After spending a minute casually perusing the March calendar for the San Francisco supper club Mr. Tipple’s, two realizations hit me almost simultaneously. First, it dawned on me that just about every night included a woman-led combo or a band featuring a female instrumentalist. And after a few beats, I realized how normal that felt, as the musicians are all among the region’s busiest and most respected jazz, R&B, and soul artists.
I checked in a few days later with Jay Bordeleau, the proprietor of the Civic Center jazz spot, and he confirmed that he’d set out to celebrate Women’s History Month, drawing mostly from Mr. Tipple’s regular cast of players. The lineup leans heavily on vocalists, including Lilan Kane’s tribute to Nancy Wilson (March 3), soulstress Viveca Hawkins making her debut at the club (March 11), veteran jazz and blues great Faye Carol (March 25), and jazz star Tiffany Austin, who also hosts a jam session after her quartet set (March 29).
But instrumentalists are well represented, too, with saxophonists making a particularly strong showing, including South Bay tenor mainstay Kristen Strom (March 8), powerhouse tenor and altoist Kasey Knudsen (March 10), and adventurous tenor player Beth Schenck (March 15), who all perform with their working quartets. Pianists Erika Oba (March 9), Tammy Hall (March 10), and Anne Sajdera (March 16) also bring in their regular combos, as do percussionist/vocalist Amelie Anna (March 23), drummer Sylvia Cuenca (March 24), and bassist Lisa Mezzacappa (March 25).
While Mr. Tipple’s is out front in booking women musicians — it’s telling that Bordeleau could draw on a deep pool from the club’s regular rotation of acts — looking at programming across the Bay Area this month captures the reality on the ground. Women players are on the march in March. If a venue wants to present the most creative and interesting improvisers, composers, and bandleaders on the jazz scene, women have to be in the mix. This was true 20 years ago, but it bears repeating as old habits die hard.
Several organizations have started to reflect this reality. The Monterey Jazz Festival, San Jose Jazz, and the Stanford Jazz Festival have made real strides in presenting women instrumentalists, but there are venues and presenters (and male colleagues) that could and should do better. The organization that could have the biggest impact, SFJAZZ, has yet to make a concerted effort at showcasing women. The 40th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival, the flagship concert series that SFJAZZ presents from June 7–18 this year, only features two women instrumentalists as headliners, organist Sundra Manning and drummer Cindy Blackman. When it comes to education, however, the organization has proven adept at nurturing young talent. The SFJAZZ High School All-Stars boasts an illustrious track record of nurturing young women who’ve gone on to thriving careers as professional players.
The point is that wherever you look in the coming weeks, there are exceptional women musicians presenting original music, and that’s not because of Women’s History Month. Women players are making history in April, August, and November, too. In addition to the lineup at Mr. Tipple’s, here are a dozen acts not to miss in March.
Anat Cohen, March 9–11 (7:30 p.m.), March 12 (7 p.m.), SFJAZZ’s Miner Auditorium
One of jazz’s most charismatic leaders, Israeli clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Anat Cohen possesses an unusually expansive palette, equally at home in traditional New Orleans-style combos, Brazilian choro ensembles, and contemporary composition-driven settings. Presenting a different set of music for each show in her second four-night stint as an SFJAZZ resident artistic director, she opens performing duo with Fred Hersch, a nonpareil pianist renowned for his ability to turn instrumental tete-a-tetes into revelatory dialogues. Cohen communes with at least three stellar guitarists Friday, including Sheryl Bailey, fellow Israeli Gilad Hekselman, and Rio-born Romero Lubambo, and introduces a new quartet Saturday with Hekselman, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Joe Dyson. The run closes Sunday with an orchestral “Pan-American Songbook” program featuring Cohen’s longtime collaborator Oded Lev-Ari, who directs a jazz quartet and a string ensemble with concertmaster and first violinist Sara Caswell and alumni from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Kate Williams, March 9 (7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.), SFJAZZ’s Joe Henderson Lab
Trumpeter Kate Williams, who spent several years delivering well-conceived solos with the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars and the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, makes her SFJAZZ debut as a bandleader.
Destiny Muhammad’s “Tribute to Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane,” March 10 (7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.), SFJAZZ’s Joe Henderson Lab
Harpist and vocalist Destiny Muhammad presents her spiritually charged tribute to jazz’s first great harp player, Dorothy Ashby, and Alice Coltrane, who turned the instrument into a vehicle for celestial jazz exploration.
