Girls school

DIVA's learned a lot about prejudice and potential

All-woman bands, such as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, had been popular in the 1930s as novelty acts. But what Kay had in mind was a band of '90s women. Kay and Maricle, along with former Rich band member John LaBarbera, got together and held an audition. Sixty women showed up, among them alumnae of prestigious university music programs and bands led by such jazz greats as Woody Herman and Toshiko Akiyoshi; DIVA played its first gig in March 1993.

In its three-year existence, DIVA has played New York's Village Gate and the Rainbow Room and can be heard regularly at the famous Tavern on the Green restaurant. The group has also played major festivals including the Hollywood Bowl and the Playboy jazz festivals. Two weeks ago they were the band for the Songwriters Hall of Fame awards show, backing Liza Minnelli, Rosemary Clooney, and James Brown, among others. An excited Gloria Estefan said it was great to see women on stage playing so well.

In spring 1994, Kavanaugh got a call from Maricle. DIVA had an upcoming gig at Carnegie Hall with Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops and wanted her to join them. "I had never heard of DIVA," she recalls. "I had heard of some all-woman band that required you to wear push-up bras and miniskirts. The irony of my having been the only woman player in bands for years is that I had picked up a lot of gender biases about other woman players. I was concerned they were women who knew more about hair and makeup than they did about Duke Ellington. Sherry sent me a videotape, and 15 seconds after I put that tape in, 15 years of my own gender bias flew out the window! The band was incredible! I had never seen women playing like that before: Sherry was sitting there smashing the drums, Melissa was plunking those bass lines. They were very physical!"

Even at Carnegie Hall Kavanaugh overheard skeptical New Yorkers in the ladies' room prior to the performance. "They were saying, 'What is Skitch Henderson doing hiring women jazz musicians?' When we played, I really watched the audience. After just a few seconds, when they realized that, 'Hey, this is a good band,' they really enjoyed themselves."

What's it like in a 15-member all-female band? "It's like having siblings," Kavanaugh says. "You have rivalries, you have arguments, but you also have moments of great love and encouragement. When you watch the band, it's obvious that we support each other."

Dauber agrees. "Music's music; it's not gender-based. There are different dynamics, as far as personalities and working with women, but as far as the music, that speaks for itself. Just as a friendship with a woman is different than with a man, it's a different temperament."

DIVA is not yet a full-time gig, so all the women also play with other bands. Jami Dauber has realized her dream of playing for a Broadway musical, Showboat, and she and trumpet player Liesl Sagartz also play in Ed Palermo's Big Band. All the women are based in Manhattan except Kavanaugh, who is considering moving there from Missouri with her musician husband.

The band has one CD out, DIVA: No Man's Band, which includes arrangements of big-band standards such as "Stardust" and The Wizard of Oz's "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead," and is recording another for a fall release. Several band members, including alto-sax player Carol Chaiken and tenor player Virginia Mayhew have individual record contracts. Trumpet player Ingrid Jensen has had her first CD released, and several of the women compose and arrange, as well.

Will any of them be the next Kenny G?
"Not Kenny G! Maybe the next Art Farmer," Kavanaugh says. "If they're happy playing the music they play, then that's great," says Dauber about the popularity of smooth pop-jazz. "I don't personally care for that kind of music, but there are a lot of people who like it. They might call it 'jazz,' but to me, jazz means something else."

They like being role models and the positive feedback they get from audience members, especially women. "We've had little girls, women our own ages, and elderly women come up to the band. An elderly woman had tears streaming down her face and said, 'I used to play trumpet, but then I got married, and my husband didn't want me to do it anymore. I'm going to start again, now.' That makes everything worth it."

Dauber also has changed her tune, so to speak, and no longer wants the teaching career she told the Observer about in '92. "I'm making a living performing. That's my life, that's what's always made me the happiest."

"I want to be a mom, and I also want to be the best bass-trombone player in the world," says Kavanaugh. "I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. Three of us are married, but most of the band members are single because they're so focused. I've always tried to find a balance. I think it's taught to women that you can't have both. I'm going to be the first woman bass-trombone player to have a baby and keep playing!"

DIVA plays "Taste of Dallas" July 14.

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