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

Jack Bowers By

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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, 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 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, best known as Johnny Carson'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 was on that first album in '95, as were baritone Claire Daly, trombonist Audrey Morrison, bassist Mary Ann McSweeney and trumpeters Louise Baranger, Ingrid Jensen 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, Tia Fuller, Karolyn Kafer, Ann Patterson, Karolina Strassmayer, Carol Sudhalter, Erica von Kleist and Scheila Gonzalez. Besides those already named, trumpeters Laurie Frink and Barbara Laronga, trombonist Lolly Bienenfeld, pianists Roberta Piket, Ellen Rowe and Deanna Witkowski, bassists Jennifer Leitham and Nicki Parrott, and guitarists Sheryl Bailey and Dida Pelled 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, Janelle Reichman , Nicki and Lisa Parrott and Lynn Gruenwald alongside the experienced Leigh Pilzer, the trombone section Deborah Weisz, Sara Jacovino, 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.

With DIVA showing the way, other notable all-women bands have been formed both here and abroad. Alumna Ann Patterson leads her own California-based band, Maiden Voyage, and that state also houses the blue-chip Montclair Women's Big Band. Further north, Washington state is home to the Seattle Women's Jazz Orchestra. The Midwest is represented by the recently formed Chicago Outskirts Big Band, New York City by the Kit McClure Big Band as well as DIVA. Overseas, Germany is home to the United Women's Jazz Orchestra while Crissy Lee leads an all-female band in the UK. Slowly but surely, women are making inroads into what has traditionally been an all-male domain, that of the big band. Audiences are taking notice, and jazz is better for it. Stanley Kay's idea, as it turns out, had merit, and he lived long enough to see it realized via the emergence of one of the country's leading big bands, a band that needs no qualifying asterisk next to its name. Viva DIVA!, a swinging ensemble that affirms with every note that women can not only play jazz, but play it as well as their male counterparts. One day, if wishes come true, similar bands will be active in every decent-sized city in this country and around the world. Until then, applaud and appreciate what we now have.

Au Revoir Frank Foster, George Graham

Big-band jazz lost another stalwart champion July 26 when composer / arranger / saxophonist Frank Foster died at his home in Chesapeake, VA. He was eighty-two years old. Best known as a member (and later leader) of the Count Basie Orchestra, Foster's many compositions included the jazz standard "Shiny Stockings," which has been played by big bands around the world since it was introduced by the Basie orchestra in the late '50s. He contributed many other songs to the Basie book including "Blues in Hoss' Flat," "Down for the Count," "Back to the Apple" and "Blues Backstage." After eleven years with Basie (1953-64), Foster struck out on his own, performing with various groups and later leading his own ensembles—Living Color, the Non-Electric Company, Swing Plus and the Loud Minority Big Band. In addition to his recordings with Basie and others, he recorded more than twenty-five albums as leader of his own groups. In June 1986, he succeeded trumpeter Thad Jones as leader of the Basie orchestra and remained in that position until 1995. Meanwhile, he had become an educator, teaching in the New York City public school system and at the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY). Foster earned two Grammy awards for arranging while leading the Basie orchestra, and in 2002 received the prestigious Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, one year after suffering a stroke that ended his playing career. He continued writing and arranging, producing commissioned works for Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Chicago Jazz Ensemble and the Harpers Ferry Historical Association, among others.

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