Sometimes a new idea is so simple and clear that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been made into reality yet.
That was the case when two Kansas Citians dreamed up the Women’s Jazz Festival, first presented in 1978 in Kansas City, Kan. The idea was so powerful that it simply had to be carried out, and so sensible that it was quickly imitated around the world.
A new book from Kansas City historian, writer, musician and educator Carolyn Glenn Brewer chronicles the short but influential life of the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival organization. More importantly, “Changing the Tune: The Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival, 1978-1985,” published by the jazz-conscious University of North Texas Press (352 pages, $29.95), records a piece of history that should never be forgotten.
The idea for a full festival celebrating women in jazz occurred to Carol Comer, a prominent singer and pianist on the local scene, and friend Dianne Gregg, who in those days had a show called “Women in Jazz” on KCUR-FM, as they were driving back to Kansas City from the Wichita Jazz Festival, Brewer reports.
The notion instantly captivated them both. For a reality check, Gregg first bounced the idea off of pianist Marian McPartland, whom she had recently interviewed on her show.
“They figured Marian would bring them back down to earth or be enthusiastic about it,” Brewer says. McPartland pledged her full support, volunteering to line up artists on the East Coast and recruiting critic Leonard Feather to line up artists from the West Coast.
A board was formed, volunteers went to work, and the first Women’s Jazz Festival took place at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan., in March 1978. (They picked a Kansas venue because Missouri had not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, Brewer says.)
The first year’s musical guests included singer Betty Carter, McPartland, the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band and pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams, a link to Kansas City’s heyday in the 1930s whose musical evolution over subsequent decades was a thing of wonder. (The weekend featured a rare performance of a jazz Mass composed by Williams.)
That successful first Women’s Jazz Festival in KC was followed a few months later by similar women’s festivals presented by other organizations in New York and Europe. The concept was unstoppable.
The Kansas City organization kept the local festival going annually through 1983, with one more try in 1985. Over that span, they brought in artists such as organist Shirley Scott, pianists Joanne Brackeen and Carla Bley, guitarist Mary Osborne, saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, drummer Dottie Dodgion and singers Carmen McRae, Cleo Laine, Urszula Dudziak, Anita O’Day, Sheila Jordan, Nancy Wilson and Flora Purim.
They reunited some members of an all-woman and racially integrated big band from the 1940s, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. They were especially happy about persuading trombonist and arranger Melba Liston to return to the jazz scene for a day, which then resulted in Liston coming back to the scene for good.
Brewer’s book, five years in the making, chronicles the joys of seeing the idea get off the ground and the growing pains and heartbreaks that eventually led the organization to dissolve.
But those few short years were yet another proud moment for Kansas City jazz — making a story that’s well deserving of Brewer’s time and effort.
The festival, she says, “didn’t come about as a result of a mayor’s task force on the arts. It wasn’t done by business leaders trying to bring more notoriety to the city, or by a conservatory arts program. It was just two women saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if we did this?’ ”
A quintet summit
Neither tenor saxophonist Branford Marsalis nor singer Kurt Elling needs to play second fiddle at this point in their well-established careers. But admit it, both of these strong personalities perform especially well in the company of another who gently pushes and prods.
So Marsalis, the driven instrumental improviser, and Elling, determined to do his own poetic thing in words and music, took a risk and tried working together, with Elling as a fifth member of Marsalis’ long-running quartet (with, at last report, Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Justin Faulkner on drums). It must have brought out something satisfying, because now they’re taking it on the road.
The volatile and rewarding collaboration comes to Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 11. Tickets are $35.50-$75.50; call 816-994-7222 or check tickets.kauffmancenter.org.
▪ Pianist Gerald Clayton, one of the leading lights of the younger generation, is bringing his trio to town. He has left a deep impression on previous KC appearances as a sideman, so this leader date is something to look forward to. It takes place at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, May 13, at the Blue Room, 1600 E. 18th St. Tickets are $15.
▪ There’s one other distinctive out-of-town guest on the schedule this week. Trombonist John Fedchock, also a brilliant composer and arranger, leads a quartet at 10:30 p.m. Monday, May 8, at the Green Lady Lounge, 1809 Grand Blvd.
▪ The Blue Room also has pianist Everett Freeman running the weekly jam at 7 p.m. Monday, May 8. Drummer Brian Steever leads his band at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 11. Guitarist Danny Embrey brings in his Enormous Guitar band at 8:30 p.m. Friday, May 12.
▪ The Westpost Coffeehouse Theatre, 4010 Pennsylvania Ave., has Gerald Spaits’ Sax and Violins band, a jazz quartet plus a string quartet, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 10.
Joe Klopus, 816-234-4751