September 20, 2019
The big story at the Monterey Jazz Festival last year was the precipitous inclusion of female instrumentalists. Like a dam bursting, an unprecedented wave of women players flowed through the fairgrounds, touching every corner of the festival. Simultaneously amazing and quotidian, the demographic sea change was a revolution that left the music unchanged, which is to say as multifarious, enthralling, and unpredictable as ever.
The response of many of the women players I spoke with last year can best be summed up as pleased but wary. Did the new openness mark a permanent transformation in booking perspective? Or was it a one-off in response to #MeToo, Time’s Up, and kindred movements fighting against barriers faced by women? Examining the lineup for the 62nd Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, which runs Sept. 27–29, the change looks to be far more than cosmetic. The numbers, and more importantly the artists, are impressive.
There are at least a dozen ensembles led by or prominently featuring women players, from vibraphonist Sasha Berliner and pianist Connie Han, both bandleaders in their early 20s, to veteran masters like organist Amina Claudine Myers, keyboardist Patrice Rushen, and pianist Tammy Hall (who plays a set of spirituals with bassist Ruth Davies). Drummer Allison Miller, who shares artist-in-residence responsibilities with bassist Derrick Hodge, credits Tim Jackson, the festival’s longtime artistic director, with “taking that initiative and spearheading diversity and equality.”
“It takes someone at the top to make that strong decision,” Miller says. “It can come from a woman or a man. It’s great either way and long overdue. Audiences will appreciate it too. Everyone wants to see interesting music, to see that diversity on stage. It should have been happening a long time ago. Now I’m hoping other festivals follow. Newport has been catching on.”
One weekend out of the year might seem like a drop in the jazz bucket, but what happens at Monterey reverberates widely. As the world’s longest running jazz festival it attracts international attention, and while widespread imitation has diluted its influence over the decades, Monterey still commands attention. And women players are in the foreground from the first note.
Miller and Hodge play Friday night’s first set in the main arena, opening the festival with a tribute to legendary pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams (1910–1981). Focusing on her songs and lyric settings from her albums Black Christ of the Andes and Zoning, they’ve tapped pianists who are close associates, Shamie Royston and Carmen Staaf, and the vocalists Jean Baylor, Johnaye Kendrick, and Michael Mayo.
Miller also performs on the festival grounds with her primary band Boom Tic Boom, an all-star sextet that includes Berkeley piano great Myra Melford and Humboldt violinist Jenny Scheinman, and a new quartet that she co-leads with Scheinman, Parlour Game, featuring pianist Carmen Staaf and bassist Tony Scherr.
To the extent there’s such a thing as a typical jazz musician, Scheinman doesn’t fit the bill. While she’s collaborated with influential improvisers such as bassist Christian McBride, drummer Scott Amendola, and, most extensively, guitarist Bill Frisell, she’s also an accomplished singer/songwriter who’s released two acclaimed albums featuring her folk and alt-country originals.
With an optimistically buoyant sound, Parlour Game spun off from Boom Tic Boom, and part of what drew Scheinman to the new ensemble was the opportunity to work in a female-centric situation. She speaks only for herself, but describes her evolving goals as an artist as inextricably linked to her experience as the mother of two children seeking to create more possibilities for human connection.
“The jazz world has painted itself into a corner a little bit,” she says. “It can be very insular. I’d like to reach out to the more popular roots, when jazz was very accessible and available and attended by a more diverse audience. I want to contribute something that’s useful to as many people as possible, leaving people bonded and empowered and uplifted.”
Canadian alto saxophonist Allison Au is one of the young women artists making her Monterey debut this season. Busy building her career in Toronto, she wasn’t aware of last year’s programmatic breakthrough. But when she saw herself named in an SFJAZZ website essay listing 10 up-and-coming young female instrumentalists she sensed an opportunity and reached out to the organization.
Au played two shows in SFJAZZ’s Joe Henderson Lab on Saturday, a gig that ended up anchoring a West Coast tour that includes several university workshops and her festival-opening set Friday afternoon on the outdoor Garden Stage. A composer, bandleader, and Juno Award-winning recording artist who’s led the same quartet for the past decade, she’s nominated for another Juno for her latest album Wander Wonder. Grateful for the pioneering women who’ve gone before her in jazz, Au sees the belated opportunities opening up for her and her peers as a playing field that’s gradually being leveled.
“It’s a funny time across a lot of disciplines,” she says. “I’m of the mindset now that we have to almost overcompensate for the dial to correct itself. I have mixed feelings about deliberately focusing on female artists in music or otherwise, but maybe overdoing it is kind of necessary for it to become the norm. There are so many incredible female players who’ve been active for so many decades.”
There are also more girls and young women than ever before pursuing a passion for jazz. Nothing demonstrates Monterey’s commitment to nurturing women jazz artists more explicitly than Next Gen Women in Jazz Combo, a sextet gleaned from the high school all-star Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. Launched by Paul Contos, the longtime director of the Monterey Jazz Festival’s year-round education program, the Next Gen Women in Jazz Combo is led by Los Angeles bassist/vocalist Katie Thiroux.
A rising force as a bandleader whose 2017 album Off Beat (Capri Records) earned rapturous reviews, Thiroux recalls being one of only two girls in the Next Gen Jazz Orchestra in the mid-aughts. One motivation for creating a break-out combo showcasing young women in the orchestra was to get more young women to audition for the band. By that measure it’s already paid off; more tried out for the band than ever before.
Thiroux became the group’s director after the audition process and came in wondering what the vibe would be like. “Are these girls going to feel weird, like we’re only here because we’re girls? They couldn’t care less. It was like nothing fazed them. They were so happy to find people thinking and playing on their level. This kind of talent has always been out there, but things like this are making it more visible.”
Visibility seems to be a key to attracting more women onto the bandstand (and into the audience), but it’s heartening to see that aspiring young women might not have to contend with all of the hurdles faced by their older sisters. What’s clear is that there has long been a prodigious pool of talent marginalized and sidelined by blinkered bookers who think that presenting one female piano player precludes programming a second because, well, we’ve already got one gal.
“Sometimes I hear people say that seems all the sudden there are all these women who can really play,” says Allison Miller, who brings her sextet Boom Tic Boom back to the Bay Area on Nov. 15 for two shows at Stanford’s Bing Studio. “Yes, there are great women who can really throw down and play. They’ve always been there.”