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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.

That same day, George Graham, one of the jazz world's premier lead trumpeters for more than four decades, died at his home in Apple Valley, CA. Graham hadn't played since he suffered a paralyzing stroke several years ago; before that, he was a first-call studio musician who doubled as lead player for some of the West Coast's most proficient bands, including more than twenty years (and ten albums) with the Bob Florence Limited Edition. Graham also played with bands led by Tom Kubis, Gerald Wilson, Ray Anthony, Louie Bellson and Benny Carter, among others, and in groups backing such headliners as Frank Sinatra, B.B. King, Rosemary Clooney, Diane Schuur and Dionne Warwick. He performed at the Academy Awards ceremony eight times, at the Emmy Awards seven—and that barely scratches the surface. The list of film and television credits is almost endless.

Besides being a great trumpeter, Graham was a great guy as well, down to earth and fun to hang with. I first met him in South Carolina, and my opening remark was, "You look like Jack Sheldon." No, he replied, I'm not Jack Sheldon but I just recorded an album with him, by the Tom Kubis Big Band. "Tom who?" I asked. "I'll send you a copy," he said. Several weeks later, a package arrived in the mail; in it were an LP by Graham—All the Right Stuff (Outstanding Records, 1995) and one of the most spectacular big-band CDs I'd ever heard, Slightly Off the Ground, (Sea Breeze, 1991) by none other than the Tom Kubis Big Band, featuring Jack Sheldon on vocals ("Play It Again Sam") and trumpet ("Who Can I Turn To," "Which Craft?"), and George Graham leading an awesome trumpet section (Wayne Bergeron, Dan McGurn, Stan Martin, Charlie Peterson). It was one of the nicest gifts I'd ever received, and continues to hold a place of honor in my ever-expanding big-band CD library.

Besides the LP, Graham recorded three CDs under his own name: With a Lot of Help from My Friends (1994), With More Help from My Friends (1999) and How About Me? (2001), and they are definitely worth checking out. The first two shouldn't be hard to find, as they are on Sea Breeze Records; How About Me? was recorded on Graham's own label, Pippo Avenue, but with the same great lineup of sidemen and special guests (Bob Florence, Bob and Calabria McChesney, Trey Henry, Ray Brinker) accompanied by Tom Kubis and His Electric Orchestra (and no solos by Graham who plays only lead). There have been many outstanding lead trumpeters in the long history of jazz, and there's no doubt that George Graham's name belongs near the top of any such list. As Kubis said of him: "When the name George Graham comes up as it relates to my music, I think it's gonna be musical; it's gonna be intense; it's gonna sound better than I could have ever expected; it's going to be performed by a consummate professional who takes pride in every note and phrase that he plays."

In closing, a few words from my review of With More Help from My Friends: "The first thing one notices about trumpeter George Graham is his absolutely gorgeous tone; the second is that no matter how small or elusive the musical target, he never misses; the third is that this consummate lead trumpeter is also a remarkably sure-fingered and persuasive jazz soloist." George Graham was all that and more. He will be greatly missed, as will Frank Foster. RIP, guys.

An Embarrassment of Riches?

The Los Angeles Jazz Institute, which has already lined up almost thirty groups and individuals to take part in its next Jazz Festival, "Modern Sounds: Celebrating the West Coast Big Band Sound," October 20-23 at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel, has added an extra day of big-band jazz October 24 to mark the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Stan Kenton, featuring an array of Kenton alumni and others taking part in concerts and panel discussions, plus rare films and a special "meet the alumni" reception. There will be three concerts in all, two by an all-star alumni band directed by Bill Holman, Bill Mathieu and Bob Curnow, the other by the Collegiate Neophonic Orchestra of Southern California directed by its founder, Jack Wheaton. Kenton alumni slated to take part include Howard Rumsey, Peter Erskine, Carl Saunders, Steve Huffsteter, Bill Trujillo, Joel Kaye, Al Yankee, Dave Stone, Larry McGuire and John Mitchell. And as if that weren't enough . . .

"Modern Sounds" promises to be another spectacular event, with twenty-eight concerts in four days in addition to the usual films, panels and special presentations ("Sleepy Stein and the Birth of Jazz Radio," "The Contemporary Records Story," "the Pacific Jazz Records Story"). Concerts will celebrate the music of Kenton, Holman, Shorty Rogers, Woody Herman, Gerry Mulligan, Johnny Richards, Jimmy Giuffre, Shelly Manne, Pete Rugolo, Marty Paich, Spud Murphy, Don Fagerquist, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Chet Baker, Jack Montrose, John Graas and Clifford Brown, among others. There'll be ensembles led by Holman, Russell Garcia, Johnny Mandel, Terry Gibbs, Bobby Shew and Dave Pell, plus vocals by Sue Raney. Wow! For tickets and information, phone 562-200-5477 or go online to www.lajazzinstitute, org

New CD Benefits Japanese Earthquake / Tsunami Victims

On July 13, a new CD, From California with Love (CD Baby/Indys, 2011), the proceeds from which will be used to benefit victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, was released and made available for sale at CD Baby. Performing on the CD are Tierney Sutton, Kendall Kay, Christian Jacob, Frankie Randall, Johnny Holiday, Sam Most, Dick Noel, Leslie Lewis, Gerard Hagen, Alan Broadbent and the late singer Chris Connor. None of the tracks has been heard before and most were recorded especially for this project. For more information, go to www.from-california-with-love.com

New Mexico Jazz Festival

The sixth annual New Mexico Jazz Festival was held July 19-31 in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. This year's headliners were singer / composer Mose Allison, singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, saxophonist Maceo Parker, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, guitarist John Pizzarelli, bassist Christian McBride and pianist Randy Weston. Others performing included guitarist Michael Anthony, singer Patti Littlefield and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. I'd say more but the fact is I didn't attend any of the events. There was simply nothing that moved me to leave the house and drive to Santa Fe or to Albuquerque's Outpost Performance Space (unlike last July, when I did make the trip to Santa Fe to see and hear the Toshiko Akiyoshi / Lew Tabackin Big Band with guest artist Bobby Shew). Maybe next year . . .

And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin' . . . !

New and Noteworthy

August 2011

1. The H2 Big Band, You're It! (Jazzed Media)

2. Captain Black Big Band, Untitled (Posi-Tone)

3. Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band, That's How We Roll (Telarc)

4. Stan Kenton / DePaul University, Double Feature (Tantara)

5. Fred Hess Big Band, Into the Open (Alison)

6. Rick Wald 16 / NYC, Play That Thing (Glowbow Records)

7. Mike Cato Tentet, Nimmons 'n' Nine . . . Now (MCCO Records)

8. Jazz Conceptions Orchestra, Untitled (151 Records)

9. Clarke / Boland Big Band, Complete Live Recordings at Ronnie Scott's (Rearward)

10. Brooks Tegler Big Band, That's It! (Maxngruber Records)

11. UNT Two O'Clock Lab Band, Under the Radar (UNT Jazz)

12. Heart of North Carolina Jazz Orchestra, Jazz Encounters (Self Published)

13. U.S. Navy Commodores, 40th Anniversary Celebration (USN Jazz)

14. Jamie Begian Big Band, Big Fat Grin (Innova)

15. University of Missouri Concert Jazz Band, Vertigo (AW Jazz)

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