Jazz Like A Woman: Changing the narratives of a timeless musical form
By Lou Fancher
Curious about the “state of the union” for professional jazz musicians in the Bay Area who identify as women, I called for a response from a representative sample composed of three local artists. Separately, each is a master of replication in the way her roots are sourced in classic jazz history and each is a marvel of innovation in the way her work propels the industry and inspires the next generation of women artists to push the canon forward: vocalist Rhonda Benin, guitarist Mimi Fox and pianist Tammy Hall.
The pursuit was prompted in no small part by Benin’s recent show, Just Like a Woman. The annual gathering of the area’s top talent in its eighth iteration–gloriously once again held live after going virtual during the pandemic–extended its enormously successful track record at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage in late March. Despite virus variants continuing to infect people around the world and audiences only gradually returning to live performances, the nearly sold-out show underscored the Bay Area’s position as a forcefield for established female talent and an incubator for up-and-comers in the music industry.
In separate phone calls, our conversations resulted in singular, diverging replies that I expected from artists whose signature voices express themselves through highly disparate instruments (voice, guitar, piano). Landing upon what might unify their voices and provide a “theme” or a thread of connectivity seemed, initially, fruitless. But then a thought occurred: Although Benin, Fox and Hall are islands unique unto themselves, the artists are all simultaneously gatekeepers and gatecrashers. While holding history as precious and essential (the keeper in each), they toss risk into the mix and forge ahead with “crash the box” projects and recordings that will always define their work.
A person can learn not nearly everything but a lot about Benin by listening to and watching her sing “Floretta.” (Catch it on a YouTube video originally posted in 2017.) The lyrics she wrote are about a woman whose name she never knew but who she watched every night in a club where she performed. “She would drink, drink, drink and within one hour; turn from an impeccably dressed woman into a drunk,” Benin recalls. The poignant lyrics have the audience hanging on every word. “They hear the whole story. I’ve seen people weep,” she tells me. Even so, after seeing her perform the song and teary-eyed, it’s impossible not to experience true joy in light of Benin’s stellar voice and articulate but never stiff delivery. And yeah, Benin loves to dance and moves like a gentle ocean breeze while rendering Floretta’s sad story.
Coming off the eighth Just Like a Woman show, Benin says, “The level of talent has increased, and we’re still at talent Level A. That’s 35 women, all working professionals.” Having left the jazz scene in Los Angeles 32 years ago, she says her friends in Southern California envy the success of her now 35-year career in the Bay Area. “They see me not wanting for anything. Down there, it’s all about your appearance and your age. Here, if you hit the stage at Just Like a Woman, nobody thinks about that. We can feature a kid who’s eight years old and then in the next set, a woman who’s 80. What matters is the music, not politics. Not getting put in a box. It’s a show for all ages.”
Benin says she used to rail against the way women in jazz, especially Black women artists, are pushed aside, ignored, minimized. “I had to get off that because it wastes my energy. It didn’t change a thing; it only made white people mad at me and called me racist. I decided to be quiet and just do the work; build on talent. But I don’t dismiss white people in the way my folks have been dismissed. That’s why Just Like a Woman is all over the map. It could have been an all-Black revue with all Black bands and Black women, but then we’d be back where we’re trying to get away from. I say just do the work, tell the absolute truth and face rebuttal. Answer questions about who wrote the song ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine.’ Dan Fogerty didn’t write it; Norman Whitfield did. Sure, we’ve got Carole King, but we’ve also got Valerie Simpson, with no discussion. So that’s my job. Tell them. It keeps me from being angry, fighting with people, and I can still tell the truth.”
When I ask Benin to measure the degree of hope she holds for the next generation of women artists in jazz, she says the key to their education is expanding their exposure to original artists. “Before that 13- or 14-year-old girl remakes a classic standard, I tell her to listen to the original, find the original intent, then find your own way forward.” To carve a unique path, Benin says artists have to “go back, forward and all the way around” not only jazz but other genres within Black American and African music. “If you look at R&B, there’s a merging of Black American and African that’s new for us to hear on radio in this country. African American artists like Stokley Williams from Net Condition are going solo, pairing up with African artists and flying up the charts.” Williams’ song, “Woman,” she points to as an example of a song created from merging different rhythms and textures based in Black music. “New Black country artists are appearing too,” she adds. “Grab any Al Green record and you’ll always find a country tune. Now, there are women like Miko Marks who were in the show in 2017.”
