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Balancing Act

Balancing Act

By Morgan Greenstreet

In a year of reckoning around gender inequality, two jazz festivals continue their mission to create a dedicated showcase for female artists.

In 2014, Amy K. Bormet found herself in the sort of situation concert presenters have nightmares about. Bormet, a pianist, composer, singer, and founder of the Washington Women in Jazz Festival, had planned an ambitious concert for the fourth installment of her annual series—when suddenly things got complicated.

“I booked Mary Halvorson and Allison Miller to come down from New York. The idea was, we’ll get some funding, we’ll write new music, we’ll have rehearsal time… It’s going to be great!” she said.

“I found a venue that wanted to support it; they signed a contract with me, basically funding the entire event, including travel for the artists coming from New York. I already started promoting it, and then the venue completely canceled their entire jazz series.” Bormet had by then signed contracts with the artists, covering train tickets and hotel rooms. “I was paying for their artist fees—which was an appropriate amount, not an underground jazz club amount—so I was on the hook to make this event happen!”

The story of how Bormet turned what could have been, in her words, “a complete disaster,” into a very successful 2014 festival involves the kind of last-minute ingenuity common to both festival planning and jazz itself: a donated grand piano was secured, hundreds of folding chairs were borrowed from a local church basement, and the concert was transformed into a gala event in a warehouse space, to cover costs.

“We just made it happen! I bought some wine from Trader Joe’s, and I had a special meet-and-greet for my high dollar donors before the show.” A few years later, Bormet sees the experience as a practical lesson in how to succeed as a presenter in the jazz field. “That very poignant moment could be a model for how to be flexible and how to really ask people for favors,” she said. “I’ve been constantly thinking about those two things every year when I’m putting the festival together. I have this whole database of volunteers and family and friends, and the network of women musicians who perform every year, so it’s really rewarding.”

“I would see high school-age women really excited about playing the music, and then they would go to college and there would be kind of a fall-off, a disconnect, where they weren’t converting to becoming professional musicians.” – Amy K. Bormet

Although she’s since relocated to Los Angeles, Bormet has been enmeshed in the D.C. jazz scene since age 15. “I started going out when I was in high-school, going to clubs and jam sessions.” While her age and gender might have been barriers in certain scenes, she found a welcome home in the D.C. jazz community. “There were a lot of older musicians who looked out for me,” she said.

The eighth edition of the WWJF festival—held this March—began with the fest’s seventh-annual Young Artist Showcase and a jam session, a platform for emerging student musicians to perform alongside professionals. The showcase was inspired by Bormet’s experience as the only female instrumentalist on staff at the Washington Jazz Arts Institute. She noticed a troubling phenomenon among her students: “I would see high school-age women really excited about playing the music, and then they would go to college and there would be kind of a fall-off, a disconnect, where they weren’t converting to becoming professional musicians, even gigging musicians on the side.”

Bormet hopes the festival can be a resource for these young women. “Starting a music career is really difficult in any aspect, but has added complications when you’re a woman in the industry, trying to advertise yourself, put yourself out there as a musician, without feeling that you need to be wearing a certain thing, or acting a certain way.”

As part of what’s widely known as the #MeToo movement, female students across the country have called out sexual misconduct on college campuses, including at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. Bormet has in turn put special attention into the stewardship aspect of this year’s festival. “These women are not only the future of performance moving forward, but I want to inspire other people to put events together, to be presenters and work with presenters, because I think that’s the only way forward. This DIY concept is really the only way to achieve gender parity in presentation.”

“We decided it would be female artists for the same reason that women’s music festivals existed in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and that was to give more exposure to women artists who seldom get very much play in the big jazz festivals around the country.” – Gail Christian
Palm Springs Women's Jazz Festival

Photo by Sherry Rayn Barnett

The concept of a women’s jazz festival isn’t new, and the format has a rich history. The first such event, Kansas City’s Women’s Jazz Festival, was founded by singer Carol Comer and radio producer Dianne Gregg in 1978, on the heels of the Equal Rights Amendment. As chronicled in a new book, Changing the Tune by Carolyn Brewer, Comer and Gregg created a much-needed space for women to shine in an overwhelmingly male-dominated field, and their efforts inspired similar festivals across the country, including The Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at D.C.’s Kennedy Center.

Founded by the pianist Billy Taylor in 1996, The Mary Lou Williams Festival was for many years the most well-known women’s jazz festival in the U.S.—until 2014, when the festival’s organizers lifted the all-female requirement, citing the field’s progress on gender equity, and the success of the festival itself. Their argument—one side of an ongoing debate on which many artists remained divided—followed that having a separate festival for women was a derogatory instead of celebratory concept, now that women had achieved comparable status to men in the jazz world.

Not according to the French horn player Ariel Shelton, who served as assistant director for WWJF up until this year. “As a freelance musician, I'm one of the few women on most gigs that I get called on. There’s a real disparity in terms of women instrumentalists, especially playing brass instruments.” Shelton met Bormet as an undergraduate student at Howard University, when Bormet was getting her master’s. She eventually began organizing the volunteer program for WWJF. “Once I started working with Amy and started talking with more women in jazz, I started to realize that this experience was shared by so many.”

