It's rare for a symphony conductor to be passionate about bringing jazz to young people. But Rachael Worby is a rarity just for being a female conductor. She is artistic director of Mus/ique, a live series that stages music in unlikely settings. True to form, Mus/ique celebrates women jazz musicians Monday at the Avon Distribution Center in Pasadena.
“I want to get the music out of the sacred concert hall space,” Worby asserted, “and bring it closer to the audience. And Avon has always meant empowerment to women.” She sees the company's story as analogous to jazz itself: “When they began, Avon only marketed products for white skin. They expanded over the years to include all shades, just as the male-dominated jazz world has made room for women.”
The centerpiece of the evening is Judy Chaikin's acclaimed new documentary, “The Girls in the Band.” It tells the story of the uphill battle women have had throughout jazz history to gain acceptance from male musicians. She uses the stories of pianists Lil Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland and Geri Allen, trumpeters Billie Rogers and Ingrid Jensen, saxophonists Peggy Gilbert, Roz Cron and Jane Ira Bloom, and drummers Terry Lynn Carrington and Sherrie Maricle to piece together a broader narrative of the plight of women in the music.
Chaikin comes from a family of musicians. “I played a little trumpet as a youngster,” she said, “but I went into musical theatre. The movie is just something that unfolded, as I learned about all of the struggles [of] the women in jazz.”
Worby comes by her eclecticism honestly. As the director/conductor for the symphony orchestra in Wheeling, W.Va., and later as conductor for the Pasadena Pops, she was known for her cross-genre programming. “Growing up, I heard every kind of music imaginable,” Worby noted. “Glenn Gould, Odetta, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk were all part of the natural flow of our house. I want to bring the passion of all of those artists to young people.”
The addition of an all-star contingent of the all-woman big band Maiden Voyage playing a post-movie set is a great bit of historic connective tissue. When alto saxophonist Ann Patterson started the band in the 1980s, an intergenerational orchestra of female instrumentalists was one-of-a-kind for the time. It also hearkened back to the Sweethearts and other outfits that crisscrossed the country during the big band era. Roz Cron, a white saxophonist from New York, was in the Sweethearts of Rhythm, the black big band that serves as a hub for the narrative in “Girls in the Band.” She later played in Maiden Voyage, though she isn't scheduled to play at the event.
Chaikin recognizes a common trait in the women who stepped out of traditional roles to pursue jazz. “Most of them had rebel personalities,” she believes. “That fit with the spirit of jazz and the music afforded them freedom that they couldn't find anywhere else. Of course, it came at a price.”
Doors open at 6 p.m. and “The Girls in the Band” screens at 6:45. An all-girl band from Westridge High that goes under the curious name of Watch for Sleeping serenades the pre-movie mixer for ticket holders. Chaikin will moderate a panel of women musical artists like saxophonist Mindi Abair.
For decades, the condescension toward women jazz musicians was summed up as: “She plays pretty good for a girl.” As accomplished, young, women instrumentalists have emerged, that shibboleth has pretty much been demolished.
“I went out on the road with Diva,” Chaikin recounted, referring to the all-woman big band. “Some of those performers are just phenomenal. You can put Janelle Reichman up against any male saxophonist and she can hold her own.”
What: Mus/ique Uncorked Series
Where: Avon Distribution Center, 2940 Foothill Blvd., Pasadena.
When: Monday, Nov. 11 at 6 p.m.
More info: (626) 539-7085
KIRK SILSBEE writers about jazz and culture for Marquee.