Ingrid Jensen, March 10 (8 p.m.), California Jazz Conservatory’s Rendon Hall/Fiddler Annex
Whether she’s serving as an instrumental muse for orchestral jazz composers Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue or leading her own bands, Canadian-born trumpeter Ingrid Jensen is a commanding improviser with a beautifully compressed tone. As part of CJC’s JAMBAR Series, she plays with the school’s all-star faculty house band featuring pianist Matt Clark, bassist Jeff Denson, and drummer Gerald Cleaver.
Caroline Chung’s Citizens Jazz, March 11 (7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.), SFJAZZ’s Joe Henderson Lab
Veteran bassist Caroline Chung brings her Citizens Jazz brigade in for a program focusing on women composers, from Betty Davis, Sade, and Gretchen Parlato to Carla Bley, Mary Lou Williams, and Alice Coltrane.
Mimi Fox B-3 Trio, March 16 (8 p.m.), Freight & Salvage
A guitarist’s guitarist whose technical prowess never detracts from her emotional intensity, Mimi Fox has put together a trio that delivers everything one wants from an organ combo. Featuring Brian Ho on organ and drummer Lorca Hart, the trio roars, whispers, shouts, and croons as Fox celebrates one of her formative influences, Wes Montgomery.
Kala Ramnath, March 23 (7 p.m.), Stanford Live’s Bing Studio
Hindustani violin master Kala Ramnath is a mesmerizing player who has gracefully worked in jazz fusion and new-music settings, recording with the Grammy-nominated Miles From India project and writing commissions for Kronos Quartet. She plays a recital accompanied by Abhijit Banerjee, a tabla maestro who has also worked widely outside of North Indian classical settings.
Artemis, March 24 (8 p.m.), UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall
Led by the great pianist/composer Renee Rosnes, well known to Bay Area audiences as a founding member of the SFJAZZ Collective and longtime collaborator with vibes legend Bobby Hutcherson, Artemis is an all-woman sextet featuring trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, drummer Allison Miller, and bassist Noriko Ueda, who were all on the band’s eponymous 2020 debut album. Slated for release in May, the band’s follow-up, In Real Time, features the group’s second iteration, with Nicole Glover on tenor saxophone and Alexa Tarantino on flute and alto and soprano saxophone. The band delivered one of the most exciting sets at the Monterey Jazz Fest last summer, with just about every player contributing original pieces.
Rhonda Benin’s “Just Like a Woman,” March 25 (8 p.m.), Freight & Salvage
Since jazz and R&B vocalist Rhonda Benin presented her first “Just Like a Woman” revue at Freight & Salvage in 2013, the event has become a seasonal fixture, bringing together a new mix of generationally and stylistically diverse artists. This year’s roster includes gospel legend Dorothy Morrison (lead vocalist on the transformational Edwin Hawkin Singers’s 1967 hit “Oh Happy Day”), percussionist/vocalist Vicki Randle, Venezuelan cuatro master and percussionist Jackeline Rago, and vocalists Zoe and Lily Ellis. Benin always books the Lillian Armstrong Tribute Band, featuring pianist Tammy Hall, bassist Ruth Davies, drummer Ruthie Price, and saxophonist Kristen Strom.
Sona Jobarteh, March 26 (7 p.m.), Brava Theater Center
Born in London into a family of griots from The Gambia, Sona Jobarteh broke centuries of Mandinka tradition by mastering the 21-string kora and making a role for herself as a pioneering female griot. Presented by Diaspora Arts Connection, her concert offers a rare opportunity for the Bay Area to experience Jobarteh’s incantatory blend of traditional West African songs, blues, and Afropop.
Astrid Kuljanic’s Transatlantic Exploration Company, March 25 (7:30 p.m.), Red Poppy Art House
A recent transplant to the East Bay, Croatian jazz vocalist Astrid Kuljanic is steeped in jazz, Brazilian, and Balkan music, often recombining sources in wondrously inventive ways. Performing with her husband Mat Muntz on bass and bagpipes and Ben Rosenblum on accordion, she’s an exciting new addition to the Bay Area scene.
Jayla Hernández (Junior RJAM Drums Recital), March 10 (7:30 p.m.), SFCM’s Cha Chi Ming Recital Hall
A savvy and resourceful drummer who is rapidly making a name for herself on the Bay Area jazz scene while studying at SFCM, Jayla Hernández presents her junior recital for the Roots, Jazz, and American Music program with six fellow students, including trombonist Charles Blagrove, trumpeter Lucas Davis, pianist Emmett Van Leer, bassist Julian Esparza, and vocalists B. DeVeaux-Griffith and Vuyiswa Sigadi.