There have been some significant changes with the Jazz Studies Department at the University of Pittsburgh since last year’s Jazz Seminar and Concert. Geri Allen succeeded her mentor, Professor Emeritus Nathan Davis, Ph.D. as the head of Jazz Studies. Since arriving she has expanded the program on many fronts, including academia and technology.
Last March saw the first-ever cyber symposium on Mary Lou Williams that included improvised piano duets by pianists in studios hundreds of miles apart, a documentary in-progress on Williams, and panel discussions with university scholars. Participants at five venues partake in the online event simultaneously.
To succinctly say that Pitt’s Jazz Studies’ received a shot of estrogen would be a disservice; however Geri Allen is putting the spotlight on the oft-heard but little-acknowledged contributions of women in Jazz.
The New Pittsburgh Courier tossed this question in the air:
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHANGE YOU’VE SEEN IN THE PROFILE OF WOMEN INSTRUMENTALISTS IN JAZZ?
This is what came down.
“I believe that education is one of the biggest contributing factors to the more positive way in which women instrumentalists are viewed; education on many levels—not just in formal institutions, but educating performers, venue bookers, journalists, the audience – including younger listeners etc.” said Connaitre Miller, Associate Professor of Music and Vocal Jazz Coordinator at Howard University.
“I remember for a long period women instrumentalists and singers did not for the most part perform together in groups. We were visible to some degree in our various side woman/leader projects, but not really unified under a collective ideal,” said Allen. “When I grew up in Detroit where the musicians like Marcus Belgrave and Roy Brooks embraced me. I met John Malachi at Howard University, who introduced me to Dr Billy Taylor who was always encouraging and exclusive to the entire jazz community of musicians.”
“Dr. Billy Taylor, spearheaded the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival during his time as the artistic director of Jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, to celebrate the ‘leading ladies’ of jazz,” added Miller (who also directs Howard University’s Afro Blue). “His opinion was that women were not given the exposure and the kind of support that their talents deserved. He wanted to not only showcase talented women in the field, but to also provide workshops, through the Kennedy Center’s education resource program, to teach women about the business of jazz because he thought they needed to know these kinds of things to proceed and to not be held back because of gender bias.”
“I agree with Connaitre Miller that his empowering women in the music by celebrating Mary Lou Williams and naming the Kennedy Center Festival,” said Allen. “This helped to pave the way for the Mosaic Project (the Grammy-winning record featuring some of the world’s best female instrumentalists and vocalists). Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project was real breakthrough, and it created a shift, a new collaborative spirit for Women in Jazz. I celebrate Terri Lyne for her innovative artistry, compassion and vision.”
“The more that women jazz instrumentalists are in the public eye, and listeners hear them playing at the highest level, the less unusual it will seem. More members of the public will attend live performances and buy recordings made by women jazz musicians,” Miller continued. “More young women will be encouraged to pursue their dream and not be held back by fear, discrimination or lack of knowledge.”
“The female instrumentalists in jazz now seem to me to be more confident in general and more comfortable with themselves and their choice to pursue this as a career”, said acclaimed drummer/composer Terri Lyne Carrington. “Being female in a male dominated field takes a certain amount of aggression and it is important not to loose the female aesthetic while proving to be equal, so to say. I’ve seen a rise in young women that seem to be breaking down that stereotype naturally, possibly without even noticing. And the talent pool is becoming stronger and stronger, with both young female and young make musicians, which is exciting.”
The 44th edition of the Jazz Seminar and Concert is a testament of the legacies of two Pittsburgh Jazz: Mary Lou Williams and Dr. Nathan Davis—both pioneers who’ve left giant steps that ensure the future of Jazz in and out of the academies for men AND women to follow.
Participating artists include Clifton Anderson, jazz trombonist, who toured with Sonny Rollins for years and is one of the most in-demand session musicians; Terri Lyne Carrington, drummer, composer, and producer, who earlier this year became the first female artist to win a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for her 2013 album Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue; Tia Fuller, jazz alto saxophonist and composer and a member of the all-female band that toured with the Beyoncé Experience World Tour in 2006-07; Joe Lovano, master tenor saxophonist and composer, who has recorded or performed with just about every jazz great within the 20th century; Esperanza Spalding, innovative bassist, vocalist, and composer, who in 2011 became the first jazz performer ever to win the Grammy Award for Best New Artist; and Afro Blue, Howard University’s premier vocal a cappella jazz ensemble, whose members have won awards from DownBeat magazine and have competed on a national level on NBC-TV’s The Sing-Off.
(For more information, call the Department of Jazz Studies at the University of Pittsburgh 412-624-4187 or log on to http://www.music.pitt.edu/jazz-sem.)
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