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Big Band Jazz: It's Not Just for Guys Anymore

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It was inevitable, of course, that many of those who played with DIVA in those early years would soon be moving onward and upward, and even a partial list of the band's alumnae is quite impressive.
Back in the early '90s, Stanley Kay, one-time back-up drummer for the incomparable Buddy Rich
Buddy Rich
Buddy Rich
1917 - 1987
drums
, later a manager of such artists as Maurice Hines, Michelle Lee and Paul Burke and the entertainment director for the New York Yankees, had a good idea: the time had come, he reasoned, to assemble an all-woman big band that would be more than a novelty act and could stand its ground against the best bands anywhere regardless of gender. Knowing he would need a drummer who could drive a band in the manner of his former employer, Kay reached out to Sherrie Maricle who agreed not only to anchor the rhythm section, but to help put the band together.

And so it was that in 1992 DIVA was born, and Stanley Kay's idea became a reality. From the outset, DIVA was a band that could stare down any other and come away holding a winning hand, and it has only gotten better as the years have passed. DIVA released its first album, Something's Coming (Perfect Sound) in 1995, and it was a revelation. Here at last was a big band comprised not of women trying to play jazz but of world-class jazz musicians who happened to be women. Six more albums have followed, the most recent conducted by the celebrated composer / arranger Johnny Mandel
Johnny Mandel
Johnny Mandel
b.1925
arranger
and recorded in concert at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in the band's home base, New York City. An early champion was the late saxophonist / arranger Tommy Newsom
Tommy Newsom
Tommy Newsom
1929 - 2007
saxophone
, best known as Johnny Carson
Johnny Carson
1925 - 2005
drums
's sometime comic foil on The Tonight Show, who lent his considerable talents to helping make the band sound better, and to whom its fifth album, TNT: A Tommy Newsom Tribute (Lightyear, 2005) is dedicated.

It was inevitable, of course, that many of those who played with DIVA in those early years would soon be moving onward and upward, and even a partial list of the band's alumnae is quite impressive. Tenor saxophonist Virginia Mayhew
Virginia Mayhew
Virginia Mayhew
b.1959
sax, tenor
was on that first album in '95, as were baritone Claire Daly
Claire Daly
Claire Daly

sax, baritone
, trombonist Audrey Morrison, bassist Mary Ann McSweeney and trumpeters Louise Baranger, Ingrid Jensen
Ingrid Jensen
Ingrid Jensen
b.1966
trumpet
and their peerless leader, Liesl Whitaker (known then by her maiden name, Sagartz). Others who have passed through the reed section include Carol Chaikin, Anat Cohen
Anat Cohen
Anat Cohen

sax, tenor
, Tia Fuller
Tia Fuller
Tia Fuller

saxophone
, Karolyn Kafer, Ann Patterson, Karolina Strassmayer, Carol Sudhalter
Carol Sudhalter
Carol Sudhalter

saxophone
, Erica von Kleist and Scheila Gonzalez. Besides those already named, trumpeters Laurie Frink and Barbara Laronga, trombonist Lolly Bienenfeld, pianists Roberta Piket, Ellen Rowe
Ellen Rowe
Ellen Rowe

piano
and Deanna Witkowski
Deanna Witkowski
Deanna Witkowski
b.1972
piano
, bassists Jennifer Leitham and Nicki Parrott, and guitarists Sheryl Bailey
Sheryl Bailey
Sheryl Bailey
b.1966
guitar, electric
and Dida Pelled
Dida Pelled
b.1988
guitar
are among the alumnae who have fashioned successful careers of their own. Bailey and Pelled appeared on DIVA's most recent album, Johnny Mandel: A Man and His Music (Arbors Records, 2011), and Whitaker returns from time to time when she is able to take a leave of absence from her day gig as lead trumpet for the U.S. Army Blues.

In spite of those losses, DIVA continues to perform and record, boasting a starting lineup today that is arguably stronger than ever. When Whitaker's not available, lead trumpet duties are in the capable hands of Tanya Darby in a section that includes veteran Jami Dauber and newcomer Nadje Noordhuis. The saxophone section embodies rising stars Sharel Cassity
Sharel Cassity
Sharel Cassity

saxophone
, Janelle Reichman , Nicki and Lisa Parrott and Lynn Gruenwald alongside the experienced Leigh Pilzer, the trombone section Deborah Weisz
Deborah Weisz
Deborah Weisz

trombone
, Sara Jacovino
Sara Jacovino
b.1983
trombone
, Leslie Havens and Jennifer Krupa (who divides time with the U.S. Navy Commodores). Maricle leads a strong rhythm section whose other members are pianist Tomoko Ohno and bassist Noriko Ueda
Noriko Ueda
Noriko Ueda

bass, acoustic
.

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