Women's Jazz Festival: a swinging minority

It's been said that jazz is America's only indigenous music. From its early days, however, it has never been fully accepted and appreciated by the vast majority of Americans.

Jazz musicians, both black and white, have been a minority in the music business. And, in jazz, there is a minority within the minority: the female jazz musician.

Rarely heard, usually considered a novelty, most often found either singing or playing the "acceptable" instruments for women, such as piano or flute, the woman in jazz has been sadly overlooked.

That is, until 1978, when two enterprising and energetic women named Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg founded the Women's Jazz Festival here, designed to promote women in jazz and give them an opportunity to stand up (or sit down, as the case may be) and play, to get to know each other; and to break down some of the stereotypes about women being unsuited for jazz music.

As a result, this city still hasn't stopped swinging from last week's four days of sounds from literally hundreds of female jazz musicians from all over the United States.

Jam sessions, workshops, and concerts were all well attended. The final concert showcased the Carla Bley Band, singer Cleo Laine, pianist Joanne Brackeen, and an all-star WJF quintet. Several big bands mainly of women appeared in another concert, along with "Quintess," a Los Angeles-based quintet fronted by trumpeter Ruth Kissane.

Most of the action took place at the Crown Center here, a large hotel-mall-restaurant complex. Things got off to a swinging start the first afternoon with an open jam session in the hotel lounge, led by Carol Comer's quartet. Early arrivals brought their horns, and, along with bass players, drummers, singers and bass players, waited for a chance to sit in

Carol Comer, executive director of the festival and a fine pianist-singer herself, tells the story of how the festival got started:

"Dianne and I had come back from the Wichita Jazz Festival, lamenting the fact that Kansas City had nothing as stupendous and professional as that. We also lamented the fact that there were no featured female instrumentalists in the festival. We combined those two laments and came up with the Women's Jazz Festival."

The original idea was to have one concert featuring women performers, but the idea soon expanded to include workshops, jam sessions, and films. When publicity went out about the original concert, Carol and Dianne started getting letters. One came from a woman who wrote: "I'm coming all the way from California -- I hope there's going to be more than just one event."

Soon prominent jazz artists volunteered to play. Pianist Mary Lou Williams had just written a jazz mass and later performed it gratis. And others offered just to help out with details.

"We found ourselves chasing a baby that could run before it learned to crawl, " quips

Then came the problem of organizing and fund raising. Carol and Dianne contacted jazz pianist Marian McPartland and jazz critic-historian-producer Leonard Feather, and were greeted with warm enthusiasm by both. Feather, long a champion of women's rights in jazz, has become a permanent fixture at the festivals the past three years, making himself available as master of ceremonies at the concerts, helping out with workshops, and just being around to talk with and inspire the visiting jazz women.

The first year was a struggle, trying to get necessary funds together. The National Endowment for the funds together. The National Endowment for the Arts gave WJF a grant, but in spite of that and financial support from festival board members, the first year left them in a sizable hole. "Each year gets a little better, though," says Carol, as the festival grows in size and stature.

What about the goals of the WJF?

"Our ultimate aim is to not have a Women's Jazz Festival," remarks Carol. "When women become a real part of the mainstream jazz scene, and are no longer a novelty on the bandstand, there won't be any need for us; we can become the Kansas City Jazz Festival.But until that time, we're going to make sure they have an opportunity to be seen and heard. Women tend to be overlooked and ignored. Would you believe more than half our mail is addressed to 'The Women's Jazz Fstival -- Dear Sir?'"

Are there non-jazz women who use WJF as a feminist tool?

"We don't mind if they do," says Dianne. "Whatever they're here for, they end up hearing some excellent music."

Carol joins in: "We have two audiences: the feminists who don't know much about jazz and who come because it's a women's jazz festival; and the jazz fans -- they learn about the women in jazz. They're coming from two different sides, and they meet us in the middle."

"Really there are more women jazz musicians out there than anybody realizes -- than they even realize themselves, because they don't know where each other is!"

In addition to all they've done so far, Carol and Dianne plan to hold a jazz camp here this summer and to organize a women's jazz tour of Japan and South Korea for the fall. Needless to say, the WJF is a full-time job for Carol Comer and Dinne Gregg.

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