Changing the Tune – the KC Women’s Jazz Festival

February 28, 2018

CHANGING THE TUNE: The Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival, 1978-1985

by Carolyn Glenn Brewer (University of North Texas Press)

A glance through the personnel of a random hundred recent albums shows that although women are by no means uncommon in jazz today, they are still a minority. If someone were to contemplate starting a women only jazz festival today they might well be thought foolishly optimistic. That two women should have done so forty years ago suggests (put politely) temporary loss of reason. Fortunately for jazz, this is what was done by two brave Kansas City women, Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg. Apart from the problems attendant upon organizing a regular jazz festival, Comer and Gregg were confronted by skepticism, disinterest, prejudice and negativity. They should be applauded unreservedly for their determination and for the remarkable success of the seven festivals presented. Helped by Marian McPartland and Leonard Feather in preparing the first Women’s Jazz Festival (WJF), Comer and Gregg presented leading jazz artists, including Toshiko Akiyoshi, Betty Carter, Mary Osborne and Mary Lou Williams. Musicians appearing over the following years include Carla Bley, Jane Ira Bloom, Joanne Brackeen, Carol Kaye, Stacy Rowles, and Melba Liston, who was lured out of retirement for the occasion. There were big bands, including Maiden Voyage and Yes M.A.A.M., and one year surviving members of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were invited guests (some of whom happily sat in at jam sessions). There were also singers, too often considered to be the only role for women in jazz: Ernestine Anderson, Urszula Dudziak, Sheila Jordan, Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day and Nancy Wilson.Jazz singer

The author of this thoroughly researched and very well written account is a music educator who has played clarinet in various ensembles in and around Kansas City. During her research she interviewed many of the participants, including most of those named above, as well as Dotty Dodgion, Mary Fettig, Janice Robinson, Monette Sudler and many others. Also interviewed were writers Linda Dahl and Sally Placksin, and, of course, she had extensive conversations with Comer and Gregg. The course upon which the WJF would set out was determined when Comer and Gregg and others first met. They laid down a definition of purpose, which states in part: “A non-political, not-for-profit group to educate the public in aspects of jazz, especially women’s contributions; to promote workshops, clinics and concerts, to offer scholarships for students of jazz”. Of course, some of the sidemen in the bands were literally that: men. That this brought protests points to the flawed critical judgement of critics predisposed to find fault. The inclusion of male musicians was important and Brewer draws attention to the opening words of the WJF’s definition of purpose and its reference to the non-political nature of the enterprise: “They were trying to break up decades of prejudice by not doing to men musicians what had been done to women musicians.” There were also complaints when the range of jazz styles was broadened, suggesting that these complainers were unaware of the onerous (sometimes borderline impossible) task of attracting financial support and public attendance, problems that perpetually beset jazz festival organizers everywhere. Scattered among the interviewees’ anecdotes are many instances of crass words and behavior by people who should have known better, among them male musicians. Speaking of behavior, it wasn’t all sweetness and light among the female musicians and from time to time instances arose of egos needing a little polishing. An important aspect of the WJF’s definition of purpose, its intention to promote workshops and clinics and offer scholarships for students, was vividly apparent through the many student bands coming to Kansas City from all parts of the country and when scholarship winners went on to important careers. Among the clinicians perhaps David Baker is one of the best known, having had Chris Botti, Randy Brecker, Peter Erskine and Jeff Hamilton under his wing. Brewer uses the educational aspect of the WJF as a jumping off point to show the breadth and value of jazz education in the modern world.changing

