Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Changing The Tune: The Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival, 1978-1985

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Thank goodness for people like Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg who did their part to lift our culture by supporting and sharing with the world powerful music by powerful musicians who happened to be women. And thank goodness for people like Carolyn Glenn Brewer, who wrote so beautifully about them, reminding us that important things come from individuals with bold ideas and a lot of determination."
- Maria Schneider, Grammy Award-winning composer and big band leader

"Thanks to Brewer for helping to erase the stigma women musicians experience by exposing this inspiring organization and its contributions to women in music in this well-documented account."
- Ellen Johnson, vocalist, producer and author of Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan

"In telling the story of the Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival and the women who made it possible, Ms. Brewer has written a glorious new chapter in jazz history. These jazz women are no longer ‘Anonymous.'"
- Chuck Haddix, author of Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop - History and Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker

"It is a privilege to know the talented Carol Comer, Dianne Gregg, and Carolyn Glenn Brewer and to sing the praises of this outstanding book."
Mike Metheny, trumpet/flugelhorn soloist and author of Old Friends Are The Best Friends

"A wonderfully detailed book that captures the essence and inner workings of the WJF while also providing much more than a glimpse into the Kansas City jazz scene during those years."
- Steve Cardenas, guitarist

"Compiling oral histories documented with facts, Brewer has breathed life into a story that connects gender issues from 40 years ago to the present, immersing the reader in a rich story-telling experience."
- Lee Hill Kavanaugh, alumnus bass trombonist for DIVA and award-winning journalist for the Kansas City Star

"This gifted writer draws the reader in like she was chatting over coffee and shares the incomparable, unique stories of seven years of the Women's Jazz Festival in swingin' Kansas City."
- Mary Jo Papich, co-founder of the Jazz Education Network

In his much loved portrayal of Jesse Stone, a continuing TV series about a police chief in the small Massachusetts town of Paradise, actor Tom Selleck’s  is constantly throwing off little witticisms like: “The information is out there; all you gotta do is let it in.”

I thought of that expression when the nice folks at The University of North Texas sent me a preview copy of Carolyn Glenn Brewer’s  Changing The Tune: The Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival, 1978-1985.

Who knew?

But after reading Ms. Brewer’s fully-researched and well-written narrative on the subject, it would appear that those Jazz fans who attended the Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival, 1978-1985 and those musicians who performed in it, certainly knew, and for eight years, they all had a ball.

By way of introduction, CAROLYN GLENN BREWER is a longtime music educator who has written for Jam Magazine and published two books on the 1957 tornado in Ruskin Heights, Missouri. She has played clarinet in bands, chamber groups, and orchestras throughout the Kansas City area. She lives in Kansas City.

Ms. Brewer talks about how this book came about in the following excerpt from it introductory Acknowledgements:

“IN 2010 WHILE I WAS INTERVIEWING Carol Comer for a local jazz magazine about another Kansas City jazz festival, the Women's Jazz Festival inevitably came up. Carol's enthusiasm for the subject hadn't dimmed. She suggested I write an article about WJF, so I did. But I could no more contain this vast subject in a few pages than reduce Mahler's Seventh to a few measures. Work on the book began even before I had finished the article.

Carol and Dianne Gregg couldn't have been more generous. They gave me access to the "world headquarters" archive where through tapes, photos, festival programs, and news clippings the individual festivals spoke for themselves. But always it was during conversations with Carol and Dianne that WJF came to life. Over shared meals and relaxed evenings in their magical backyard their stories became the heart of this story. These two remarkable women not only created an event that changed the course of jazz, but their persistence in promoting jazz connects those events of nearly forty years ago to today's jazz world. They also have proven to be exceptional dog sitters.

Social historians dream about sources like Mike Ning. Not only was he instrumental in the success of WJF as a piano player, artist, and board member, he kept all papers pertaining to the festival. When he handed me a large box full of board meeting minutes and reviews, I knew I had hit the jackpot.

At the top of the list of friends who encouraged me to write this book, [pianist] Paul Smith takes first chair. His lists of musician emails, photos, and recordings gave me the boost I needed at times when

And the following media release which accompanied the preview copy of the book offers this context for a broader appreciation of what the publication of this book represents:

“Carolyn Glenn Brewer explores the history of women in jazz through the lens of the Kansas City jazz festival in her new book, Changing the Tune: The Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival, 1978-1985.

“Even though the potential passage of the Equal Rights Amendment had cracked glass ceilings across the country, in 1978 jazz remained a boys' club. Two Kansas City women, Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg, challenged that inequitable standard. With the support of jazz luminaries Marian McPartland and Leonard Feather, inaugural performances by Betty Carter, Mary Lou Williams, an unprecedented All-Star band of women, Toshiko Akiyoshi's band, plus dozens of Kansas City musicians and volunteers, a casual conversation between two friends evolved into the annual Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival (WJF).

But with success came controversy. Anxious to satisfy fans of all jazz styles, WJF alienated some purists. The inclusion of male sidemen brought on protests. The egos of established, seasoned players unexpectedly clashed with those of newcomers. Undaunted, Comer, Gregg, and WJF's ensemble of supporters continued the cause for eight years. They fought for equality not with speeches but with swing, without protest signs but with bebop.

