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Band Ambition: Sherrie Maricle and Diva


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No women in jazz that I know are focused on the women part. We're always focused on the jazz part. Other people care more about the women part than us.
—Sherrie Maricle
In the iconic photo A Great Day in Harlem (1958), bandleader and pianist Count Basie has taken a seat on the curb. Eleven neighborhood kids and one ringer, Taft Jordan Jr, are seated single file to Basie's right. Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams stand behind the kids, chatting. They are bookended, appropriately, by Oscar Pettiford and Monk. The only other woman is Maxine Sullivan. I never noticed her until now—a telling oversight.

Fifty years later, the photo was updated, but not duplicated, with a wink and a nod. There are exactly three males: Stanley Kay, Billy Taylor and Bob Cranshaw. As with Sullivan, I never noticed Cranshaw until now. The rest of the musicians are women—hence the photo is called The Girls in the Band. There are ten children seated up front: two of the kids, slyly, are the offspring of Diva members. To their left, occupying Basie's "chair" is Sherrie Maricle. Maybe, like Basie, she just got tired of standing and sat down, but I doubt it and have no plans to ask. I suspect the seating is hardly accidental.

When the (historically mostly, but not exclusively) female band The DIVA Jazz Orchestra was established by Stanley Kay in June 1992, Maricle was not the leader, but she soon would be. Early publicity for the band advertised that it played in the style of Duke Ellington, Woody Herman and Buddy Rich. I assume that characterization reflected the joint taste of Kay, Maricle, and Slam Stewart's final album, "The Cats Are Swingin," which was recorded at Clinton Studios in New York City. So Sherrie moved to New York with an extensive network of contacts. There the pattern repeated itself, with a lot of gigging around, sessions, and running a Sunday afternoon jam session at the Village Gate for eight years. It stopped when the Village Gate was forced to close. There was also the usual subbing for Broadway shows, although, as she puts it, that kind of work was "not high on her radar screen." Maricle was not exactly an itinerant musician, but she wasn't an established name either.

Sherrie's big break came in 1990, as breaks are wont to come, by serendipity. She was playing at the 75th anniversary of the Shubert Theater in New Haven, Connecticut in 1990. Both Skitch Henderson conducting and Stanley Kay were there, with Kay conducting for Maurice Hines. They turned out to be critical mentors , "[who] transformed my life quite a bit." Henderson, the former NBC Music Director who had founded the New York Pops in 1983, liked Maricle's playing, and invited her to "audition" as a percussionist for the orchestra. That was more than 20 years ago and Sherrie is still with the Pops, so things obviously worked out. Kay, who had been Buddy Rich's relief drummer and the band's straw boss in the late 1940s was also in attendance. Sherrie and Kay stayed in touch, but did not work on any projects together. Maricle invited Kay to gigs at places like the Blue Note and Birdland, "But he never came."

No matter, as it turned out. For reasons that now seem lost to history, Kay had decided to form an all-woman band. As Sherrie put it, "Stanley called me in 1992 and said, 'Hey, I have an idea. I'm going to put together an all-female band. Do you know any women who play as well as you?'" Stanley, as Maricle points out, had a no-nonsense reputation and his primary interest was music, not feminism. Sherrie, on the other hand, had seen first-hand that women instrumentalists, however accomplished and for whatever the reason, were usually not first-call players. So, in some sense, Kay's and Maricle's interests coincided. An audition call went out in June 1992 and 40 women responded; of the 40, 15 advanced to chairs in the fledgling orchestra. That was the beginning of Diva. According to Maricle, she still has the audition and first rehearsal tapes "because Stanley kept everything." If there doesn't seem to have been a lot of elaborate planning going into the making of Diva, it's because there wasn't. Like the British Empire, Diva sort of happened. On the other hand, Kay wouldn't simply settle "Stanley did say prior to the audition that if he didn't hear playing that was up to his standards, he wouldn't form the band. Diva's first performance was March of 1993 at NYU in celebration of women's history month.

