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Live Review: 2019 Monterey Jazz Festival

The tide of female musicians continues to rise at the Fairgrounds—and it’s not such a big deal anymore

Allison Miller
Allison Miller performing at the 2019 Monterey Jazz Festival (photo: Stuart Brinin)

Much like Ernest Hemingway’s famous description of how bankruptcy happens (“Gradually and then suddenly,” he wrote in The Sun Also Rises), the pervasive presence of women instrumentalists at the Monterey Jazz Festival seemed to materialize in an instant, but actually resulted from a long, often underground buildup. Last year’s breakthrough, with more than 15 ensembles led by female players, felt radical and urgent, a response to the zeitgeist if not the sickening cascade of #MeToo and #TimesUp headlines. The festival’s longtime artistic director Tim Jackson acknowledged that lobbying by players like veteran trumpeter Ellen Seeling, co-director of the Montclair Women’s Big Band, played an important role in his concerted move toward booking equity, and he didn’t take half-measures.  

Knowing Jackson, I wasn’t surprised to see that women players were just as visible—and impressive—at the 62nd Monterey Jazz Festival, which ran Sept. 27-29. What I hadn’t anticipated was just how quickly the novelty would fade. What seemed revolutionary last year felt disarmingly normal in 2019. Assuming next year follows the same trajectory, the ubiquity of women players will be almost as unremarkable as the presence of men on the bandstand. From undersung masters like organist Amina Claudine Myers and keyboardist Patrice Rushen to rising stars like pianist Connie Han, trombonist/vocalist Natalie Cressman, and bassist Kanoa Mendenhall, Monterey resounded with women who are defining 21st-century jazz.

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Andrew Gilbert

Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelancer who has written about arts and culture since 1989 for numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, East Bay Express, Berkeleyside, and KQED’s California Report. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he experienced a series of mind-blowing epiphanies listening to jazz masters at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in the late 1980s, performances he remembers more vividly than the gigs he saw last month.