A Musician for all Seasons
At the Kennedy: Women in Jazz
By Mike Joyce, Special to The Washington Post, Monday, May 15, 2006; Page C02
If you're going to kick off the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival alone, playing a pair of piano tributes - one to the event's namesake (Mary Lou Williams), the other to founder and guiding light Billy Taylor - isn't a bad way to go.
Of course having Taylor, who recently said he was retiring from public performances, join you for a bluesy coda is probably too much to ask.
Or is it?
Although always careful to keep the spotlight on festival headliners, the 85-year-old jazz legend couldn't turn down an invitation to sit beside pianist and composer Jessica Williams when the 11th edition of the festival got underway Thursday night at the Kennedy Center.
The opportunity came moments after Williams performed several imaginatively harmonized solo piano pieces from a new suite she wrote in Taylor's honor. Among them was "Taylor's Triumph," an apt description of the festival itself. The duo's four-handed finale quickly proved a delight, with Williams and Taylor trading parts (and places on the piano stool). Initially Williams took the high road, favoring treble-register trills and triplets, while Taylor sustained a walking bass line with his left hand.
It's hard to recall the festival opening on a more fitting and crowd-pleasing note. The three consecutive nights of concerts were sold out, thanks in large part to the box office draw of renowned vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ernestine Anderson and Abbey Lincoln.
The remaining headliners, festival newcomers and favorites alike, covered a wide swath of mainstream jazz styles. The moods ranged from pianist Daniela Schaechter's impressionistic balladry and guitarist Mimi Fox's elegantly embellished quartet and solo arrangements to the organ-driven grooves of bands led by trombonist Sarah Morrow and keyboardist Trudy Pitts. Among the festival's highlights was Morrow's distinctive take on Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk" and Pitts's Hammond-powered rendition of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz."
Saved for last was the biggest and brashest group - the Diva Jazz Orchestra. Led by drummer Sherrie Maricle and featuring several fine soloists, the 15-woman ensemble capped the festival with a series of surging, custom-tailored arrangements, including vibrant charts written by John McNeil ("The Claw") and Tommy Newsom ("Lady Be Good"). Particularly impressive was clarinetist Anat Cohen's virtuosic turn on "What a Little Moonlight Can Do."
Two honors were announced during the event: Veteran pianist, singer and composer Patti Bown won the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival Award, while Mayuko Katakura took top honors in the festival's second annual piano competition.
- Review by Mike Joyce, Special to The Washington Post
The 11th Annual Women in Jazz Festival
Posted: 2006-06-01, By Franz A. Matzner, All ABout Jazz
Women have been involved in jazz since its beginning. They just never received due credit. This truism led Dr. Billy Taylor to found the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival more than a decade ago. Though progress has been made, it is the persistent inequity facing women practitioners that continues to make the annual three-day concert series one of the Kennedy Center's most important and successful jazz events.
It is important because one of the factors that keeps any prejudice firmly in place—even after it is officially unacceptable—is a lack of role models to serve as inspiration to subsequent generations. Thus, the less talked about, but equally important phenomena of the Women in Jazz Festival is its multi-generationalism. Dr. Taylor's dedication to bringing to the stage each night elder, ground breaking masters, established stars, and rising talents means that audiences and fellow musicians alike are exposed to the history of women in jazz and the younger talents have a chance to take part in the mentoring process that lies at the heart of the jazz tradition.
The festival is successful, however, because of the great talent on display. After all, the best way to break the remaining insidious stereotypes about women in jazz is simply to give the women a chance to hit the stage and tear it up. Which is precisely what occurred during the 11th annual festival.
The festival's first night brought to the stage pianist Jessica Williams, trombonist Sarah Morrow, and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. Williams began with a series of standards to warm up the audience, including a hypnotic rendition of Coltrane's "Wise One", before moving onto the set's highlight, the premier of several selections from a suite composed by Williams and dedicated to Dr. Taylor. An appropriately complex set of compositions taking full advantage of Williams' delicate touch and Bill Evans' inspired impressionism, the three tunes culminated in a blues duet between Taylor and Williams, both deftly delivered and inevitably touching to watch.
Expertly shifting the mood, Morrow took the stage next with a big, loud, energetic bang and never relented until her final, raucous number had the audience on its feet calling for more. Showing great range on the trombone, especially when using a plunger mute, Marrow blasted through one blues-centered, Dixieland tinged tune after another, including a slow, almost corpulent blues so tongue in cheek it had audience members shaking their heads with both laughter and astonishment at the range of growls, groans, and grinding moans Marrow was able to call forth. In the end, Marrow's irresistible showmanship stole the night and proved one of the festival's distinct peaks.
"The less talked about, but equally important phenomena of the Women in Jazz Festival is its multi-generationalism."
If every event has its peaks, then by definition there must be a few valleys. The festival's second night opened with one of the only missed beats, a disappointingly directionless performance by the Daniela Schachter Quartet which could have been chalked down to mere inexperience if it hadn't been further marred by Schachter's indulgent forays into disastrous vocal self accompaniment. Fortunately, the subsequent two acts more than made up for the evening's initial stumble.
Taking the stage next, guitarist extraordinaire Mimi Fox presented a stunning set of music that kept the audience riveted from the opening blues excursion to Fox's immaculately delivered solo rendition of "Alone Together". Effective solo guitar is never an easy feat, but holding the attention of a large concert hall adds a second level of challenge. Fox's firm control, clarity of concept, and emotional depth made this the most memorable moment of the festival and proved why Fox is one of the most recognized guitarists on the scene. (Check out Fox's recent double release for a taste of her solo playing.)