Maricle was not the leader when the band was formed. Stanley Kay apparently wasn't certain what to do with the leader's role, envisioning some equivalent of Dizzy Gillespie-an entertainer as well as a musician. According to Kay, Maurice Hines, with whom Sherrie had been drumming since 1990, thought that Maricle was the obvious choice. And there she has remained in what she characterizes as an "unreal, sometimes surreal" experience on many levels. The band has garnered numerous accolades and uniformly great reviews, but Maricle suspects that Diva is sometimes viewed "as a novelty or a gimmick just because we are all women." This attitude clearly troubles and exasperates her. Sherrie credits her involvement with the project "The Girls in the Band" for a greater appreciation of what women had historically faced in playing jazz in the 30's, 40's and 50's.

Yet there's a certain ambivalence to Maricle's whole approach to "the woman question" in jazz, most likely because she went into music to play music, and not, to paraphrase Charles Barkley, to be a role model. On the one hand, she's increasingly aware that Diva and its musicians show young women that anything is possible. On the other hand, Sherrie's stated musical ambition growing up was, as she puts it, "to be one of the boys," but that proved easier said then done. I once asked Sherrie if the function of Diva wasn't to make itself obsolete: if women can play as well as anybody, and if anybody can play with anybody else, then why have an all-woman band? Her response came down to the weary, but pragmatic answer that if equal treatment were the goal, we weren't quite there yet. "It's a little bit better...[but] no matter what level of success you achieve, you are still a woman in jazz, whether you acknowledge it or not."

Another reason why the gender question tends to grate on Maricle's sensibilities is that bandleaders have other problems. These are much more mundane, but have been around as long as big bands have. They mostly involve money and the music business. "Everybody in the band is a freelancer," Sherrie points out. "Everbody does everything." There's not much rhyme or reason to fees, and the economics of touring with a big band are intimidating as always. Invitations to distant jazz festivals are great, but if there's no airfare and you're mostly based in and around New York City, there's no way. Even buses, the hallowed way bands crisscrossed the country during the Swing Era, have become prohibitively expensive. If a band is subsidized by an estate or by someone with a particular interest, things can happen. Otherwise, even a decent fee quickly gets eaten up by travel expenses.

Maricle is particularly critical of clubs and modern booking agents, who, as she puts it, "assume no risk and no responsibility." From working with Stanley Kay, Sherrie is familiar with the legacy of booking agencies like Rockwell-O'Keefe, who handled both Tommy Dorsey and the Casa Loma Orchestra, or Willard Alexander, who booked Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson and, again, Tommy Dorsey. That kind of infrastructure no longer exists. Maricle comments that today "if someone happens to call [an agent, he or she] will gladly collect 15 percent." As Maricle suggests, booking a band band, even an excellent one like Diva, requires some promotion, something not always forthcoming. Financial matters, as she puts it, "rile her up." They seem to rile Sherrie up nearly as much as gender questions, not that anyone knows whether equal pay for equal work isn't as much a problem in music as in any business. With a small sample of female bands and instrumentalists, who could be sure one way or another?

If it sounds like the idea of a hard economic constraint on artistic success hasn't escaped Maricle, you're hearing her. She realizes its commercial implications as well as its impact on a band's programming. "The second half of my life is going to be focused on what I truly love, which is Diva," Maricle emphasizes. "My vision of the band as an artistic organization is playing challenging but accessible music. I do think that everyone who is on the stage is an entertainer. I think it's counterproductive to pretend you're not an entertainer. If someone's paid to see you, it is entertainment." When asked about dream projects, things she'd really like to do, Sherrie talks about—ironically—something with women entertainers, people who could be as different as Tina Turner or Bonnie Raitt, whose focus was not necessarily jazz. "Diva can play any style," Maricle says. The idea would be to link up with strong, accomplished self-confident women in any musical genre. Women who could function as, perhaps, role models?

On this as on a number of other questions, Sherrie Maricle has come full circle in her career. If her first fifty years were dedicated to the proposition that it shouldn't matter whether or not you're a woman as a jazz artist, her second fifty will address the idea that women in jazz should be encouraged to tell the stories they're uniquely prepared to tell. You may not start out as a role model, but then nothing says you can't end up as one. It is something Sherrie, Marian McPartland and a long line of other distinguished predecessors have learned as well.

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