While Bormet and Shelton stated that WWJF has received strong support from the local press, and from key male figures in the D.C. jazz scene, they were still often on the receiving end of doubts. “From when I started the festival until this year, all I kept getting was, ‘But why are you starting it, though? Like really, why? Don’t you think we’ve already dealt with that?’” Bormet said. “It’s not something that you deal with and then it’s gone. It’s something that really needs to be reevaluated. As a female musician, I’ve seen so many musicians that have not gotten the respect that they deserve, have not gotten the credentials they deserve, have not gotten the notoriety that they deserve.”

Across the country, in Palm Springs California, Gail Christian and Lucy DeBardeleden took on the same problem in much the same way, starting their own festival, the Palm Springs Women in Jazz Festival, in 2013. “We decided it would be female artists for the same reason that women’s music festivals existed in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” Christian explained, “and that was to give more exposure to women artists who seldom get very much play in the big jazz festivals around the country. You already know who’s going to be there—you can literally name the stars that are going to appear. But there are thousands of outstanding women musicians who never get very much play.”

When they founded the festival, Christian and DeBardeleden—a retired journalist and a public accountant—already had decades of experience presenting female musicians, starting in Washington, D.C. “We worked for a women’s music festival called Sister Fire that drew several thousand women every year, so we knew how to produce a festival,” Christian said. But their current home of Palm Springs, California—a resort town two hours from Los Angeles—is a very different cultural scene from D.C. “Basically it’s not a jazz town.” Christian admitted. “People here like old school pop artists, they like revivals.”

“As a freelance musician, I'm one of the few women on most gigs that I get called on. There’s a real disparity in terms of women instrumentalists.” – Ariel Shelton

Unlike Bormet, Christian and DeBardelaben weren’t able to rely on an existing local jazz community or fanbase. They instead built interest in the festival from the ground up, by producing one-off concerts for over a decade before launching the festival in 2013, with the help of musical director Sweet Baby J’ai.

Initially, they booked well-known headliners in order to attract audiences and pay the bills. “That’s how we’ve played it for five years,” says Christian, “With artists like Dee Dee Bridgewater, Diane Schuur, Ann Hampton Callaway coming in to attract the audience, and then backing them up with sensational artists that don’t get the same kind of play. For instance, the saxophonist Jessie J is a big favorite at our concerts.”

Palm Springs Women's Jazz Festival

Photo by Sherry Rayn Barnett

Christian says this strategy has its limits. “We were asking artists like Terry Lynne Carrington to come in and do us a favor: ‘We’re a new festival, will you come in under your rate, in order for us put this on and attract people?’ We were concerned that we were going to run out of people willing to do that. How long were we going to be able to run this festival on a shoestring budget?”

Going into their fifth year, PSWJ is still struggling to balance the books. “Our biggest problem is we need to grow our audience,” says Christian. “Can we get the numbers in to cover our costs? Jazz, like chamber music, is not a mainstream genre of music. So, when you’re doing jazz and then you cut it to women in jazz, you really struggle for the audience. But it it’s still very rewarding. I don’t think we would change that.”

The festival consistently fills the 450-capacity Annenberg Theater—but that just isn’t enough, says Christian. “We attract a lot of women. Palm Springs is a very gay town, it has about a 50% gay population, our entire city council is gay. So, just by the nature of this being a women’s jazz festival, we attract a very large part of the lesbian population, and they basically save the day.” But this base of support has also proven an obstacle in building attendance in other demographics, according to Christian. “One of the reasons I think our audience is limited is that people think, ‘women’s jazz festival in Palm Springs, that must be a gay women’s jazz festival,’ and they simply don’t come. But people who do come, come back.”

To keep the festival going, Christian and DeBardelaben are thinking about including other elements, such as films or food, or opening the festival to include some ‘world music’ artists. They haven’t yet set a date for 2018, and they’re not sure exactly what strategy they’ll take, but Christian is sure of one thing: “The last thing we’re going to do is call ourselves a jazz festival and then bring in a lot of pop and R&B artists.”

Back in D.C., Ariel Shelton reflected on the long-term influence of festivals like WWJF and PSWJ. “I think we still have a few more years of work to look at before really assessing the overall shift, but I definitely see it as being an integral force pushing for change,” she said. “In a qualitative lens, I’ve seen more women on the bandstand being part of groups without it being a point of discussion. It’s just women are there alongside men; it’s no big deal."

Shelton now works for the Kennedy Center, and while she remains a strong supporter of WWJF, she is, like many, looking forward to the day when its work is no longer necessary. "Honestly, can I tell you, I’m excited for the day when WWJF is no longer needed because there are no more disparities,” she laughed. “But until that happens I’m excited to just keep championing the work wherever possible."

Morgan Greenstreet is a musician, music journalist, and radio producer based in New York City.

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