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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.

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