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.
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."
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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.