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On Jazz and Rock and Starting a Band

This post is not necessarily a “how to,” but  I’m excited to share about starting my own band for the first time at age 46, and maybe you will glean something from it.

First, my music history. I have a degree in music (trombone) and most of my paying gigs (besides teaching) had been pit orchestras, churches, and the like. Then about three years ago I joined a five piece band that gigged every weekend. There were improv solos, the people danced, and it was good. I left the band three months ago. It was a difficult time, and when a woman who works at one of the venues we played heard, she told me that if I put together a group she would book us. I figured other venues might do the same, and I began to think about the group I would like to have.

I don’t consider myself a natural leader, but I realized that the only way to have exactly what I want is to create it myself. And what I felt like in the moment was hard rock. After being the only woman in my previous band, I also felt like finding a group of women.

There are some nice things about being 46. One of them is that you’ve met a lot of people and they know you can play. I found a bass player quickly (my friend Tami) and then I started asking around. It turns out that someone I knew as a woodwind teacher was mainly a drummer. The singers who popped into my mind were too busy, but I asked a trusted singer friend for a recommendation, and the first name she gave me turned out to be a gem of a voice and person. I decided to bring in a token man, a trumpet player I hadn’t played with since college who has since toured with some big names. If there’s any instruction in this, it’s to be patient. Yes, I’d like to get back to my previous income, but I definitely don’t want to end up with someone who doesn’t fit. I was very careful and, against everything in my impatient soul, never put out an all call. Another thing that’s nice about being a little older is that the other members (mostly younger than me but still several years out of music school) knew what THEY wanted, too. They knew where they want to gig, how much money they want to make, and what kind of music they want to play. There’s every indication that we will work well together. And have FUN together.

Next I started writing and arranging. One thing I learned from my last band is that you write very differently for gigs where people want to dance than for an album or concerts where people sit in chairs. I’m moving on now, but I started with writing three hours of music that will, I hope, get people on the dance floor. One is even not so subtly named We Just Want You to Dance. They are all between 110 and 144 BPM. Now that I have a gig’s worth of dance songs, I am less restricted, and the best of the new stuff can join the best of the dance stuff on albums.

Another thing I learned in my last band is that booking gigs and showing up with the right equipment is hard work. I’m really glad I know that going in. Booking gigs takes pounding the pavement and having a social media presence.

Succeeding at gigs takes research into the setup of each venue. What is their sound system situation? How long do we have to set up? (Not that there aren’t surprises when you show up.) And by the way, know how much venues near you pay. How much will each band member take home? How will you pay for mics etc?

I lucked out in that the music store where I give lessons will let us rehearse there. I also lucked out that everyone in the band is probably capable of sight reading a gig. It’s actually hard to believe I’m so lucky to find these people. It’s hard to believe we’ll actually happen. But it seems to be happening! The harder you work, the luckier you get, as they say.

And as for jazz, we’ll, it just so happens that everyone in the group has substantial jazz experience, so I have a feeling it will burst forth before too awfully long. It’s hard not to make this blog about my feelings. Blah blah blah I was sad, blah blah blah I’m afraid to hope. Blah blah blah sometimes jazz is too much. But I really just want to encourage anyone thinking about starting a group. Be patient, ask trusted musicians, put a ton of time into the writing/arranging, build a social media presence, and be prepared to have persistence when it comes to booking. Have fun, and tell me how it goes! 

 

 

 

International Day of the Girl Observations

Happy International Day of the Girl! It’s hard to believe that people are still having to fight for equal rights to education for girls around the world, equal legal rights, and the list goes on. It’s hard to believe that when you bring up industries that are male dominated, people still say “Maybe girls just aren’t interested in that field.” Girls today are being raised by parents who were raised by parents who believed that a woman’s place was in the home. Attitudes don’t flip like a light switch. We are all still affected.

