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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.

 

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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.

Sonoma Jazz Girlz Update #2

Well, our first summer is over, and although two of the four girls dropped out when their schedule filled up, two more joined, and our current four have four more they want to invite! Most importantly, members old and new have, well, progressed in following chord progressions and listened to a lot of great famous musicians during our chops break.

And we had our FIRST GIG! Music To My Ears had a 10th anniversary party, and we were part of the live music lineup. We played Mercy, Mercy, Mercy and I Got Rhythm, and everyone soloed. I was so proud! Although I never pictured this class to be a performing group, I think the girls really like it and want to get out and PLAY. With our group growing, I’m starting to think about procuring some big band charts.

CONFESSION TIME! Even I, who started this group because of the difficulties faced by women in jazz, and who made sure to introduce my students to female players during listening time, took TWO months to think, “Gee, I wonder if any of the jazz standards on irealpro were written by women.” Enter Willow Weep For Me. Thank you Ann Ronell for your beautiful melody. I’ll be writing more about Ann and my personal history with Willow Weep For Me another day.

I have to admit I worried when we got down to two students, but it appears word has gotten out, and I think the future of Sonoma Jazz Girlz is secure.

 

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