Girls school

DIVA's learned a lot about prejudice and potential

Women in jazz: Those words conjure up images of Ella Fitzgerald, Diane Schuur, and Sarah Vaughan--talented, but usually just standing at a microphone or sitting at a piano, not someone with legs astride, belting out licks on a bass trombone or beating the bejeezus out of a set of drums in a big band. All that may change, thanks to DIVA, a 15-member, all-woman group that plays big-band jazz and will perform at the "Taste of Dallas" festival in the West End.

"I thought it made sense to have an all-female band as headliners," says West End Association President Betheny Reid, noting that the event's producers, staff, and technical crew are all women. "I was told, 'I've got a 15-piece, all-female jazz orchestra,' and I said, 'Book them!'"

Although it will be the 3-year-old group's first Dallas-area appearance, DIVA has strong roots here. University of North Texas jazz-studies grad student Jami Dauber told the Observer in a 1992 cover story on UNT's jazz program that her dream was to play in a Broadway musical show band and teach. After leaving the greatest jazz program in academia, however, she wound up about as far away from the Big Apple as you can get--Branson, Missouri, playing first for a brass quartet in a Renaissance park and then backing renowned homophobe and ex-orange-juice pitchwoman Anita Bryant.

At UNT, Dauber had started on the next-to-lowest rung of the jazz ladder, the Eight O'Clock Lab Band, and worked her way up to become the first female trumpet player in the topnotch One O'Clock Lab Band. She was following in the footsteps of Lee Hill Kavanaugh, who played in eight different "O'Clock" bands before becoming the One O'Clock's first woman brass player. The only other women players in the school's jazz program at that time were fellow trumpet player Elaine Burt--who graduated a semester after Dauber arrived--a couple of saxophone players, and a pianist.

After four months in Branson, Dauber had had enough and decided to move to New York. When she got there, she contacted Burt, who was already a member of DIVA. The band needed a sub for a rehearsal, and Jami was available.

Like Dauber, Kavanaugh, now 36, had spent most of her life fairly oblivious to the obstacles that women jazz musicians face. Inspired by seeing Stan Kenton's band when she was 15, Kavanaugh finally realized there was no "feminine" way to play her chosen instrument, the bass trombone. "To belt out on a bass trombone, you have to point your feet--which means playing with your legs apart--and blow. If you look like Yoda, so be it!" If Kenton's players--respected masters--had "all those bellies and double chins," then looks didn't matter.

At UNT, she experienced the school's ultimate joy, then humiliation: being the first woman brass player to make the One O'Clock rattled her so badly ("There would be lines of bass trombone players complaining about my being in the One O'Clock") that she was demoted to the Two O'Clock, albeit to the top spot. It was quite an ego-buster, but Two O'Clock director Jim Riggs took her under his wing, encouraged her, and defended her to other complaining students, two of whom eventually quit rather than play with her. Even now, she says, she likes to imagine her mentor in the audience when she plays.

Her former professor also remembers her fondly. "Lee Kavanaugh was one of the best bass trombone players who ever went to North Texas. She had a great big, fat tone and just nailed the parts every time. DIVA is as good as any band I've ever heard."

After getting her master's in low brass with a secondary major in tuba, Kavanaugh was hired by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. "But three days later I got a phone call that I was fired because the owner of the band, wherever he was, said a woman in the band would look funny!" She considered taking legal action, "but you don't want to get blackballed."

Instead, she ended up on cruise ships, where she found she had to play "twice as good as a man," and performed with stars such as Dizzy Gillespie to Phyllis Diller. One of the bands included four of Ray Charles' former players, who mentioned that he had an opening for a bass trombone player.

"I said, 'Oh, man, tell me where, and I'll go,' and they told me, 'Lee, we're really sorry, but Ray says he doesn't want to use women.' Just this year, I understand he did hire a woman trombone player, and I'm so proud that she broke that glass ceiling. You get tired of fighting those kinds of battles."

Because she was either on the high seas or home in suburban Kansas City, Missouri, Kavanaugh didn't hear about the open call in the summer of 1992 for musicians to be in an all-woman jazz/big band. New York jazz veteran Stanley Kay, who had played drums with and managed the Buddy Rich Band in the 1940s, had been conducting a show for father-and-son dance team Maurice and Gregory Hines. Kay was blown away by the female drummer in the band, Sherrie Maricle, and wondered whether there were other women players who could play as well.

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