SINCE THE EARLY 1800s when they began drumming in New Orleans' Congo Square, women have been a major part of the development of blues and jazz. The first vocal blues recording, "The Crazy Blues" was by a woman, Mamie Smith. At the forefront of jazz was Lil Harden Armstrong, and fellow pianist Mary Lou Williams wasn't far behind.
After recording more than 50 songs in the mid-1920s with her husband, Louis Armstrong, Harden left him and became the leader of probably the first all-women jazz band. During World War II dozens of all-women big bands were formed. While Rosie riveted airplanes, women horn players anointed their lips with immovable red mercurochrome--no 1940s woman would be called a lady without her lipstick--and lifted the spirits of citizens and troops with swing music.
These novelty acts disappeared at the end of World War II. Many women who were serious about jazz felt the all-women bands were demeaning. In the 30 years that followed, a handful of female jazz instrumentalists and a dozen or so women jazz singers were successful, but all-women ensembles were practically non-existent. In the late '70s Ann Patterson put together the all-women big band, Maiden Voyage, and the women's group, Alive! also was founded. The Women's Jazz Festival in Kansas City began in 1977 and, a year later, the Universal Jazz Coalition began a women's jazz festival in New York City. Feminism in jazz was building.
In a most unlikely place, another women's jazz event began in 1981. Primavera, a concert featuring local women performers, was born in the basement of Tucson's Marriott Hotel. Unlike its precursors in Kansas City and New York, this baby has grown to the healthy age of 15, blossoming into a month-long celebration of women in all the arts.
One might think that after 15 years, a concept from the 1970s would no longer be valid or useful in the '90s, but it is. At the recent convention of the International Association of Jazz Educators, about two dozen professional big bands were showcased during the three-day event. Two were all-women big bands, while the others had no women in them. The two women's bands were arguably as good as most of the other bands, so why weren't the others "integrated"?
In the many high school and college bands showcased at the Anaheim convention, the two or three girls in each band were typically in the last chairs of the saxophone section or on that most ladylike of instruments, the piano.
"Women make good baritone sax players," one band director said when I pointed out the number of women at the end of the saxophone section on the big band's most unwieldy and unpopular instrument.
This recent ghetto-like experience and a lifetime of similar experiences convinces me there is still a need to showcase women jazz musicians and, hence, probably a need in other arts disciplines, too. Maiden Voyage founder Ann Patterson, who has been a guest at three Primavera concerts, railed against all-women groups (the leaders didn't care how you played, just how you looked) until she found herself among great women players. The band became a good idea then, she said, to give talented women experience, exposure and work. That, too, has been the purpose of the annual Primavera jazz concert.
The headliner for Primavera this year, pianist Geri Allen, recently appeared on CBS Sunday Morning, in an extensive interview with Billy Taylor. They showed her working with a young woman pianist in her position as assistant professor at Howard University. She said, "I am very much inspired by...this real desire on the part of so many young people to pursue jazz. I have a number of young women students who are drummers and pianists and I like to encourage everyone, obviously, but specifically to encourage young women. There certainly are great women that they can call on for inspiration."
Carmela Ramirez, the leader of the all-women ensemble Más Mujeres wants to inspire other women musicians to play Latin music.
Ramirez's group, also appearing at Primavera, will include Tucson bassist Mary Redhouse Hauer, a frequent participant in Primavera events. Hauer will lead her own group in a free concert at the Main Library downtown, 101 N. Stone Avenue, on Wednesday, March 15. Others included in Más Mujeres are pianist Beth Lederman, saxophonist LauRha, trumpeter Rebecca Kennell, Claire Greisa on drums and Terry Cotá, congas.
Judy Roberts, a pianist/vocalist from Chicago, will open the show with a duo with bassist Neal Seroka. (Men are welcome on the Primavera stage.) She'll also perform a few tunes with Carmela on vocals.
Roberts recalls that she secured her first gig at 15 because of her gender. Her boyfriend played bass at a little coffee house in Chicago. One night the piano player didn't show so she sat in, and the owner demanded that the band fire the pianoman and hire Roberts because she was a novelty. Since then, Roberts said, being a woman has always worked to her advantage. She doesn't mind being hired because she's female. And while she encourages other women performers, she doesn't believe female musicians should be judged in a different light than their male counterparts. "Either you can play or you can't" is her attitude.
All nine women and the one guy performing at the Pimavera Jazz Concert March 11 can really play. Hear for yourself at 8 p.m. at the Pima Community College Center for the Arts, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Tickets range from $6 to $19 and are available at Hear's Music, 2508 N. Campbell Ave., Antigone Books, 600 N. Fourth Ave., or at the door.
Two other concerts are part of Primavera: A Celebration of Women in the Arts this weekend. Folk rocker Mary-Chapin Carpenter will be at the Tucson Convention Center arena on Friday, March 10; and the Tucson Blues Society is sponsoring a free set by local singer Elise Grecco at the Neon Moon, 5150 E. Speedway, at 8 p.m. on Sunday, March 12.
Yvonne Ervin is the executive producer of Primavera: A Celebration of Women in the Arts.
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