For the world’s number-one jazz evangelist, it was a sort of coup de grâce. Dr. Billy Taylor founded the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival in part to combat that peskiest of myths about jazz: that, sigh, there just aren’t that many great female musicians out there.
Over the past few years, it’s become increasingly difficult to justify such an argument (though it was always a misconceived one). Modern jazz has gone through a sort of renaissance in the past decade-plus; the community has reached something resembling consensus on the idea that jazz can be unrestrainedly innovative, in close contact with other genres and still absolutely genuine. And women from Geri Allen to Cassandra Wilson to Allison Miller to Tia Fuller have been at the center of all that motion, turning the wheels.
Today through Saturday, a diverse array of talent will be on display at the 16th Annual Mary Lou Williams Festival. Tonight the vocalese trio JaLaLa (featuring two former Manhattan Transfer members) will kick things off, only to be followed by the proficient flutist Jamie Baum and her septet. The evening ends with a quartet performance from Tia Fuller, an unmissable alto saxophonist who brings gospel and modern R&B into the jazz revival tent and is dedicated to moving the audience.
Billy Taylor, who was the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz from 1994 to 2010, oversaw the festival with a watchful eye until his death this past December. “He particularly focused on instrumentalists, knowing that the general public often only thought of female vocalists when they thought of women involved in the music,” said Director of Jazz Programming Kevin Struthers.
But while this year does have an auspicious lineup of instrumentalists, things are a bit different – mostly as a result of vocalist Abbey Lincoln’s recent passing. The fierce but nuanced singer became a legend for her songwriting, vocal stylings and activism, and Friday night’s performance will be entirely devoted to honoring her contributions. You couldn’t ask for a better lineup of singers to do the job: the aforementioned Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dianne Reeves. Giants. (Sadly, Friday’s show is sold out.)
The festival will conclude with a series of varied performances. First comes the impressive Corky Hale, who’s been performing for over half a century on vocals, flute, harp and piano. Then the pianist Peggy Stern and saxophonist Sue Terry make up for the fact that they each only play one instrument by performing … simultaneously. And to wrap up the night, the fabulous singer Marlena Shaw teams up with the band Five Play.
If you can’t afford tickets — which range from $38 to $95 — or if you can only make it out on sold-out Friday night, consider hearing some rising talents at the Mary Lou Williams Emerging Artists Showcase. On Friday and Saturday, free shows at the center’s Millenium Stage will spotlight up-and-coming female musicians.
The D.C. scene had its own coffee-sniffing moment with this March’s Washington Women in Jazz Festival, a triumphant, month-long celebration of this city’s professional female jazz musicians. All the series’ participants were, of course, fantastic players — and they were only the tip of the iceberg. It was unfortunate how surprising the sheer number of great players on display ended up feeling; sure, the serious D.C. jazz fan had heard of these musicians before, but we needed to see them all put together to realize just how much of the local jazz landscape is female.
Nationally, that’s not as true anymore. The bumper crop of inventive musicians making waves in New York City and around the country has plenty of female stars. Heading the Kennedy Center this weekend is a perfect way to catch some of them in action.
The Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival is held May 19 to 21 at the Kennedy Center. Tickets range from $38 to $95, although admission to Emerging Artists Showcase on May 20 and 21 is free. More information is available here.