An Ode to the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival

Pianist Mary Lou Williams

Pianist Mary Lou Williams

Friday afternoon as I eased into my long, holiday weekend, I ran across Abby Johnston’s thoughtful piece for Salon, “No women allowed: Summer music festivals are dudefests, again.” Ugh. Disappointing but not surprising. Then as I wrapped up my weekend I saw an advertisement for “The Women’s Concert for Change.” The ad was upbeat and promised an uplifting celebration of women. But, as it turns out, the concert, to be aired June 2, is part of headliner Beyonce’s new campaign to raise funds and awareness for female empowerment around the world. This is serious, more disheartening business.

Striking bookends for an otherwise low-key weekend. But they did get me thinking, once again, about women, empowerment, and the music industry. In particular, the state of women in jazz and the recent announcement that the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, founded in 1996 by pianist Billy Taylor, will no longer be all women. Beginning in 2014, the festival will be renamed the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival and will feature at least one all-male act.

I have to admit, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I agree with the festival’s organizers: an emphasis on women might, in fact, be too limiting and the designation “women in jazz” inadvertently pejorative. As I’ve written in the past, the female musicians I know don’t want to be perceived as pretty good for a girl. They don’t want to be defined by their gender. They want to be great musicians.

And there are a lot of excellent female jazz musicians out there. In fact, according to Adam Bernstein’s piece in the Washington Post, this is one of the reasons why the festival is shifting focus. Women can now be found in all levels of jazz. In a sense, the festival has accomplished its goals, and festival organizers are characterizing the rebranding as a victory for women jazz musicians.

The shift was initiated, in part, by pianist and composer Jason Moran, who serves as artistic adviser for jazz to the Kennedy Center. He says that he was “inspired by everyone,” including the likes of pianist Geri Allen, and that gender has not been a central focus of his career. Moran believes that it’s better for the festival to honor the larger legacy of Mary Lou Williams, who mentored countless musicians, both men and women, rather than focusing exclusively on gender.

Again, I have mixed feelings. While I understand Moran’s reasoning and agree wholeheartedly with the need for greater inclusivity, I do have a knee-jerk reaction to what appears to be a man deciding what’s best for women jazz musicians based upon his experience as a man. He has clearly benefited from the generosity and wisdom of mentors, but it feels as if his position, oddly enough, undermines the importance of mentors for women – fails to recognize how crucial a mentor can be for a young musician just starting out, especially a young woman attempting to enter a field dominated by men. Without strong role models it’s harder for her to see how to exist, thrive, and be an artist. And the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival provided a safe place where this could happen.

Even though the festival is changing its name, it’s not necessarily changing its mission. Festival director Kevin Struthers is careful to point out that “we’re not going to diminish the opportunities for women to perform here. I hope the impact will be a fulfillment of Billy’s vision that we don’t need to designate these wonderful women by gender. Talent is talent is talent.”

This is the goal. To live and work in a world where gender doesn’t matter. Where gender is not a fundamental component of identity. A world where talent rules. Men, especially white men, already live in this world. But women, far too often, do not. This is the problem. A problem that the organizers of the Mary Lou Williams fest believe, perhaps too idealistically, no longer exists, or at least, doesn’t exist in the way that it once did.

True gender equality remains an elusive goal in the music world. Otherwise we wouldn’t continue to have the “dudefests” that Johnston wrote about in Salon. Her survey of the 2013 lineups for the five major summer pop music festivals (Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands, and Austin City Limits) revealed that “71 percent of the total bands were all-male outfits, with all-female (mostly female solo artists) only claiming 9 percent. Bands dominated by men, but with at least one female member, represented the second largest group at a scant 13 percent.” Sobering stats. I’d be interested to learn the results of a similar survey of prominent jazz festivals. Hopefully jazz would perform better than its more mainstream cousins, but I’m not that optimistic.

In the end, I’m not sure if changing the name of a single jazz festival is that big of a deal. After all, the name Mary Lou Williams speaks for itself. But it feels like a big deal. It feels as if something hard earned and much needed is being taken away. It feels like a blow to the larger agenda of making sure women in jazz are supported, trained, developed, heard, and, yes, empowered.