11th Annual Women in Jazz Festival
Women have been involved in jazz since its beginning. They just never received due credit. This truism led Dr. Billy Taylor to found the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival more than a decade ago. Though progress has been made, it is the persistent inequity facing women practitioners that continues to make the annual three-day concert series one of the Kennedy Center's most important and successful jazz events.
It is important because one of the factors that keeps any prejudice firmly in placeeven after it is officially unacceptableis a lack of role models to serve as inspiration to subsequent generations. Thus, the less talked about, but equally important phenomena of the Women in Jazz Festival is its multi-generationalism. Dr. Taylor's dedication to bringing to the stage each night elder, ground breaking masters, established stars, and rising talents means that audiences and fellow musicians alike are exposed to the history of women in jazz and the younger talents have a chance to take part in the mentoring process that lies at the heart of the jazz tradition.
The festival is successful, however, because of the great talent on display. After all, the best way to break the remaining insidious stereotypes about women in jazz is simply to give the women a chance to hit the stage and tear it up. Which is precisely what occurred during the 11th annual festival.
The festival's first night brought to the stage pianist Jessica Williams, trombonist Sarah Morrow, and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. Williams began with a series of standards to warm up the audience, including a hypnotic rendition of Coltrane's "Wise One , before moving onto the set's highlight, the premier of several selections from a suite composed by Williams and dedicated to Dr. Taylor. An appropriately complex set of compositions taking full advantage of Williams' delicate touch and Bill Evans' inspired impressionism, the three tunes culminated in a blues duet between Taylor and Williams, both deftly delivered and inevitably touching to watch.
Expertly shifting the mood, Morrow took the stage next with a big, loud, energetic bang and never relented until her final, raucous number had the audience on its feet calling for more. Showing great range on the trombone, especially when using a plunger mute, Marrow blasted through one blues-centered, Dixieland tinged tune after another, including a slow, almost corpulent blues so tongue in cheek it had audience members shaking their heads with both laughter and astonishment at the range of growls, groans, and grinding moans Marrow was able to call forth. In the end, Marrow's irresistible showmanship stole the night and proved one of the festival's distinct peaks.
If every event has its peaks, then by definition there must be a few valleys. The festival's second night opened with one of the only missed beats, a disappointingly directionless performance by the Daniela Schachter Quartet which could have been chalked down to mere inexperience if it hadn't been further marred by Schachter's indulgent forays into disastrous vocal self accompaniment. Fortunately, the subsequent two acts more than made up for the evening's initial stumble.
Taking the stage next, guitarist extraordinaire Mimi Fox presented a stunning set of music that kept the audience riveted from the opening blues excursion to Fox's immaculately delivered solo rendition of "Alone Together . Effective solo guitar is never an easy feat, but holding the attention of a large concert hall adds a second level of challenge. Fox's firm control, clarity of concept, and emotional depth made this the most memorable moment of the festival and proved why Fox is one of the most recognized guitarists on the scene. (Check out Fox's recent double release for a taste of her solo playing.)
NEA Jazz Master and vocal visionary Abby Lincoln closed the festival's second night in powerful form. Arriving on stage to a warm ovation, Lincoln, clad in all black, proceeded to mesmerize the audience with her grace, stage presence, and a carefully constructed series of songs that delved intimately into questions of age, suffering, and memory. While Lincoln's voice may have betrayed her at times, her intensity and willingness to confront the realities of aging in her performance proved her strength as an artist. By incorporating this level of personal introspection into her music, Lincoln drew new layers of meaning from many of her signature songs, transforming the series of tunes into a dramatic existential meditation.
The festival's final night followed the previous two with a similar diversity of musical styles and forms. First, pianist and educator Trudy Pitts got the crowd's blood flowing with a set of music split between her classically inflected, graceful piano and her more raucous, funky excursions on organ. Following this appealing schizophrenic display, veteran vocalist Ernestine Anderson took over for an almost cabaret-styled series of tunes ranging from the slow blues number, "Nightlife , to a deftly handled rendition of "Sunny Side of the Street , to a humorous and thoroughly entertaining delivery of "Never Make Your Move Too Soon .
Appropriately, the festival then concluded with a hard-hitting, upbeat, and exuberant set of big-band music presented by the Diva Jazz Orchestra. Featuring an all-star cast, the Diva's proceeded to tear through one crowd-pleasing tune after another, each more impressive than the last. While none of the tunes may have been exceptionally avant-garde, each allowed the talented musicians ample space to showcase their skills as powerful soloists, many on multiple instruments. Competing for highlights of the set were a medley of Ella Fitzgerald tunes, including an expertly executed scat solo by Christine Fawson, and a scintillating rendition of "What a Little Moonlight Can Do on which Anat Cohen captured the audience with a clever, virtuosic clarinet solo.
One hopes that eventually the concept of a concert series specifically designed to highlight women in jazz will become less relevant. But we aren't there yet. After all, no one has ever seen a big-band titled the "All Male All Star Big-Band . Perhaps one day we'll need one of those. Until then, the Kennedy Center's Annual Women in Jazz festival is both a reminder that as many strides forward as jazz has taken, the path to gender equality remains a long one, and an excellent opportunity to hear fantastic music from some of today's greatest voices.