pianists. It was only with the onset of World War II that women started to make major inroads into brass and reed sections. Like Rosy the Rivetter they were replacing men who had been drafted into military service. Post 1945, women retained many of their gains but, as in other fields, they have been engaged in an uphill struggle and, while there are many fine female musicians working in jazz, they still have a long way to go. The Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival both celebrates their accomplishments and provides encouragement and support for their future. The lineup for its ninth year, while providing three evenings of uniformly excellent music, also gives a snapshot of where women are in jazz in 2004. Two conclusions emerged: first, women jazz musicians are just as capable as men of producing great jazz period; second, pianists and vocalists still predominate--out of 15 women appearing on the main stage at the festival four were vocalists, four pianists, two bassists, one trombonist, one violinist and three saxophonists/flutists. And they were still outnumbered two to one by male performers!

The highlights of the first evening were ensembles led by a singer and a saxophonist. (Beltway traffic prevented me from hearing the first set, from bassist Miriam Sullivan.) The singer was Brazilian-American Luciana Souza who has a voice of bell-like clarity, a great ear, and the courage to seek out strong accompanists and challenging material, much of it from her own pen. Add to this a bright and enthusiastic demeanor and that dash of both lightness and panache that Brazilians add so effectively to jazz performance, and the result is consistently engaging. Bruce Barth added some strong piano solos. Saxophonist/ flutist Carol Sudhalter's Astoria Jazz Band is a breath of fresh air. A twelve-piece ensemble (five brass, three reeds, four rhythm) the band features finely crafted, unpretentious, swinging arrangements of mainstream material, culled mainly from the Great American Songbook. The soloists, led by Sudhalter on baritone, Stanley Bielski on tenor and George Petropoulos on trumpet performed exuberantly. The set was nicely paced and, as an added bonus, vocalist Myrna Lake stepped up and totally nailed three songs with a clear, rich voice, unfailing intonation and great spirit. At 67, Myrna is a great-grandmother; she sings like a teenager!

The piano trio is one of jazz' most essential ensembles. We heard two during the weekend, Jessica Williams' trio on Friday and Geri Allen's on Saturday. Both impressed, for different reasons. Williams has a beautiful touch, and great fluency, of both imagination and execution. She presented a set of originals and standards that I found totally satisfying, with great support from bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Victor Lewis. Williams seemed to traverse the history of jazz piano in the twinkling of an eye, from Tatum to Tristano via Willie The Lion Smith. Particularly intriguing was her original composition dedicated to pianist/composer/bandleader Toshiko Akiyoshi, who was awarded the 2004 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award at a brief ceremony later that evening. Geri Allen's set, which opened Saturday evening, was one of the festival highlights as she presented material by Mary Lou Williams herself--three sections from her Zodiac Suite, originally composed for the New York Philharmonic. It is dense, multi-layered music with an Ellingtonian sheen. Allen executed it lovingly. If Mary Lou had been a man, perhaps she could have had her own band to write for. We can only conjecture about how much fine music that could have produced.

There were several other piano trios in evidence during these three days, performing the essential role of rhythm section, particularly accompanying singers. Outstanding in the vocal category was Janis Siegel, member of Manhattan Transfer and winner of nine Grammys. Siegel is the consummate professional, and she unveiled a fine group with which she is beginning a national tour. Music director/pianist (and occasional accordionist, although not this evening!) Gil Goldstein is just right for this role, and adding Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo, of Trio da Paz, was a brilliant idea. Siegel performed several beautifully sculpted selections from her new CD Sketches of Broadway, including a couple of Stephen Sondheim compositions, You're Always Sorry, and The Story of Lucy and Jessie that most vocalists would think twice about attempting, and two songs very close to my heart, Kurt Weil's My Ship and Hoagy Carmichael's Skylark. She clearly earned her Grammys! With vocalist LaVerne Butler, on Saturday, it was pianist Xavier Davis who impressed. It says something about the state of jazz that musicians of this quality keep appearing, seemingly out of nowhere! Butler herself gave a strong performance, with Basin Street Blues in particular reflecting her New Orleans upbringing.

Returning to women in jazz, both Friday and Saturday saw examples of how exciting they can be. Canadian Jane Bunnett recently won Down Beat polls on both flute and soprano saxophone. With her husband, trumpeter/flugelhornist Larry Cramer, she leads Spirits of Havana which is rounded out with musicians from Cuba and Puerto Rico and features jazz solos over a swirling rhythm section and chanted Cuban incantations. Bunnett and pianist Elio Villafranca are the main soloists, with Cramer adding some trumpet and flugelhorn and everyone adding vocal support to lead vocalist and conga player Pedro Martinez. It is an exciting combination. Bunnett's soprano is always inventive, although her flute was a little hard to hear over the percussion. And Villafranca is phenomenal. Phenomenal hardly does justice to violinist Karen Briggs. Although I had to miss the last third of her set, which closed out the festival on Saturday, I heard enough! She is all over the violin, swooping and soaring through the changes of well-known pieces such as I Got Rhythm and Autumn Leaves, which she transforms with quicksilver, stream-of-consciousness, chromatic runs and blues licks. Her rhythm section was right with her, with strong solos from keyboardist Tim Carmon, and the festival's only electric bassist Cornelius Mimms. In spite of the amplification, however, the volume was not overbearing. In fact, this was one of the great blessings of the whole festival--none of it was too loud!

Accepting her award on Friday, Toshiko Akiyoshi expressed the desire to see the day when we no longer need women's jazz festivals, or black history months, or Asian culture exhibits. We are still a long way from that day. In the meantime, the Mary Lou Williams Festival is a an altogether positive experience. Every house was packed and the music was of a consistently high quality, well paced with lots of variety. Lectures, workshops, jam sessions and free performances by the Sisters in Jazz Collegiate All-Stars were also offered to round out the event. If I have any criticism it is that the festival seems to have overlooked some highly deserving women jazz artists, while others have already appeared more than once. I look forward to seeing some new faces for the festival's tenth year in 2005.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Various Artists
  • Concert Date: May 13-15, 2004
  • Venue: Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts
  • City State Country: Washington D.C.
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