The Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival

The Kennedy Center's long-running event continues on the path laid down by its founder, Dr. Billy Taylor

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Mary Lou Williams
By James Kriegsmann
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Dr. Billy Taylor
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Kennedy Center Director of Jazz Programming Kevin Stuthers, Terri Lyne Carrington, Geri Allen and Dr. Billy Taylor at the 2010 Women in Jazz Festival
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Dee Dee Bridgewater at the 2010 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival
By Margot Schulman

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Two years after Dr. Billy Taylor’s death, his spirit still loomed over this year’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival. Now in its 17th year, the festival—a program of Washington D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—was founded by Taylor in 1996, during his tenure as the Center’s Artistic Advisor for Jazz. His name, and gratitude for the program, was on the lips of the participants, including host Dee Dee Bridgewater, at the 2012 iteration in May.

Surely, as well, Taylor would have thanked the festival’s performers. Collectively, they created a sweeping panorama both of women in jazz and of the music at large, as represented across the world. Japanese pianist Chihiro Yamanaka’s trio presented straight-ahead jazz that nevertheless took bold chances with its material, including a violent rendition of “Take Five” that reconstructed its syncopation even as it steadfastly maintained the tune’s 5/4 rhythm. Canadian saxophonist/flutist Jane Bunnett presented a set of mostly traditional Cuban music, supported by pianist Hilario Durán and NEA Jazz Master percussionist Cándido Camero, still spry and aggressive at 91. Linda Oh, a Chinese-Australian bassist, rooted her music in a staccato, uniquely syncopated groove that her bandmates supplemented with funk lines; drummer Allison Miller and her Boom Tic Boom, meanwhile, operated in a loose structure that worked swing, rock and even hip-hop.

This was precisely Taylor’s vision when he founded the MLW Festival: not only to showcase female jazz talent, but to demonstrate the wide range of nations and musical facets they represent. “When I first went to the Kennedy Center, I said, ‘I want to do a women’s jazz festival,’” Taylor recalled in a 2009 interview. “They said, ‘Well, can you find enough women?’ They had not seen, at that time, enough women in music to think they could sustain a festival. But I was able to identify a hundred women right there.”

“It was one of Billy’s initial concepts to focus on instrumentalists,” adds Kevin Struthers, the Kennedy Center’s Director of Jazz Programming. “Oftentimes, the women who are known in this business are singers, and that’s unfortunate because there’s a very broad range of tremendously talented individuals who just happen to be women, who are in the business but don’t get as much exposure. And so we definitely like to showcase instrumentalists. Of course Mary Lou Williams was a pianist, so we generally have at least one piano-focused group every night.”

Not to say that vocalists aren’t part of the show—the prevalence of female singers, and the festival’s mandate for diversity, makes it inevitable. Dianne Reeves is a frequent performer, as is Bridgewater (even in her years as host). This year, the festival’s first two nights were capped by vocalists Carmen Lundy and Carla Cook, respectively.

Likewise, the festival attempts to highlight women at all stages of their careers. Veterans such as Geri Allen or this year’s headliner, Terri Lyne Carrington, appear on the same bill with up-and-coming talents like saxophonist Tia Fuller (in 2011) and Oh (in 2012). New musicians are covered, too. Until recently, the festival included a jazz competition to recognize the merits of young women players; in 2010, this was replaced with the Emerging Artists Workshop, which gives close tutelage by master musicians to women under 35 who have never recorded as a leader on a major label, then gives them stage time during the festival. (In 2012 the workshop comprised two Howard University alumni, pianist Amy K. Bormet and vocalist Christie Dashiell.)

Bridgewater, who has hosted the festival since 2009, cites encountering new music as a favorite aspect of the job. “I’ve been able to discover artists as I’m hosting,” she says. “I sit off to the side and watch, as Dr. Taylor did. So I just have my little chair, and I do my talking, and then I’m able to watch the show. It’s very nice, because it helps to create a kind of solidarity between the female musicians and singers. It’s wonderful.”

The Mary Lou Williams Festival has been a respectable commercial success for the Kennedy Center since the fest’s 1996 inauguration. Artistically, however, its successes run much deeper. “Mary Lou Williams was a dear friend of mine,” Taylor said in 2009. “She was one of the greatest musicians that I had the privilege to befriend, and she was way, way ahead of her time—never got the kind of attention that she should have gotten as an artist, but has done so much more as a teacher and personally. The kinds of things that she did are what we’re celebrating with women.

“These days you don’t hear what I heard when I was a kid: ‘Aw, she plays nice for a girl.’ And that’s because we gave them a shot to do it.”

Bridgewater, too, remembers when opportunities were scarcer. “My father was a trumpet player. When I said to him, ‘I would like to play an instrument,’ his response was, ‘Girls don’t play instruments; girls sing.’ So he wouldn’t put me in music school,” she recalls. “There are so many young women now who don’t have the fear that we used to have. We have come forward by leaps and bounds.”

Struthers agrees. “We were the first major cultural institution to initiate this type of event,” he says proudly. “And here we are, just 17 years in, and to his intended effect, other organizations around the country have embraced giving opportunities to women to perform onstage in a jazz context. So we think that Billy’s intent worked.”

Anticipation runs high for next year’s event, which will be the first with Jason Moran—Billy Taylor’s successor as the Kennedy Center’s Artistic Advisor for Jazz—as a contributor to the programming. (Confirmed so far are pianist Helen Sung, violinist Regina Carter and the vocal group Tillery.) Nevertheless, the vision is still Taylor’s, and does the late pianist and educator proud.

Originally published in September 2012

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