The book is structured chronologically across the years in which the WJF took place but within these sections Brewer ranges much more widely, vividly covering career paths of artists, political and financial pressures, as well as personal issues, some of which have particular impact on women. Life on the road places obvious strain on marriages, especially those where there are children to bear and raise. Even when both wife and husband are musicians, and hence are both aware of the problems, difficulties can still arise. This is especially so when the woman is more successful than the man. Covering all the issues that it does, musical and non-musical, this enlightening account provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes picture of the founding and operation of a jazz festival and will appeal to many jazz lovers. It is also an engaging tale of how two friends confronted and overcame not only the external problems of organizing any festival, but also those from within the jazz community, which should have been wholly supportive. Eventually and with real regret, Comer and Gregg bowed to the pressure of trying to live their own lives in tandem with the WJF. Coincident with their departure, the 1984 festival had to be cancelled, mainly for financial reasons, and although the following year’s event proceeded it was then decided that the WJF’s day was done. Its successes echo down through the years since then with numerous events that are for women only or are women dominated. It is for this and the many careers launched (or at least boosted) by appearances at the WJF that Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg deserve the gratitude of all true lovers of jazz. As for women in jazz today, they owe much more to them than merely gratitude, some perhaps even owe their careers. And these two friends in turn are no doubt grateful that they have been very well served by Carolyn Glenn Brewer.

Changing the Tune is a 320-page hardback edition, which includes 40 b&w illustrations, 25 pages of referral notes, an extensive bibliography, and an index. It is also available as an ebook.

ISBN-13: 978-1-57441-666-4 (ebook ISBN-978-1-57441-679-4)

A shorter version of this review appeared in the August 2017 issue of Jazz Journal. Published monthly, this magazine ranges stylistically from the origins of jazz to the music of tomorrow. There are interviews with musicians, articles on many topics, photographs, reviews of books, DVDs, and around 850 CDs annually.

Jazz CD Reviews – March 2018

February 25, 2018

Mica Bethea Suite Theory (indie release)

This is composer-arranger Mica Bethea’s third album and it reinforces his growing stature as a leading contributor to contemporary big band jazz. Here, Mica has turned his talent to the creation of a profound musical portrait of his life. The first movement portrays his first two decades and is filled with promise. Entitled Crystal Clear, it is named for a long-time friend, Crystal Bay, who works with quadriplegics. By dark coincidence, following a road accident in 2005 Mica sustained injuries that rendered him quadriplegic and the second movement, Destiny’s Boat, traces the immediate aftermath. It is impossible for an outsider to imagine the effect of such catastrophic damage to a young and gifted multi-instrumentalist and his dawning realization that he can no longer play. During this period of his life, Mica was greatly helped by another friend, Destiny Guerra, hence the title. The third movement depicts the time when Mica began the arduous task of building his new life.zz The Mica Bethea Big Band Suite The title, Meniscus, refers to the curve on top of contained liquid, which can be either concave or convex and by implication suggests whether a glass is half full or half empty. The joyous rumba-based form makes clear that Mica’s view is decidedly positive. The fourth and final movement reflects Mica’s attitude toward himself and his location not only in place but also in time; that he is who he is and always will be. The title, Guardian of Forever, is taken from a Star Trek episode and refers to a time portal through which other dimensions might be visited. An alt take of the second movement is included because Mica did not want to lose the solo by alto saxophonist Todd Guidice. And by the way, the main title, Suite Theory, is a play on the name of Mica’s favorite bakery, Sweet Theory. Throughout, the music heard here demonstrates yet again that Mica Bethea brings a new, distinctive and exciting flavor to contemporary big band jazz.

For more on Mica Bethea, including booking, contact Mouthpiece Music.


Akira Tana Jazzanova (Vega)

