Luckily the musical world is well beyond those regrettable times when anyone would hear an amazing instrumentalist and dare say, “she plays pretty well … for a girl.”
The jazz scene in particular has been struck by a steady string of female standouts for decades and the 21st Annual Vail Jazz Party aims to both commemorate and celebrate the genre’s leading ladies, both past and present.
Kicking things off Friday afternoon will be a special screening of the powerful, eye-opening, documentary Girls in the Band. Highlighting the largely untold stories of female jazz musicians from the 1930s (such as trombone player Melba Liston, trumpeter Clora Bryant, pianist Marian McPartland) who, in spite of their incredible talent, faced a rash of sexism, racism and condescension in order to pursue their musical dreams. It is these women who paved the way for today’s female jazz stars.
“I’m definitely NOT aware of being a woman in the band most of the time,” said contemporary trumpet sensation Bria Skonberg, who performed at the Vail Jazz Festival earlier this summer and recently watched Girls in the Band. “There are a lot of women who have worked really hard so I can feel that way.”
The documentary also profiles current female stars, including Sherrie Maricle, drummer and leader of the all-female group DIVA, which made its Vail debut this summer. Maricle returns to town for this weekend’s Vail Jazz Party to perform alongside several other powerhouse musicians in Friday night’s Multi-Media Tribute to Women in Jazz and in various ensembles throughout the weekend.
“When DIVA was formed and to some degree even today, women didn’t usually get the first call for jazz gigs, so I viewed DIVA’s creation as a great opportunity to play amazing music with great players, period,” Maricle said. “Over the last 23-plus years of leading the band and playing with dozens of others, I can tell you with 100-percent certainty that there is absolutely no difference in talent, skill, passion or creativity between DIVA and any other world-class concert jazz orchestra.”
Internationally renowned vocalist Roberta Gambarini will also perform in tonight’s Multi-Media tribute. The Grammy award nominee who hails from Italy has an exuberant vocal style that has been compared to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, but which is also distinctly her own, each song and each performance rife with fresh trills and spontaneous twists. In addition to Friday’s girl power performance, Gambarini and her Trio will take the stage on Saturday and Monday.
Another familiar vocal talent, not to mention Vail Jazz Party fixture and favorite, Niki Haris will join the all-female power ring for Friday’s multi-media performance and appear numerous times throughout the wall-to-wall music weekend, leading Sunday morning’s climatic Gospel Prayer Meetin’ with the Mile High Gospel Ensemble.
“All races, all colors come together to be part of this spiritual celebration,” Haris said of the Meetin’ and of gospel itself, which many believe to be the cornerstone of jazz, if not the very foundation of the genre. “Jazz is about freedom of expression.”
Gospel is only one of Haris’ points of focus, but energetic expression is the key ingredient of everything she does. A singer, choreographer, dancer and actor, Haris has worked with everyone from Ray Charles to Mick Jagger, Whitney Houston to Anita Baker and spent 18 years touring and recording with Madonna, arguably the pop star’s most talented band mate of all time. In Vail over the years, Haris has been consistently famous for rattling the stage and willing spontaneous movement of some sort out of every audience member – clapping, swaying or all-out dancing.
“I love the entire energy of the Vail Jazz Festival,” Haris said. “I always say God was having a great day when he made Vail, Colorado – or should I say she? The point is, this is the world we all want to see – everyone celebrating in their own way to whatever God they serve. We’re all here together.”
Karen Hammack is another shining star at which to marvel throughout the Vail Jazz Party. The pianist and singer/songwriter incorporates elements of jazz, gospel, funk, soul and rock into her unique sound and is a master recording artist with a long list of original numbers that have been singled out for their heart-gripping sincerity. Hailing from California, Hammack has worked with Jackson Brown, Michael McDonald, Bill Frisell and Perla Batalla, among many other greats.
Bassist Marion Hayden is a key component to the Tribute to Women in Jazz and will be a vibrant presence throughout the 2015 Vail Jazz Party. Hailing from Detroit, Hayden has taught at the University of Michigan, is a founding member of the all-female group Venus, has collaborated with renowned violinist Regina Carter and has performed or recorded with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Fortune.
Also blazing a trail as the next generation of jazz greats are Vail Jazz Workshop Alumnae Sophie Faught and Lauren Falls. Hailing from a small town in British Columbia with a masters graduate in jazz performance from Manhattan School of Music, Falls composes original music for her own quintet and has studied with iconic bassists such as John Clayton, James Moody and David Baker. A tenor saxophonist from Indiana, Faught currently leads her own band and is a notable composer. She shares the stage with stars such as Terrell Stafford, The Four Tops and The Temptations.
The combined talent of all of these artists is enough to make the mountains quake. Don’t miss this weekend’s celebration of women in jazz. The Friday evening session ticket includes not only the Women in Jazz set, but also riveting performances by famed pianist George Cables Trio, renowned harmonica player Howard Levy and the surprise-filled Late Night Jam Session. For a schedule of 2015 Vail Jazz Party performances, tickets or more information, call 888-VAIL-JAM or visit vailjazz.org.