It is no secret that there is a longstanding gender imbalance in a jazz world dominated by men. But this year’s Spoleto Festival, which is dominated by strong female musicians, offers us an alternative reality. Carla Bley, Esperanza Spalding and the Geri Allen Tribute Quintet spearheaded by Terri Lyne Carrington are taking over the Cistern Yard this season.
“When I sat down to put together the 2019 Wells Fargo Jazz Series, I didn't explicitly have in mind that I wanted to have a focus on gender,” said Larry Blumenfeld, who programs the series and writes frequently about jazz for the Wall Street Journal. “It came together very organically, but I don't think it's an accident.”
Bley, Spalding and Carrington are all artists that Blumfeld had been trying to present at the festival since he took on his programming role four years ago, and it just so happened that he was able to put a spotlight on all of them this festival season. He said that this alignment is a reflection of both strong female leaders making bold statements in jazz and of a revised and revolutionary attitude toward the way we think about gender.
“We're definitely in a moment where we're thinking a lot about overturning a patriarchy that has seemed to dominate many, many things,” Blumenfeld said. “Every time I create a series for the festival, it ends up telling one or more stories, and this year, it seems clear that the story that has bubbled to the top is this presence of strong female musicians in shaping jazz.”
At 82, Carla Bley seems an unstoppable force in jazz music. A composer, arranger, bandleader and pianist, she has toured the globe and has continuously written and released music since she was a teenager.
“This woman is an important leader in the history of jazz,” Blumenfeld said, referring to Bley’s 2015 designation as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. “She has spent the last 50 years being an innovator in terms of what jazz is and what it can mean.”
Her work displays both her wide compositional range and revolutionary edge as a female jazz leader. She has no desire to be a conventional musician, she said.
“I think that it’s not important that women are accepted in the jazz world,” Bley said. “Because when you’re not accepted you work a lot harder and come up with better ideas. I prefer being antagonized.”
Grammy winner, Harvard professor and genre-busting multi-instrumentalist are just a few ways to describe Esperanza Spalding. The 34-year-old has been performing since she was 5. Unafraid to explore different types of music, she’s currently on tour performing tunes from her experimental pop album “12 Little Spells,” an examination of how music and the body interact. “She’s such a dynamic and unique artist,” Blumenfeld said. “She's a forceful woman who's changing the shape of contemporary music culture.”
Morgan Guerin, a multi-instrumentalist and Spalding’s 20-year-old tour-mate who will be performing with her at Spoleto, said that working with her has changed his life.
“I really look up to her, not only musically, but in the way she thinks and lives her life,” he said. “She doesn’t have an ego; her music speaks for itself.”
Terri Lyne Carrington and Geri Allen
Drummer, composer and bandleader Terri Lyne Carrington is leading a quintet honoring and celebrating pianist Geri Allen, who died in 2017. Allen, a master of her craft with more than 30 years of released music, became a matriarch of jazz and used her talents to teach young performers about the genre at the University of Pittsburgh.
“To me, Geri Allen was one of the most important jazz musicians of my generation,” Blumenfeld said. “And Terri Lyne Carrington is leading a group that will not just play Geri Allen's music ... but try to give some sense of who Allen was through this really powerful prism of who Carrington is.”
Carrington, whose “Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue” won a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album — making her the first woman ever to win a Grammy in this category — created an institute at Berklee College of Music in Boston to address gender equity in jazz and related genres.
“My goal is for women to see other career pathways as potentially successful — playing instruments and engineering and writing about the music — and also to be inclusive of artists that are non-binary,” Carrington said. “More inclusion all the way around is the goal.”
Blumenfeld is glad about this focus on women.
“If it helps a listener think about what the real image of jazz is, and question maybe some of the ways it's been presented to them in the past, that's great,” he said. “If it helps other producers and curators think about creating more equitable programming as it relates to gender, great. What women have lacked in the past when it comes to jazz is opportunity and recognition, but I think we can now say that we're moving past that point.”