NEA Jazz Master and vocal visionary Abbey Lincoln closed the festival's second night in powerful form. Arriving on stage to a warm ovation, Lincoln, clad in all black, proceeded to mesmerize the audience with her grace, stage presence, and a carefully constructed series of songs that delved intimately into questions of age, suffering, and memory. While Lincoln's voice may have betrayed her at times, her intensity and willingness to confront the realities of aging in her performance proved her strength as an artist. By incorporating this level of personal introspection into her music, Lincoln drew new layers of meaning from many of her signature songs, transforming the series of tunes into a dramatic existential meditation.
The festival's final night followed the previous two with a similar diversity of musical styles and forms. First, pianist and educator Trudy Pitts got the crowd's blood flowing with a set of music split between her classically inflected, graceful piano and her more raucous, funky excursions on organ. Following this appealing schizophrenic display, veteran vocalist Ernestine Anderson took over for an almost cabaret-styled series of tunes ranging from the slow blues number, "Nightlife", to a deftly handled rendition of "Sunny Side of the Street", to a humorous and thoroughly entertaining delivery of "Never Make Your Move Too Soon"
Appropriately, the festival then concluded with a hard-hitting, upbeat, and exuberant set of big-band music presented by the Diva Jazz Orchestra. Featuring an all-star cast, the Diva's proceeded to tear through one crowd-pleasing tune after another, each more impressive than the last. While none of the tunes may have been exceptionally avant-garde, each allowed the talented musicians ample space to showcase their skills as powerful soloists, many on multiple instruments. Competing for highlights of the set were a medley of Ella Fitzgerald tunes, including an expertly executed scat solo by Christine Fawson, and a scintillating rendition of "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" on which Anat Cohen captured the audience with a clever, virtuosic clarinet solo.
One hopes that eventually the concept of a concert series specifically designed to highlight women in jazz will become less relevant. But we aren't there yet. After all, no one has ever seen a big-band titled the "All Male All Star Big-Band". Perhaps one day we'll need one of those. Until then, the Kennedy Center's Annual Women in Jazz festival is both a reminder that as many strides forward as jazz has taken, the path to gender equality remains a long one, and an excellent opportunity to hear fantastic music from some of today's greatest voices.
My Tribute To Billy Taylor
I've written about musicians with whom I've had the opportunity to play with; Tony Williams, 'Philly Joe' Jones, Eddie Harris, Stan Getz, Big Nick... I was so lucky in my life in this regard that it seems like another lifetime. As of late 2005, we seem to have lost a lot of the vibrancy and immediacy that permeated 'those days'; and I know I must come off as sounding old and musty when I write with such enthusiasm about a time that is unquestionably over.
Then I reflect that it's a good thing that it's over, at least that part of it, because, in truth, it was a rough time for all of us. The Civil Rights struggle was in full swing, a terrible war (Vietnam) had just 'ended', the Music we play was not the primary, secondary, or even tertiary music of our country (except outside of our country), we played for little money, and self-destructive behavior was the order of the day.
Jazz hadn't grown up yet, and there were only a few who survived the growing pains.
Early on, pianist Billy Taylor must have known this at some visceral level. Even in the 1950's, he was lecturing at educational institutions, giving lessons, and realizing how under-funded and under-appreciated jazz was in almost all societal strata. And he's devoted his entire 80-plus years on earth to putting it right; working with Arts Councils and governing bodies, working with government officials (even Nixon), foundations, and endowments to get the Music to the kids and to the people. He earned the title of Doctor and was not awarded that title, although he's received every honor I can think of. He's even started his own label (Soundpost Records).
I can't do his biography justice here. If you want to read about Billy Taylor and learn about his incredibly rich contribution to jazz and to our country's wealth of genius and creativity, see his web site, billytaylorjazz.com
What I CAN do here is just to write a few words about what this very sweet cat has meant to me, how he's touched my life, and how he's positively affected my musical and spiritual life.
I finally met Dr Taylor for the very first time at an engagement I did in 2005 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. (pictured above). But his affect on me had started much earlier. I had heard "I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free" and some of his work with Arkadia, but sometimes us jazz musicians can be less aware of the great contributions being made around us than our listeners! Lots of times, we're wrapped up in some project of our own, giving it our all to make a living in a less than hospitable environment for the arts.
Mainly, it was Billy that was making some very nice things happen in my life. I'm not exactly sure what he did, nor will I probably ever ask him. I just know that, among other wonders, my dream of playing at the Kennedy Center came true, and I've played there quite often. In 2004 I played with my NYC trio (Ray Drummond and Victor Lewis) at the Women in Jazz Festival, dedicated to the magnificent trailblazer in women's rights and in jazz music, Mary Lou Williams. And I met Billy for the first time while playing at the Piano Summit (with Bruce Barth and Eric Reed). So it's not like I can say I know him well...
But I know him well.
His spirit was as clear as water. We met and we started to communicate, really communicate, about matters ranging from health and wellness to music to observations about the state of the art and where it was headed for both of us. I felt like I had known this great man for a long, long time.
I've written a suite, dedicated to him, called "BILLY'S THEME"
I played it for him, and many many others, at the Kennedy Center on May 11th, 2006. That's the only way I thank a great artist for all he's done, not just for me, but for all of us.
Thank you, Dr Billy Taylor!