A Thrilling Big Jazz Band

George Wein and I were trying recently to find the right word to describe the rush of excitement that hits you when a player or a band is really cooking (a term from our youth). We settled on "thrilling." For me, it was hearing a Lee Morgan cadenza on "Night in Tunisia" in a band that Dizzy Gillespie himself was leading, or Sonny Stitt immobilizing diners and waiters at New York's Basin Street East with a stop-time chorus.

I get that thrill from a big band, Diva, which has played prestigious festivals in Europe—and in the States hits some towns so small that the prestige restaurant is a Pizza Hut. Because the band doesn't get enough consecutive gigs in a year—maybe 30 to 35 altogether—the sidewomen freelance, play in Broadway shows and teach. But the center of their musical lives is the band. Diva's drummer-leader is Sherrie Maricle, whose day job is director of percussion studies at New York University, where she has twice been voted teacher of the year. As a composer-arranger, she transcends categories.

None of the established jazz record labels has room these days for Diva, so its new release, Live in Concert: Sherrie Maricle and the Diva Jazz Orchestra, is self-produced. (You can buy it at Diva's Web site, divajazz.com.) The performance was recorded at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in Pittsburgh on June 21, 2002. From note one, the powerful swinging pulse of the band made me wish I still had a jazz-radio program, as I used to in Boston and New York. I would set up a blindfold test for every guest musician and put on a track or two from this Diva set. I would bet my rare International Sweethearts of Rhythm recording that no one would be able to identify the gender of the players.

Diva began in 1992, cofounded by Maricle, John LaBarbara and Stanley Kay, the creative director. Kay is the band's manager and tireless cheerleader. A former drummer, he managed Buddy Rich and Gregory and Maurice Hines. As for Diva, he advises one and all, "Turn around and tell me if women or men are playing." From the blazing opener, Kay's "Did You Do That?" to Deborah Weisz's subtle conversational trombone during "In a Mellotone" and Lisa Parrott's robust, thrusting baritone saxophone on "I've Got the World on a String," Diva's infectious spirit and exultant cohesiveness are what drew me into jazz when I was 11 years old. I was struck on the street, as if by lightning, by Artie Shaw's "Nightmare" coming from a record store.

Max Roach and Martin Williams used to liken jazz to the essence of democracy—self-expression further energized and magnified in active collaboration with one's peers. In jazz, this often-joyous intersection is amplified in a big band. When Diva played Croatia, they received 15 bouquets at the end of the performance—a tribute hardly likely for an all-male band. But what comes through consistently and persistently in Diva's music is not exotica—chicks with chops!—but the very essence of the jazz experience. Miles Davis and I were once talking about some critics and listeners who divide music, any kind of music, into categories. "Andre Watts," Miles said, "plays a good piano; so does Bill Evans. Everyone who's out there is connected, not pigeonholed according to some label."

Including pigeonholed by gender. That Diva doesn't get more gigs, particularly in the U.S., where jazz began, is due in part to the limited attention it gets in the jazz press. And that comes, I believe, from the continuing assumption, however subliminal, that women singers and pianists can be admitted to the fraternity; but women instrumentalists, let alone all-female bands, still have to prove that they have the "balls" to be authentic jazzmakers. Oh, there are interesting features, sometimes sections, in jazz magazines on women in jazz, but the attitude is often that of noblesse oblige, like making sure there are enough blacks on television sitcoms.

Here is Diva—not a pickup band for record dates, still out there on a bus, along with the other doughty surviving big bands, and with a signature sound and distinctive soloists, getting standing ovations on most of its gigs. Yet in Down Beat's big band issue this year, there was no mention of Diva, nor was Diva to be found in the Women in Jazz issue of Jazziz. But in the band's promotional material, there is an earlier citation from JazzTimes: "The band punched, kicked, roared and swung with a disciplined abandon and unaffected joie de vivre." And in the British magazine Crescendo Geoff Burdett writes of the Live in Concert CD: "I confess to being very surprised by the sheer power and spirit of this band, quite apart from the very high level of musical ability on display…. Make no mistake, these girls can play, and I mean play."

If there were still big band cutting sessions, "these girls" would swing a lot of the remaining big bands out of the place. And maybe that news would bring them the attention in the jazz press and elsewhere that they deserve. I hope this column will bring them more radio play. But what I often did on the air was not announce the names until after the recording. That would startle some macho listeners.

Originally published in November 2003

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