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Five Questions: Women in Jazz
March 18, 2014


Leigh Pilzer is one of the best and busiest saxophonists in the DC area. She will be part of the Washington Women in Jazz Festival Quintet performing on the Take 5! stage this Thursday, March 20th from 5-8 p.m. in the Kogod Courtyard. This month's concert celebrates Women's History Month with a tribute to Melba Liston. Laurel Fehrenbach, public programs coordinator, spoke with Pilzer about the upcoming event:

Women in Jazz

2012 Washington Women in Jazz Festival, featuring the Washington Women in Jazz All-Stars with special guest Allison Miller. Left: Sarah Hughes. Right: Leigh Pilzer. Photo Credit: Jati Lindsay

Eye Level: Tell us about Washington Women in Jazz.

Leigh Pilzer: The Washington Women in Jazz Festival (WWJF) was founded in 2011 by composer/pianist/vocalist Amy K. Bormet as a way to showcase the women who are part of the DC-area jazz community, many of whom are not often featured as headline artists in concerts and clubs (yet!).

The festival has expanded considerably from the first year, which consisted of performances on four Wednesdays in March at Twins Jazz. This year's schedule runs from March 15 through the 22nd, and includes eleven events at eight different venues. The performances cover a wide variety of jazz styles and ensembles, ranging from straight-ahead to free and including guitar, harp, tap dance, vocals, jazz combo, and big band. The roster has expanded as well, to include well-known out-of-town musicians such as Geri Allen, Allison Miller, Sheryl Bailey, and Ingrid Jensen. And, in the other direction, up-and-coming artists also have the opportunity to be heard in the Young Artist Competition.

New this year is a relationship with Fractured Atlas, a fiscal sponsorship program. This means that donations to Washington Women in Jazz Festival are now tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.

EL: What is Melba Liston's specific contribution, and why select her for this performance?

LP: Melba Liston is best known for her long-time musical relationship with composer/pianist Randy Weston. She was the arranger for his recordings for about 40 years. Most people will be familiar with her in that context, if they know of her at all. But she was also a talented composer and trombonist, and when the question arose of showcasing a female composer for the Take 5! Women's History Month/Washington Women in Jazz Festival edition I immediately thought of her. She is not as well-known as women like Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland but she is every bit as deserving of recognition.

The Library of Congress had about thirty of her compositions on deposit, and I found recordings for about a dozen of those. Another half-dozen of her compositions, not included in the Library of Congress deposits, were on recordings by jazz icons such as Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, and Milt Jackson.

For this concert, along with her works we'll also be playing some pieces written by others, pieces that featured Liston as a trombonist. For instance, Debussy's "My Reverie," adapted for popular music by Larry Clinton, was arranged for big band by Liston and was a feature vehicle for her in the Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones big bands. "Christmas Eve," by Slide Hampton, was one of the pieces on Liston's only recording as a leader, Melba Liston and Her 'Bones.

EL: What has been your experience as a "woman in jazz?" How do you think that identity has shaped your career?

LP: My experience, for the most part, has been good, and (I would hope) has more to do with my abilities than my gender. That said, the gender issue does exist, and has informed my career in ways both good and bad. I suppose there's no way to know for sure, but I think it is a very good bet that there are times I was not hired for this or that simply because I was a woman. I do know that there are times I've been the first woman a bandleader has ever hired. And from time to time I still hear from audience members that they've never, or rarely, seen a woman play jazz saxophone.

One notable and ugly experience I had relating to my gender was on a recording session some years ago. An arranger from out of town came to D.C. to record with a local big band. This arranger was not a terribly charming fellow and I felt that he was particularly and overtly rude to me. After the first day I contemplated telling the contractor I would not return for the next two days, but I thought that would only confirm the arranger's apparent negative opinion of me so I stuck it out. A few months after the session I found out from the contractor that from the moment the arranger saw me walk into the studio with my instrument he complained about me, saying I wouldn't have enough —let's call it "gusto"— to play his music. This, before he heard me play a note!

On the positive side, being a woman has made it possible for me to play with DIVA, with whom I've traveled all over the world. I'm on the band's last three recordings, two of which featured the compositions of Johnny Mandel and Tommy Newsom. On the other CD we backed vocalist Carmen Bradford. We have two more CDs in the works, one featuring Marlena Shaw and Nancy Wilson, and both including two of my arrangements.

Being a woman has also enabled me to be part of the Washington Women in Jazz Festival, meeting, hearing, and playing with the tremendously talented instrumentalists and vocalists we have right here in Washington.

EL: How would you encourage more women to pursue jazz, either as a career or special interest/hobby?

LP: First and foremost, and not specific to women, get to know other musicians. Jazz doesn't have a tradition of auditions, the way orchestras do (aside, perhaps, from the D.C.-area military jazz ensembles). Quite a lot of the time performing opportunities will come from a fellow musician recommending you to a bandleader, or sending you in as a sub.

Find a mentor, if you can. I was fortunate to become friends with Bill Potts before I even played the saxophone, much less considered making it a career. He spent hours playing music for me and talking to me about what we were hearing. He was my first arranging teacher. He introduced me to musicians in DC and to many of the jazz greats with whom he had worked. He coached me on being a good section player.

To young women, especially, I would say don't be shy. I have worked with many high school jazz ensembles and am always dismayed to see the girls in the band passing on taking solos. They're afraid they'll make a mistake, or that they won't sound good. That never stops the boys in the band from standing up and going for it! You don't get better if you don't do it, and as you progress from high school to college to professional bands the opportunities to work on your art and your craft may not only become fewer, the stakes generally get higher.

EL: What other women in jazz should we be listening to? Who are some of your personal favorites?

LP: A listening list would certainly include Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams. Other historical figures: the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, particularly tenor saxophonist Vi Burnsides and trumpeter Ernestine "Tiny" Davis; trumpeters Clora Bryant, Valaida Snow, and Dolly Jones (aka Dolly Armena, Dolly Armenra, et al); saxophonists Vi Redd, Margaret Backstrom, Kathleen Stobart (extant, but active as early as the 40s); guitarist Mary Osborne. And, of course, trombonist Melba Liston. More recent history: Stacy Rowles (trumpet) and Emily Remler (guitar).

In terms of favorites among contemporary players, all of my colleagues in WWJF and DIVA, of course! Also saxophonists Carolyn Breuer and Jane Fair, composer/arranger Chie Imaizumi, and guitarist Sheryl Bailey.

Posted by Jeff on March 18, 2014 in Five Question Interviews


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