Last night during jazz class, I hardly said a word. Observations: The girls got excited about arranging their own song, and I just sat back. One girl said, “Ooh what note is that? That sounds good.” They quickly figured out that it was a sharp nine and decided to make that chord a sharp nine. By the end of the hour they had decided on a road map and assigned someone to write a lead sheet before next week. A shouted “Let’s end on a five!” was voted down. They said “We’re going to have to stay ten extra minutes,” without consulting me. They decided to write some original tunes for a Sonoma Jazz Girlz album. I can’t tell you how many people have told me “Maybe girls just aren’t as interested in jazz.” It’s absolute nonsense.

8 Reasons to Keep Jazz in Your High School (#3 will shock you!)

Today a local music teacher announced that his high school’s administration plans to cut the jazz band class because it has fewer than 30 students. The teacher wrote a great letter requesting that the administration reconsider. I’d like to list his reasons along with my own here.

1. Jazz bands (“big bands”) are traditionally around 20 members. Jazz music is arranged for this specific instrumentation.

2. Most high schools fund a jazz class this size.

3. Not having a jazz program effectively prohibits students from majoring in jazz performance at college.

4. Jazz is THE American art form.

5. Jazz theory is complex and requires a highly qualified instructor. Club status would be severely limiting.

6. A jazz class sinking even below 20 students for a while is not an acceptable reason to cancel the class.

7. School jazz bands provide entertainment at school functions and community events.

8. Playing at community events brings positive attention to the school.

If I had a child planning on a career in music (I do) and they were zoned for a high school without a jazz class (they aren’t) I would, without a doubt, transfer them. Please keep jazz in your school!

 

 

Guest Blog on BrassChicks

Hey everyone,

Check out this guest blog I wrote for BrassChicks.com about jazz improv and women in jazz. Brass Chicks is all about brass—not necessarily jazz. Follow their blog!

https://www.brasschicks.com/2018/10/06/five-things-to-teach-your-female-students-about-jazz/

Free Jazz Clinics (Or How to Get People to Understand)

When I started Sonoma Jazz Girlz, I emailed every high school band director in the county asking if I could come tell their band students about the class. Three directors responded. Maybe that’s about a quarter of the schools. We managed to add a fourth, and off I went to talk to the students.

I told the students how few women there are in professional jazz, and I told them what we’d learn in class. Organization and recruiting are not strong suits for me, and I was pretty proud of myself for doing all that. Ha! Not one girl signed up because of my visits. All my students came from their private teachers telling them about the class.

One problem is that high school band directors are ridiculously busy. I know that. Another problem is that there aren’t that many girls in their jazz groups for me to recruit. But I think another problem exists. I think that anyone who isn’t seriously focused on women in jazz can’t possibly understand why something needs to be done.

Here’s when it hit me. I have a friend. She is a professional classical musician. I’ll call her Nina. Nina has been incredibly supportive of my jazz class for girls. Classical music has plenty of problems with sexism. You’ve probably seen the stories about how many more women suddenly made it into orchestras when blind auditions were instituted. You may have seen recent stories about women suing to make as much money as men in comparable positions in orchestras. Nina has experienced plenty of frustration. I thought that if anyone understood, it was Nina.

Not long ago, Nina happened to get a glimpse of the jazz world. In the interest of anonymity, I won’t give details, but suffice to say, she IMMEDIATELY texted me and said “WE NEED TO GET MORE GIRLS IN JAZZ! I GET IT NOW!” If Nina, who had experienced being a woman in music and probably THOUGHT she knew the problem I was trying to address was so floored by a month or two in close quarters with jazz guys, how can I expect a high school girl to understand, or her male teacher, or her nonmusician parents? I’m afraid we all have a vague feeling that things are getting better, but numbers and anecdotes in the higher levels of jazz do not support this feeling.

