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Desert Sun: Palm Springs Jazz Fest breaking one of the last cultural barriers to women

August 31, 2016

Bruce Fessier

Dee Dee Bridgewater photo by Mark Higashino

Straightahead jazz, which developed as a primarily Black American art form, today remains one of the last cultural endeavors to resist integration.

To be sure, black, white, American Indian and Hispanic artists began to integrate in the late 1920s and ‘30s. But you still don’t find many traditional jazz ensembles with female musicians. Female singers, yes, but there are not many female saxophonists or trumpeters in male-led ensembles.

No there are not,” says Sweet Baby J’ai, a singer-percussionist who programs this weekend’s Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival. “I could go to the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday nights – they have jazz on Wednesday nights – for the whole of the summer and not see one female musician. Yes, you will see singers, but not one in the whole of the summer.

Unless you go see a women’s big band, you’re not going to get the integration. For me personally, my band is integrated. I have both male and female musicians in my band because I know full well there are plenty of qualified extremely talented female musicians that people don’t traditionally think of just because they’re not on their radar. It’s not that they think they’re less talented, their name just doesn’t come up at the call.”

Festival Producers: Gail & Lucy

Palm Springs Jazz Fest to heat up Labor Day weekend

The Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival, beginning its fourth year at noon Friday at the Azul restaurant, is seeking to remedy that with a lineup of all-female jazz musicians. They include saxophonists Pamela Williams and Paula Atherton, and pianist Sunnie Paxson, who have worked with many smooth or contemporary jazz male musicians and have led their own ensembles.

But it’s mostly the singers on the bill, including three-time Grammy Award winner Dee Dee Bridgewater, the Tony-nominated Ann Hampton-Calloway, “Dreamgirls” co-star Pam Trotter, Cuban great Rosalia de Cuba and veteran touring vocalist Cathy Segal Garcia, who get to perform with the guys who dominate the Downbeat jazz polls.

The smooth jazz musicians Downbeat is reluctant to recognize began to break down the lines between men and women on the bandstand in the early 1990s. But the fact that the trend only began 20 years ago indicates that the art form still has obstacles to overcome as far as making women feel comfortable playing alongside of men.

Absolutely in the last 20 years,” said J’ai. “How long have we heard, ‘She plays great for a girl’? That’s part of jazz history. Women feel as if they have to play a certain way and women are judged differently than men are traditionally in jazz. I hear that all the time. That still exists today. Female musicians are judged against a male standard. They’re still looked at like, ‘She plays well for a girl."

Sweet Baby J'ai - Artistic Director of the Palm Springs Women's Jazz Festival

I think that is why it’s so important to have this festival. Singers have been working in jazz practically as long as jazz has been around. But, let’s take a female saxophone player. She doesn’t have to feel like she’s being judged against a male standard there. Part of this experience is introducing audiences to female instrumentalists because they don’t often get an opportunity to play together on those stages. That’s why I think it’s important to not only highlight the singers, but the instrumentalists as well.”

J’aI is still trying to figure out where the institutional sexism in jazz begins.

High school bands are integrated,” she said. “Kids go into music in this integrated environment. They all play together. In fact, I was down at the street festival the other night and the local high school band played. So what is this? We start out in integrated bands and when does that detour happen when men decide, ‘I’m going to go play in this band’ or bandleaders decide, ‘I’m going to hire all men’ or women decide they’re going to hire all women?”

As much as J’ai and the producers of the Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival, Gail Christian and Lucy Debardelaben, want to promote the instrumentalists, it’s still the female vocalists who are the big box office attractions, just as the singers are the stars of rock, country and R&B. And this may be the Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival’s premier lineup of vocalists.

The music starts rolling at 4 p.m. when Gina Eckstine (the late great baritone Billy Eckstine’s daughter) will sing with an all-female trio in the Jorge Mendez Gallery, where Bridgewater will receive the Jazz Masters Award. Grammy Award winner Diane Schuur, who received the award last year, will be a guest of honor. Bridgewater will then perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Annenberg Theater.

Dee Dee is probably the leading jazz singer in the country,” said J’ai. “Look at her resume. She’s a U.N. Good Will ambassador, she’s a record producer, she’s a jazz legend. Having Dee Dee Bridgewater is just a wonderful coup.”

Callaway is scheduled to perform Friday night at the Annenberg following the Sweet Baby J’ai Women in Jazz All-Stars.

She’s going to be doing stuff from the Great American Songbook and, if you’re talking about the Great American Songbook, I don’t think you can have a warmer, more enveloping voice than Ann Hampton Calloway,” said J’ai. “Because of her songwriting background, I think she’s one of the few people still living who (could) roll with Cole Porter. And we’ll be getting some selections from the work she’s doing with the Great American Songbook. She has a new show that she’s doing.”

Williams will lead the smooth jazz segment of the festival Saturday afternoon at Indian Canyons Country Club and the women instrumentalists will get to show off their chops in a late night jam Saturday at the Hard Rock Hotel Palm Springs. But a past highlight of each festival has been the Sunday brunch Tribute to the Divas. This year, Trotter will perform a tribute to Aretha Franklin, Garcia will salute Julie London, Sascha DuPont will pay tribute to Rickie Lee Jones and de Cuba will salute fellow Cuban star Eleana Burke at the Hard Rock.

J’ai says the Tribute to the Divas has become somewhat of an LGBTQ event because it gained a strong lesbian audience when the festival launched during Dinah Shore Week and women still buy the most tickets.

But J’ai and her co-producers emphasize that this festival is not for women only. The festival draws a mixed male and female crowd that can all appreciate what women can do with instruments.

That is right,” said J’ai. “We are not going to be taken over by misogynist guys. We will have men who appreciate women to keep the audience in the same pocket that we started with.”

Female Jazz

What: The Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival, presented by the nonprofit Palm Springs Women’s Jazz and Blues Association When: Opens at noon with a reception at the Azul restaurant, 369 N Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs Music venues: Jorge Mendez Gallery, 756 N Palm Canyon Drive; Annenberg Theater, 101 Museum Drive; Indian Canyons Country Club Clubhouse, 1067 Murray Canyon Drive; and the Hard Rock Hotel, 400 S. Indian Canyon Drive, all in Palm Springs. Tickets: $299 pass or five individually ticketed events. Information: (760) 416-4535 or

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