Women in Jazz Festivals. Do We Need Them?

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Valentine’s Day weekend marked the second annual Seattle Women in Jazz Festival, and once again, founder Jessica Davis put on a wonderful community-building event. It was the first of three similar festivals scheduled to take place this spring. Next up is the model for Seattle’s fest, the week-long Washington Women in Jazz Festival March 15-22, followed by the grandmother of women in jazz festivals, the recently renamed Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival May 23-24. Formerly known as the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, the re-branded fest will in 2014 feature an all-male act for the first time. Festival organizers, represented publicly by several men, explained that they changed the name because they wanted to create a more inclusive festival, one with less emphasis upon gender. Also, they believed that female jazz musicians had come a long way in the business, and in a sense, the festival had accomplished its mission. (You can find my response to the name change here.)

This “mini-season” of women in jazz fests has gotten me thinking again about festivals dedicated to female performers. Do we still need them? Do they help or hurt the larger cause of women trying to make it in the male-dominated world of jazz? Which leads to the larger, most pressing question: How do we cultivate more female talent and build audiences for their concerts?

I spend a lot of time writing about the role that gender plays in jazz performances and the challenges of being a woman in jazz. (Just take a look here, here, here, here, and here.) And I still have mixed feelings about women in jazz festivals. I worry that the designation “women in jazz” does, in fact, place too much emphasis upon gender. That it can become a derogatory term. An easy excuse for less enlightened audiences to dismiss the festival and performers. And that it can encourage the dreaded “she’s pretty good for a girl” style comments that most female jazz musicians encounter. I also worry, however, that there are not enough opportunities for young women to develop their talent, to gain experience and confidence. Jazz is, after all, a very machismo world and it can be intimidating. Women in jazz festivals do provide a much-needed alternative.

Take for example, the Seattle Women in Jazz festival. In addition to presenting established, well-known women on the Seattle scene, the fest lineup also included equal numbers of lesser known artists. Women who perform infrequently or are just starting out. This was invaluable. These artists got exposure and experience, while the audience got to enjoy new talent. The fest was also refreshingly inclusive, featuring as many different kinds of jazz as possible: straight ahead, swing, hard bop, Latin, gospel and musical theater inspired, as well as more experimental, avant-garde styles based upon free improvisation and chance. There is no shortage of canon makers and arbiters of taste in jazz, and they have come up with some pretty narrow definitions of what is and is not jazz. So the fest’s all-embracing approach was a welcome change of pace, too. One that encourages even more musicians (and listeners) to enter the jazz arena.

The most lasting influence of the festival, however, will be its scholarship program. Last year’s recipient, Eliana Colachis Glass, used her scholarship to attend a jazz workshop at Berklee College of Music. She performed again at this year’s festival and was awarded two days of recording studio time so that she can make her first CD. And last night she competed in the tenth annual Seattle-Kobe Female Jazz Vocalist Audition, which selected a vocalist to perform at the annual Kobe Jazz Vocal Queen Contest. Eliana is 16, and it’s likely that these experiences have changed her life.

Finally, I suspect that the Seattle Women in Jazz Festival is changing the landscape of the Seattle jazz scene as a whole. Last fall, when I perused the schedule for the twenty-fifth annual Earshot Jazz Festival, Seattle’s biggest jazz fest run by its most influential jazz organization, I was excited to see so many women performing. More than I can remember ever appearing in the past. Then I became angry. All of the women-led acts were scheduled for the same weekend, at the same times. I couldn’t see half of the groups! The audience would be split. But then I realized that exactly the opposite was happening. Earshot Jazz had devoted an entire weekend, the prime time slots of their month-long festival, to female performers. This was a big deal. If listeners wanted to attend an Earshot concert that weekend, they would hear women play jazz. Horizons would be broadened and preconceptions challenged, and this would all happen without using the problematic, and sometimes controversial, phrase “women in jazz.”

These are important steps forward. But there is still a long way to go. The 2013 Earshot Jazz Festival, for example, featured 57 groups, only six of which were all women or led by women with only two others listing women in their lineups. In an ideal world, the bandstand would be a model of gender equality and half of the ensembles would be led by women. There is clearly more work to be done. In the meantime, I will continue to support the Seattle Women in Jazz Festival and any other organization that promotes, cultivates, nurtures, or otherwise encourages the efforts of women in jazz.