One Flute over the Cuckoo's Nest

In the crazy world of jazz, Holly Hofmann is flying high.

Once I called a promoter about playing in his festival," recalls jazz flutist Holly Hofmann, "and he said, 'You're a white female flute player and you want to play in this festival? You've got to be kidding!' He just laughed in my face."

She may have three strikes against her in the jazz world, but nobody's laughing at the prospect of Hofmann as the crowning attraction of this year's Primavera festival, the Tucson Jazz Society's 21st annual celebration of women in jazz.

Hofmann will bring the week of activities to a close March 30 at the Berger Performing Arts Center. She'll be playing with the esteemed Ray Brown Trio; Connie Warren and the Lisa Lemay Trio will open.

Primavera begins March 23 with the Geri Allen Trio at Trinity Presbyterian Church. The appearances by Allen and Hofmann bookend a series of concerts by local women of jazz, a women's jazz jam and a "Women in the Arts" reception and exhibit.

Hofmann has played Tucson a couple of times before, but until now the Jazz Society has treated her as a solid attraction, period, gender not an issue. This month she's one of the standard-bearers of a minority group struggling to be heard in a minority-interest art form.

That's right: jazz flutists.

Oh, there are pop flutists and New Age flutists, but not that many straight-ahead, bebop-besotted flutists like Hofmann. The problem, she says, is not that jazz is harder to play on her instrument.

"It's more a matter of work being harder to get," she explains. "For many years the flute was only picked up as a double by saxophone players, and they had to do that because of the 18-piece big band format. The saxophones had to do all the doubles--clarinet, flute and all the various saxophones. So flute was always just a sideline for those players. Frank Wess recorded on both, Herbie Mann did at one time, and there've been various big band players that have done both, but I was told that I wouldn't make a living as a jazz flute player because I couldn't get enough work in ensembles. And in truth I do mostly have to be the leader; people don't call up saying, 'Can you play in this band or that band?'

"Now people are starting to look at the flute as a separate entity. But even Hubert Laws and Paul Horn and Herbie Mann started as saxophone players. I can tell the difference between a saxophone player that plays flute and a pure flute player. I've never doubled, because I can get the classical gigs."

That is, Hofmann is a classically trained flutist who substituted for her college teacher in the Cleveland Orchestra and now plays not only in jazz clubs but in classical settings in her home base of San Diego.

The word "classical" may alarm jazz fans, not because they're prejudiced against the music but because very few classical players can adapt to an idiomatic jazz sound, and often they just can't swing.

This is not a problem for Hofmann. At age 5 she was playing standards with her father, a jazz guitarist, but her parents insisted that she get a thorough classical grounding. That meant, among other things, a bachelor's degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music and a master's from the University of Northern Colorado.

Hofmann denies that her classical training has been a hindrance in her jazz playing: "It's absolutely a help, because you have to be so accomplished to do jazz, and without the classical discipline a lot of times it's just not possible." But then she allows, "Had I not had a jazz background before I started the classical lessons, I'm afraid I wouldn't have the jazz feel I now have. So I think I did it in the right order, but I absolutely need that classical training for the technical ability to play all the styles and to play all the things that are in my head."

She must be doing something right; a critic for the Los Angeles Times praised her "muscular attack and improvisational abandon," not something often said of classical moonlighters. Or of jazz flutists, for that matter.

"There are some promoters that say, 'We don't want a flute on the front line in a festival or a jam session because flute is not one of the jazz horns,'" Hofmann grouses. "The other thing I get is from other promoters saying women don't swing, women are not strong jazz players. So the biggest impediment I face would be the combination of female and flute. Things aren't changing in the world as much as I would like them to, but they're changing for me because I'm a little bit better known than when I started touring nine or 10 years ago. I don't have any illusion that it'll change in my lifetime completely; I'll just be one of the contributors to women eventually being accepted on all horns.

"The number one thing I'm trying to do musically is I'm focusing on taking the flute out of its stereotypical role, the more fluffy, feminine quality that the flute often has in classical music and pop, and make it just another jazz horn."

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