Women make jazz history all over New York City

By Howard Mandel

A friend of mine attended the Mingus High School band competition a couple weeks ago at the Manhattan School of Music with her husband just for fun. But she was quickly disenchanted.

“I looked at all the kids’ names and was very unpleasantly surprised to see hardly any girls,” she emailed me. “Maybe six out of 60 kids total… The first big band came on with no girls at all. It got me so angry and depressed that I had to leave.

“If it were all adults segregating themselves I’d only think it was weird, given that adult women are doing jazz these days. But this was children in public school, being segregated by their teachers and school systems. I think if the Mingus organization made a rule that no band could compete unless it was 50 percent girls, there’d be some really noisy bitching for about a year or two. Then, in five years, all the bands would be integrated.”

An immodest proposal? Perhaps, but one that wouldn’t have been even mentionable a few years ago. Parity of genders of students playing the brawling music of Charles Mingus can now be expected because, in general, musicians and audiences have come to believe women can be bandleaders, horn-playing soloists, guitarists, bassists and drummers—which wasn’t much the case for decades following World War II. It’s basically irrelevant this is Women’s History Month, since most of the women fronting exciting gigs in the city now are at it all year long.

Not only divas, such as Cassandra Wilson, who just ends five nights at the Blue Note this week, or Roberta Gambarini, who follows her there March 12 through 14. There’s also Tessa Souter, whose quartet is at The Kitano March 12 and 13, and Melba Joyce—who launched her own nine-man/nine-woman big band last summer—at the Lenox Lounge in Harlem March 19. That same evening, Michelle Walker is at the Metropolitan Room (she’s in The Kitano March 24); Vanessa Rubin is at Sistah’s Place March 20; Freda Payne is at Iridium singing songs associated with Ella Fitzgerald (and what songs aren’t?) March 26 and 27; and Ernestine Anderson (with Houston Person’s quartet) is at Dizzy’s Club from March 30 to April 4.

It’s not only pianists, though there are some fine ones in town: Amina Figarova and her sextet just left the Jazz Standard, but Bertha Hope is at Jazz 966 March 12; Angelica Sanchez has a trio with tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby (her husband) and drummer Tom Rainey at the Jazz Gallery March 13; Joann Brackeen celebrates Art Blakey with ex-Messenger all-stars at the Prezfest at St. Peter’s Church on March 14 and does a solo recital there March 16—the night Barbara Carroll starts a six-night engagement with trio at Dizzy’s. Plus, Renee Rosnes plays with drummer Lewis Nash’s Quintet at Birdland, March 17 to 20; and March 27 finds both Anat Fort (plus two) at Cornelia Street and Valerie Capers (plus three) at Lenox Lounge. Roberta Picket’s trio lands at Smalls March 30.

No! I’m mad to have missed drummer Cindy Blackman’s Another Lifetime Quartet paying homage to her mentor Tony Williams at the Highline Ballroom last week (fortunately their new record captures the power), as well as flubbing a chance to catch focused flutist Jamie Baum’s original music for septet at Cornelia Street. But I’m looking forward to drummer Allison Miller doing a release party for her album Boom Tic Boom with pianist Myra Melford (one of my personal favorites; hear her band Be Bread’s sweepingly orchestral The Whole Tree Gone), along with violinist Jenny Scheinman and bassist Todd Sickafoose at Cornelia Street March 25. I’m thinking of cellist Nioka Workman with multi-instrumentalist/world music improviser Kali Z. Fasteau at Theater Lab March 14, and quicksilver trumpeter Ingrid Jensen’s Quartet at Rosy O’Grady’s March 15.

Mary Halvorson slings some of the edgiest and least predictable guitar currently in town, with a very promising quintet at Roulette, March 18. Regina Carter returns the violin to its African roots with her kora-and-accordion ensemble, Reverse Thread, March 23 through March 28 at Dizzy’s.

If you wanna hear some tough tenor, check out Virginia Mayhew’s quartet at The Garage March 27, though you might wait ’til the 29th to catch her double-billed with soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome’s trio at Rosie O’Grady’s. Also, bassist Kim Clarke is at Jazz 966 March 12 and 26, at Zinc Bar March 13 and 31.

This list of women-led acts does not come close to equaling male jazzers in the clubs. But “she plays like a girl” is no longer a putdown, because women are clearly competitive. A promo video for the Mingus competition (at www.MingusMingusMingus.com) shows several girls in the high school bands—not soloing, but playing important supportive roles on bass, drums, piano, lead trumpet, first sax chair. She plays like a girl? And how do girls play? They’re usually the ones taking care of business.