Akira Tana is long established as a leading jazz drummer and noted for his work with bassist Rufus Reid in the duo TanaReid. Akira’s jazz credentials go back to his earliest days as a professional musician and coincident with this is his abiding love for the music of Latin America, especially the exhilarating rhythms of Brazil. Joining Akira on this album are pianist Peter Horvath, bassist Gary Brown and percussionist Michael Spiro and adding to the rich instrumental mixture heard are notable guests: soprano saxophonist Branford Marsalis and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, while Ricardo Peixo provides fluid arrangements and also contributes some guitar moments. JAZZaNOVA-coverImportant in much of the music of Brazil is its rhythmic underpinning and often romantic vocals. The first of these qualities stems from Akira who is a master of percussion. That second quality is provided by several singers who are gifted interpreters of this repertoire: Claudia Villela, Claudio Amaral, Maria Volanté, Jackie Ryan, Carla Helmbrecht and Sandy Cressman. For this release, Akira has chosen to perform examples of Brazil’s much loved contributions to popular music, several of the songs coming from composers Antonio Carlos Jobim, Ivan Lins and Elis Regina. These  include Águas de Março (Waters of March), Caminhos Cruzados (Crossroads), Bilhete, Corcovado, Love Dance, Por Causa De Você (Don’t Ever Go Away), Chega De Saudade (No More Blues) and La Gloria Eres Tu. There are also two original songs by Claudia Villela, Jangaga and Diride. The inherent romanticism of these songs is brought out superbly in these excellent interpretations. Lovely music, exceptionally well performed and warmly recommended.

For more on Akira Tana, including booking, contact Mouthpiece Music Mouthpiece Music.

All albums available at Amazon.


February 15, 2018

An old friend, Dave Tuck, asked if I might offer a young undergraduate any useful suggestions for a thesis she was planning on aspects of rock ‘n’ roll. Now where r ‘n’ r is concerned my knowledge is only that of a casual listener; however, one of the facets being considered for the thesis was an exploration of how parents reacted to their offspring’s embracing of the new rebellious music of the 1950s. Through her own background, she knew how white adults and teenagers in the UK reacted to rock ‘n’ roll, but she was curious to know if black teenagers in the USA had similar experiences to hers. And did black adults also view this new musical fashion as controversial and sinful? I had no idea, so I raised these questions with two black American singers and their replies, while maybe not too helpful with the proposed university thesis, offered some insight into the making of a jazz singer.

One of these singers is Sandi Russell, who performs concerts and makes albums as a jazz singer (see my review in Jazz Journal in December 2007), Sandi-Russell-CD-150x150 and has also toured her one-woman show dealing with aspects of being a black woman in a white-dominated society. sr book2 In her reply to my query, Sandi commented that she was “somewhat interested in rock and roll, Bill Haley, etc.,” but “mostly listened to doo-wop and rhythm and blues, and my parents didn’t seem to mind or care. I don’t think the black community paid that much attention, and not many kids I knew liked Elvis at all!” Sandi’s father, though, did take marked exception to her playing Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls Of Fire, which he promptly broke in half, saying that “this kind of music is not allowed in the house”. Sandi added that at the time she had “no idea what the song meant, except somebody was happy and excited!”

Sandi, who was born in New York but has lived in England for many years, published her début novel, Color, in book

I expect there are many who encountered related confrontations with parents. In my case there were parental objections to the double entendre lyrics of some of the blues records I played and yet, confusingly (to the teenage me), the blatantly single entendre lyrics of the musical hall ribaldry my parents loved were deemed acceptable.

The other singer is Sandy Graham, born and still based in California, who has been closely involved in the jazz world most of her life and has made several albums, one of which I reviewed in Jazz Journal in April 2004.sg1 In her reply to my inquiry, Sandy remarked that she could offer little insight into rock ‘n’ roll. “I was exposed to gospel music and jazz as a child. When I did listen to music other than gospel or jazz I listened to pop or classical music.” Sandy’s father “played saxophone and loved Johnny Hodges, so I was exposed to jazz all the time. The first record I ever bought was Charlie Parker’s All The Things You Are. I was eleven or twelve years old. The pop music I heard was by Peggy Lee, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, Sinatra, Como, the Four Lads, the Four Aces, the Four Freshmen, the Hi-Lo’s et. al. I did like some R&B groups, such as the Clovers, the Temptations, the Impressions, but was exposed to very little of it when I was a child. I didn’t like Little Richard or James Brown and those folks. So as far as the parent/child relationship is concerned there was no rebellion in my home. My family was musical and when I lived in foster homes prior to living with my Dad, they were also listening to jazz, gospel and very little R&B.”

