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.

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