My friend Tami, who is part of the angelic group of volunteers who come once a month to sight read with the Girlz, brainstormed with me recently. “How can I get them to understand the need?” I asked. Tami didn’t come up with an answer to that, but she did give me a great idea for recruiting. Last time, I only told the students about my class. Tami suggested I actually give a clinic. She, a former band teacher who knows me fairly well, was surprised by the quality of the class when she first came to help us out, and she thought the students and teachers would be more likely to get excited about signing up if they heard me play and experienced my teaching.

And so here’s my offer to every junior high or high school teacher in Sonoma County. I would love to come to your school one day this year and either work with your jazz band on the songs they’re learning (with an emphasis on any improv solos) or work on chords and improv in general. If your school has a budget for clinicians, great! If your school doesn’t have a budget for clinicians, I will come anyway.

Hit me up! See you soon!

 

 

 

Willow Weep For Me

All I wanted when I got to college was to fit in. An 18-year-old woman who felt like a girl, I sat in the top big band between two men in their late twenties and in front of and behind a couple more. The band had four or five women (actually pretty impressive), but I was the only first year.

One day early in the year, one of those men who seemed so ancient to me but probably had a lot of maturing to do and a lot of pain in his heart, looked past me to one of the other older men and made an inside joke about the song “Willow Weep for Me.”

I wanted to fit in.

I laughed.

Rookie mistake.

He glared at me and said, “You don’t even know what we’re talking about.” It wasn’t a joking “You’re my friend and I’m going to call you on that laugh and laugh about it with you,” it was a “You do not belong here.” Lest you think I’m misinterpreting, this was the same guy who had already told me I was in the top band because the director wanted to sleep with me, and he wasn’t kidding about that either. Although I know now he must have had pain in his heart, I still call him Dick Wilton in my memoir.

I always hated the song Willow Weep for Me after that. I’d never played it, but I heard it now and then.

I’ve blogged about quitting jazz before, so I’ll spare you the details. The short story is that after two years of college I quit jazz and finished my music degree just performing in symphonic band and brass ensemble and didn’t get back into jazz seriously until I started Sonoma Jazz Girlz about 20 years later.

In Sonoma Jazz Girlz, we use the iRealPro app (get this app!!!) when we don’t have a rhythm section. There’s a list called “1300 Jazz Standards,” and I chose a few songs from it to work on with the girls. After a couple months of showing the girls Youtube videos of female jazz instrumentalists, I finally thought, “Duh, I wonder if any of the 1300 jazz standards on my phone were written by women!”

There are precious few. One of them is Willow Weep for Me.

I Googled Willow Weep for Me and its composer, the successful and prolific Ann Ronell (1905-1993), and I wrote out lead sheets for that song with a little more pressure on my pencil than usual, thinking “That note is for you, Dick Wilton, and that fucking note, too. No, actually that note is for ME. This is MY. SONG. YOU were the joke. And you didn’t get it.”

In the beloved front yard of the beloved house where I grew up, we had a beloved weeping willow tree. Once, one of the major limbs broke off, and its many branches created a three-room home with green, leafy, walls glowing with sunlight. My dad let me play in it for a few days before getting out the chainsaw and hauling it away. I don’t remember what I did there. I probably brought out a pillow and a snack and a book and walked from room to room wishing I had beaded doorways in my house. Despite the tree’s name, I don’t remember ever thinking of it as weeping for me or anyone else. I thought of it as a secret, magical place of respite.

The beloved house where I grew up has since been sold, the beloved tree now entirely cut down. But I have my beloved jazz back, and I have my song—a place with many secret, magical rooms, and you can have your place, too, whoever you are.

