JAZZ CHICKS. Primavera. Spring. Whatever the language, the word holds connotations of fresh renewal, with a hint of carefree energy. Perhaps this is why, 23 years ago, the Tucson Jazz Society chose the word to describe its annual celebration of women in jazz. Indeed, Primavera is the oldest continuously running event of its type in the country. Originally the brainchild of Yvonne Ervin, now TJS executive director emeritus, the jazz festival is still going strong. Appropriately, Ervin will attend this year's celebration as it honors the old and introduces the new.

On Saturday, the venerable music series comes to the Berger Performing Arts Center, on the campus of Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. Past Primaveras have highlighted such luminaries as Diana Krall, Marian McPartland and Dee Dee Bridgewater. This year's featured guest is jazz vocalist Marlena Shaw. She's good--as the Los Angeles Times raves, Shaw "combines the soaring sensuality of Sarah Vaughn with the precisely articulated swing of Carmen McRae."

Shaw has been performing professionally since she first appeared at the famed Apollo at the tender age of 10. Her eclectic blend of jazz, soul, pop and R&B has hypnotized audiences since the 1960s. Shaw performed with Count Basie for four years, and has numerous albums under her belt. Her most recent CD, Dangerous, has nothing to do with Michael Jackson that we know of. Rather, it represents a new beginning for Shaw, her first release on the Concord Jazz label.

In addition to Shaw's performance, Primavera 2004 will represent the official debut of a new jazz group, composed entirely of local ladies.

"We are both pleased and proud that this year's Primavera celebration has led to the creation of the Tucson Jazz Chicks, a most unique ensemble comprising six of Tucson's leading female jazz musicians," says Genie Epperson, director of the Tucson Jazz Society.

The diverse new group, formed by local blueswoman Kathleen Williamson, combines the talents of several local ladies. Williamson herself is the 2003 TAMMIES award winner in the categories of Best CD Release and Best Songwriter. In addition to being the group's founder, Williamson plays guitar and sings for the Jazz Chicks.

Pianist and vocalist Susan Artemis brought her alluring voice to Tucson in 1997. Since then, her piano interpretations of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and others have captivated audiences. Artemis' recent CD, Small Day Tomorrow, is available on her Web site, susanartemis.com.

Saxophonist "Hurricane" Carla Brownlee, a 2002 inductee into the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame, has performed all over the United States and Europe. She has played extensively with Dan Hartman's "I Can Dream About You" tour, and appeared on such TV shows as Soul Train, American Bandstand and Late Night With David Letterman.

Recent Tucsonan repatriate Gillian DeLear plays percussion and drums. She has been a crucial part of several local bands including Sam Taylor, Lisa Otey, Lori Davidson & the Intruders, Tony & the Torpedoes and Anna Warr.

Donna Lepley, guitarist, is a graduate of the well-known Berklee College of Music and a former student of acclaimed jazz guitarist Pat Martino. She has performed throughout the Grand Canyon State with such artists as Brian Bromberg, Robin Horn, Janice Jarrett and Lew Lepley.

Last but not least, Mary Redhouse lends an "eco-spiritual" touch to the band. Her blend of Native American chants, bird and animal calls, and multi-octave scatting complements her skills on the bass. Redhouse, a Dine (Navajo) nation member, has worked with more than a few well-known groups, including the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet, the William Eaton Ensemble, the Redhouse Family Jazz Band, the Oliver Lake Quartet, Lisa Otey and the Larry Redhouse Trio. Her discography can be found at canyonrecords.com.

The Jazz Chicks' performance at 7 p.m. will open the concert, marking the first time a group has been formed expressly for Primavera, according to TJS director Epperson. The ladies are not restricting themselves to a mere Saturday recital, though.

"In addition to their debut performance," says Epperson, "members of the Tucson Jazz Chicks will share their knowledge and expertise through a series of educational outreach activities. They will be teaching jazz students in our JazzWerx program and at Rincon/University High School, Doolen and Utterback middle schools during the week prior to the concert. We're deeply grateful to our friends, the Colliers, at Beyond Bread and the Tucson-Pima Arts Council for their generous support of this new educational component of the Primavera celebration."

Primavera hits the Berger Center for the Performing Arts (1200 W. Speedway Blvd) on Saturday, Feb. 28, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 general, $20 for Tucson Jazz Society members and $10 for students. Get tickets at Hear's Music (795-4494) or Antigone Books (792-3715) or call 903-1265 to reserve seats.

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