Women in jazz -- no longer a rare breed

It's not every day you see a woman stand up on stage with a baritone saxophone in her hands, or step behind a set of drums, or tackle a double string bass.

But at the Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival (WJF) for five days recently, and every spring for the past four years, such things are the accepted norm.

Women in jazz have been a rare breed, but thanks to this festival -- and its energetic founders, Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg -- the breed is becoming more and more visible.

"The first year or two we had no idea how many women musicians there were out there," says Carol. She and Dianne print a directory of women musicians, which has gotten bigger every year: "We now have close to 400 names, from 40 states and 4 foreign countries," adds Dianne. "And of course this list by no means represents all the women jazz musicians out there!"

WJF 1981, easily the most successful of the festivals so far, had a new mood, a more settled feeling, and a genuine camaraderie among the musicians and friends.

It was like "old home week" for those who have attended two or more WJFs in previous years, and a firsttime opportunity for many to play with and get to know other women jazz players.

The festival is a happy occasion for the numbers of women jazz musicians who came to Kansas City from all over the globe, but it is by no means restricted to women. Men sit in at the numerous open jam sessions and attend and perform in the concerts. Local Kansas City players supported the festival and joined in most of the sessions. There were more families with babies and small children this year, too, all of whom were enjoying themselves.

But the purpose of the festival, according to Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg, is to promote women in jazz and ultimately to help create role models for younger women jazz musicians. WJF provides an atmosphere where this can take place. Not merely a string of concerts featuring name jazz figures, WJF has something for everyone, including open jam sessions, informal workshops focusing on various instruments as well as the business end of music, a "TNT" (top new talent) concert, and this year two brand-new events: a "Fun With Jazz" program for Head Start students, with audience participation (can you imagine four-year-olds scat singing? -- they did!); and a jazz and tap dance demonstration.

Both of these new events were so successful that Carol and Dianne plan to continue and expand them next year.

Musicians on every level of proficiency are invited to play at WJF. Jam sessions this year included everything from a "Genesis Jam" for beginners, some of whom had never sat in at a session before, to an "Open Mike Session," allowing players to form their own groups and perform in front of an audience. And much of the '81 festival, including the jam sessions, was videotaped by ABC-TV for part of a special program on jazz for cable television.

The TNT concert was the highlight of the festival this year, presenting a cross-section of musical styles and cultures. On the program were Sojourner, a seven-piece group with roots in African music and free jazz; Salamander, a five-piece group from Sweden, reminiscent of the John Coltrane-McCoy Tyner collaboration. The Swedish group performed outstanding original material.

And there was Kansas City vocalist Debbie Brown, backed by a local trio; and Alive! a high-energy quintet from the Bay Area featuring singer rhiannon (she spells it with a lower case "r"), who astonished everyone with her vocal pyrotechnics and warmth.

Jazz critic/historian Leonard Feather, who has been a supporter of WJF since its inception, was on hand again with another vintage jazz film program, spotlighting rare clips of Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith, and a classic film of Duke Ellington playing at the White House.

This year's festival culminated in a Main Concert, with Flora Purim and Airto , jazz organist Shirley Scott and her trio, vocalist Ernestine Anderson, and the WJF All-Stars, with Judy Roberts on piano, Rosemary Galloway on bass, Marilyn Donadt on drums, Jean Fineberg and Kathryn Moses on reeds, and Brandy Anthony on guitar.

WJF puts together the All-Stars band every year for this concert, each time with different musicians.The women usually come from different places and more often than not have never even met each other before, let alone played together. So the All-Stars performance is put together in Kansas City, just in time for the final concert. This year's All-Stars were "the best we've ever had," according to Leonard Feather, who moderated the concert.

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