 

A Great Way for Male Jazz Directors to Respond

When I see a photo of a jazz group full of men, sometimes I say something to the director via email or a comment on their social media page. Usually the response I get is some variation on, “We don’t exclude females, why just last year one was in our group!”
I think men are taken aback. I’m not accusing them of anything, only saying that I hope they’ll do more. Today I was thinking of the movie “42” about Jackie Robinson. Women will probably not be taunted and spit on when they perform jazz like Jackie was for playing in the “white” league, but women do face significant obstacles, and I was just thinking about how much thought and intention went into choosing Jackie and preparing him and his team for his participation in major league baseball. Integration in baseball was not going to happen naturally. Neither is increasing numbers of women jazz instrumentalists. Otherwise numbers wouldn’t be the same as they were 30 years ago.
So I want to tell you about one of the best responses I’ve gotten. It was from John Daversa, leader of a couple of superior jazz groups. Here’s what I wrote:
“Please make an effort to find women instrumentalists. As a teen, I didn’t see a place for myself, and not much has changed. I’m doing what I can, but I’m hoping for some high profile men to make it a priority, too. You are doing GREAT things musically. Happy Women’s Equality Day!”
He replied:
“Hi Marie, YES!! Gender equality is an important issue that we are very aware of. This has been on my radar as well. Thank you!!”*
Simple. Will he make an extra effort? Who knows? But this is the right attitude to start with. Not “I’m doing all I can,” but “I recognize things are not yet equal and want to be a part of the solution.”
I don’t blame men for not answering the exact way I want them to; they don’t have this on their mind all the time like I do. But I do want to give my idea for how men can take the next step. There are many people working on ways to keep more girls in jazz in school (talking to boys about harassment, encouraging girls to take solos and audition for honor bands, etc.) and women in professional groups (blind auditions, etc.) but I think this is important, too—that first response when someone brings up the topic. The question will arise for you sooner or later. Be ready!
*I also got similar responses from two of the many high school directors I’ve contacted.

Let’s Make a List of Women Jazz Musicians in the Comments!

Hi Friends,

Over the last year or so, many of you have recommended women jazz musicians to me. Sometimes it’s in Facebook comments, and sometimes it’s in person. The problem is, I can never find those names again on my page or in my memory!

So I have a request. Would you please comment on this blog entry with your favorite women jazz musicians past and present? Then I can always share this blog again and people will have a list.

Thank you so much,

Marie

First Jazz Girl Goes to a Jam Session

Last year, when I started the Sonoma Jazz Girlz, I thought I’d better whip myself back into shape, and twice I attended the monthly jam session at the Aqus Cafe in Petaluma. Both times were low key. I came, I played, I left. I hardly talked to anyone.

A year later, I returned with my daughter. I was so excited that she wanted to go! We both wore our hot-pink Sonoma Jazz Girlz shirts. I had prepared her for exactly what happens. You put your name and desired song(s) on the list. They call you up, and then you solo when someone looks at you. It’s okay if you play at the wrong time or don’t play at the right time. It’s all casual!

It was almost over before it started; they didn’t put out a list. This was enough to make my daughter sure that everything I’d told her was wrong. (Typical mom!) She wasn’t sure she wanted to play anymore.

“Don’t worry,” I told her. I got out my trombone and knew they’d come ask me if I wanted to play. Some friends of ours were there with their saxes, and I knew the house band knew them and would ask them to come up. I didn’t know if they’d recognize me with my short hair and long absence.

But now she was nervous. Isn’t everyone at their first jam session? It’s so different than any of our other musical experiences. People you don’t know, songs you may or may not know, and zero written notes!

I told her she could wait until next time if she wanted, but she was determined. One of the guys from the house band did come by, and I told him that my daughter wanted to play piano, and I recommended C Jam Blues. I went up with her.

She played a short, melodic solo, acing the changes. The group didn’t coddle her—in fact it was really hard to tell when to play what. But at the end, we got a lot more attention than when I’d come by myself the year before. The guitar player wanted to know what Sonoma Jazz Girlz was. He has a daughter, see?

So thanks, daughter of mine, for letting me pretend your perfect pitch had anything to do with my jazz teaching. Thanks for being brave. We’re getting the word out, and you are going to be a first call pianist before very long at all.

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