For the first book about this groundbreaking festival, Carolyn Glenn Brewer interviewed dozens of people and dove deeply into the archives. This book is an important testament to the ability of two friends to emphatically prove jazz genderless, thereby changing the course of jazz history.”

The project seemed overwhelming. He never lost patience when I'd ask him again to tell me about the time he played with Anita O'Day or Dianne Reeves. At gigs, parties, even funerals, he always asked how the book was coming, and if there was anything he could do to help.

My brother—and I'm happy to say my oldest friend—David Glenn, provided insight, valuable editing input, contacts, personal stories, and reminders of the importance of this story.

The staff of The State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center-Kansas City couldn't have been more helpful. Always friendly, even when I handed them yet another stack of photocopy requests from the three cartons of WJF memorabilia, they encouraged me to take as much room as I needed and to not feel rushed.

To all those I interviewed I give special thanks, first because they all furthered the advancement of women in jazz and secondly for sharing their memories and candidly setting the tone of the time.

I'd also like to add a nod of appreciation and respect for authors Linda Dahl and Sally Placksin whose groundbreaking books on women in jazz were invaluable resources, and to Judy Chaikin for her outstanding movie, Girls in the Band. Seeing these brave women on screen personalized their experience and underlined the importance of their stories. …”

And here with the beginning paragraphs from Ms. Brewer’s First Chapter appropriately entitled Crazy Little Women is how the Kansas City Women’s Jazz festival began:

“THE IDEA CAME TO THEM while driving home from the 1977 Wichita Jazz Festival. It was a boring, flat, dark drive with plenty of time for conversation. They rehashed what they had seen and heard that day, but kept coming back to the same point. After twelve hours of jazz, they had heard only one woman performer.

"Sarah Vaughan was terrific," singer/pianist/songwriter Carol Comer remembers, "but she wasn't enough. Dianne and I lamented the fact that women players were mostly passed over, not just in Wichita, but everywhere."

Dianne Gregg hosted a radio show called Women in Jazz, as well as two other jazz shows on the Kansas City National Public Radio station, KCUR. Every week she talked to women jazz musicians who were deserving of more exposure. Both women were well aware of the fact that all jazz musicians struggled to be heard, as they were aware that, even in this era of debate over the Equal Rights Amendment, women musicians continued to have more to prove.

Dianne and Carol had gone to the Wichita Jazz Festival as members of the press. Carol was covering the festival for Down Beat and Dianne for KCUR. As much as they enjoyed the bands, they were there to work, and that creative thought process was still flowing when Carol said, "I have a really radical idea—why don't we have a women's jazz festival?"

They both had a good laugh over the improbability of that happening, but by the time they paid their Kansas Turnpike toll, the idea had taken hold. Why not? There was no shortage of talent, and how hard could it be to organize a concert? Between them they had plenty of contacts and gumption enough to pursue those they didn't know. They hadn't heard of anyone putting together a jazz festival that focused on women, but that wasn't a good enough reason not to do it. Kansas City was the perfect location: right in the middle of the country and known for its jazz heritage.

By the time Carol dropped Dianne off at her apartment in mid-town Kansas City, they were laughing about the fact that an hour before they had thought the idea was radical. "It isn't a radical idea. It's a great idea," Dianne remembers saying. "So we said, 'Let's do it.'" They'd sleep on it and check in with each other the next day. The two women had plenty to think about.”

Jazz musicians are very brave. It’s not easy to play this stuff and you fail at it more times than you succeed. You need help from colleagues who explain things to you and share their secrets to help you better express your own style.  And you need people who believe in you and support you by giving you a place to play.  All too often in the long history of the music such venues have been unsavory, to say the least.

But every so often a George Wein comes along and invites you to a party - aka - the Newport Jazz Festival; or Jimmy Lyons does the same in Monterey, CA; or Dick Gibson throws an actual Jazz Party in Colorado.

The sun is shining [hopefully] and fans and musicians are mingling and sharing appreciations while a group of brave Jazz musicians are on stage preparing to do what Jazz musician, author and teacher, Ted Gioia, describes in the following quotation from The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture:

"If improvisation is the essential element in jazz, it may also be the most problematic. Perhaps the only way of appreciating its peculiarity is by imagining what twentieth-century art would be like if other art forms placed an equal emphasis on improvisation. Imagine T.S. Eliot giving nightly poetry readings at which, rather than reciting set pieces, he was expected to create impromptu poems — different ones each night, sometimes recited at a fast clip; imagine giving Hitchcock or Fellini a handheld camera and asking them to film something — anything — at that very moment, without the benefits of script, crew, editing, or scoring; imagine Matisse or Dali giving nightly exhibitions of their skills — exhibitions at which paying audiences would watch them fill up canvas after canvas with paint, often with only two or three minutes devoted to each 'masterpiece.'

These examples strike us as odd, perhaps even ridiculous, yet conditions such as these are precisely those under which the jazz musician operates night after night, year after year."

Jazz musicians need “such conditions;” they need places to play with atmospheres that are salubrious, audiences that are attentive and considerate and impresarios that provide organized events for them to try once again to succeed.

Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg provided all of these things and took it one step further: they did it with an emphasis on Women in Jazz. Not an easy thing to accomplish in the socio-cultural milieu that was America in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

Carolyn Glenn Brewer provides the details of their bravery in Changing the Tune: The Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival, 1978-1985.

You can order your copy through the University of North Texas press by going here.

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