The years Sandy spent with her father were in Oregon and it was there, at the age of sixteen, that she won the opportunity to sing on television. “I sang Little Things Mean A Lot. It was a pop song recorded by Teresa Brewer. I was scared to death. But I did it beautifully, so they say . . . I hardly remember. Anyway, my father was very proud and used to wake me at two o’clock in the morning to sing Four Brothers for his friends who would come by the house after work. Ha ha! I loved bebop. Still do.”sg2

It was in Oregon that Sandy met Elise Bly and it was through her that when she was back in Los Angeles she met trumpeter Clora Bryant. Elise and Clora had played together in Oklahoma and these musical generation-spanning contacts of Sandy’s can be seen in Judy Chaikin’s award-winning film, The Girls In The Band. When she was in Los Angeles, Sandy was never far from music. “We lived off Central Avenue where jazz and blues played anytime of the day and night. I remember when people would come from all over Los Angeles to go to the clubs in the Central Avenue area.jc girls They would dress up in shiny dresses, pearls and furs. I always said when I get big I’m going to dress like that, smoke cigarettes out of a long cigarette holder and go to the clubs and listen to the beautiful music. Of course when I got old enough to go to Central Avenue all those jazz clubs were gone. Oh, but I’m rambling on because I still think about the places that I missed. I was born too late for those glorious, glamorous times. At least, it seemed glamorous to me. But it probably wasn’t really. My eyes were full of stars.”

Those images of Central Avenue are much more than half a world away from many. Speaking for myself, I was born and raised in a city in the North of England where there were no jazz clubs and only rarely did a jazz artist make a concert appearance at the stately and quite unsuitable City Hall. Gradually, as the years went by, jazz was heard; the trad jazz boom of the 1950s at last giving pub landlords something to do with those cavernous first-floor rooms that had lain empty and echoing for decades.Door with jazz and graffiti So different are these memories from Sandy Graham’s Central Avenue recollections and yet, somehow, I feel a surprisingly strong kinship with her and others who saw and heard those sights and sounds, be they in Los Angeles or Kansas City or on Chicago’s South Side or New York’s 52nd Street. If her eyes were full of stars, then the same might be said of my head. Hopefully, the make-believe will stay in my head among the images of reported but unrecorded moments of magic: Joe Turner singing behind the bar of the Reno Club; Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton playing a 30-minute duet on trumpet and drums in a Los Angeles nightspot; Dizzy Gillespie happily sitting in and playing fourth (!) trumpet in Bill Berry’s band at Carmelo’s in Hollywood; Chick Webb routing Benny Goodman in a battle of the bands at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. All these are real events but the aural and visual images they evoke are entirely imaginary, and yet are all so real to me.

This same imagination drew me by way of jazz to other aspects of American culture. Among the results of this is my stage play, The Colors Of Your Life, which centers upon the mistreatment of black women in the USA from slavery through to the present day.bc colors Also, three of my recent crime novels, Harlem Nocturne, Harlem Madness, and Harlem Blues, are set respectively in 1939, 1943 and 1963. Although fiction, these tales touch upon real issues of those times, including the rise of fascism, the Harlem riots, and the impact of the Civil Rights movement. I am immeasurably grateful that jazz and my (perhaps overly active) imagination led me into these other worlds.bc h blues No bad thing; because imagination is what someone in my trade needs. Just as it is needed in the much richer and more important work of the jazz giants we all admire. Perhaps, once in a while, imagination overflows a little beyond acceptable boundaries, but I certainly hope that such lapses can be forgiven, if only because in so doing I can sneakily forgive myself when I do it. And why not? After all, without imagination, the world can be a very dull place.

All books, CDs and DVDs are available from Amazon.

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