Benin says young women musicians today have a better sense of themselves as artists and push forward with less reliance on the mainstream. “Ledisi (Anibade Young) had a residency at Cafe du Nord and built a whole career around that. She self-produced, wrote songs placed in Broadway plays, and kept moving until the industry caught up with her. Her talent is overwhelming, and it shouldn’t have taken that long. She was using online platforms, selling CD’s out of the trunk of her car and consistently releasing good music on her own.” The same energy, she says, has made Just Like a Woman– “an idea formed when I didn’t have a dime”–become a success every year. Two solid indicators it will continue to break new ground? “I just got a call,” says Benin. “SF JAZZ just picked us up for a matinee next March in 2023. And I’m aiming to resume satellite shows we started before the pandemic. I hope we can pick that up again and take two to three singers from the show to hit other counties.”
Fox is upfront about obstacles facing women in the music industry. The first, she says, is internal and results from messages both overt and covert that include but are not limited to women being nice, acquiescent, smiling, putting other people and their needs first, settling for less than what is deserved and more. “This impacts girls and young women’s ability to stand on stage and proudly share their talent with the world,” says Fox. “The second obstacle is external and includes all the hostility women musicians endure from others, including being overlooked, demeaned, sexualized. I always counsel young women musicians to find people who will support them and immediately (shed) people who demean them in any way. Dr. Martin Luther King said that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. It is a very slow bend.”
Fox insists she would not be the musician she is today, if not for the artists and traditions preceding her work as a guitarist and composer. “There are also numerous women from many different fields that I have drawn solace or inspiration from, including Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and countless others.”
Asked about her degree of confidence for women in the music industry and what she, her peers and young musicians entering the field will experience, Fox’s response begins in grim tones, but finishes with a bold forecast. “For young women musicians, there is still a gauntlet of misogyny, sexism, racism and homophobia that must be faced. The more great women artists who are performing, the more younger women will gain strength from this and move forward to forge their own careers.”
Hall, when we manage to connect by phone, tells me the best move for women in music is to get rid of false divisions like “jazz,” “soul,” “R&B,” “pop” and “hip hop.” Riffing on what artists such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington are known to have said, Hall says, “I hope we get rid of genres. It’s good music and not good music. If we could just keep it there, we’d get along better. There’s music that feeds you, and our Just Like a Woman show is an offering. It illuminates the women who don’t get a lot of light.”
When I persist and continue to ask for her perspectives on the jazz scene for women, she comes up with a strong reply that speaks to more than gender: “As much as women are visible, it’s still pretty white and oppressed. You have to sound a certain way. If you’re a jazz vocalist, you have to scat. Some people look at me and disagree vehemently, but scat is not the only music of jazz. Jazz music can go beyond genre.”
Joining with Benin and Fox, Hall is big on broadening music education beyond theory, knowing how to read music and identify chord clusters. “It’s ear training, life experiences. Improvisation, you can’t do that in a vacuum. It’s how you react to things in your life. When we’re teaching jazz to kids from kindergarten forward, we have to include the social and historical context.”
Hall recently taught a male-heavy group of 16 students. Thirteen of the students were men and out of those, 10 were white. “They were trying to get me to go to theory land, and I told them it wouldn’t save them. I went to Miles Davis, Max Roach, Mary Lou Williams, Nina Simone as a pianist. Not one of those students could play me some Blues. They kept saying it’s a 12-bar form. I said, no, it isn’t. Blues are the story of Black people’s lives in the United States of America. A chronicle of experience. You have to know that to create something that might sound like Blues. It can be not all bad, but jubilant. From Blues comes jazz. You can’t have jazz without Blues.”
Energy that will vitalize and simulate innovation in Black artists Hall suggests will come from all directions: classical music, gospel, R&B, jazz, soul, hip hop, pop, bluegrass, and Benin’s top pick: undeniable talent. “It’s all Black music, including country. Remember, we had jazz that was accessible because it made people get up and dance? It wasn’t atonal, presented in a concert hall, with drums going so fast I can’t find the ‘1’ and everyone is acting like they understand it. Concepts of purism started to come forward, but ultimately, the concept you had to read music to be a wondrous jazz musician was shown to be a baldfaced lie. Then there were some who said if you just spend hours practicing, you can become great. But it’s not true. There’s raw talent, and just because you can’t explain what it is, it exists.”
Hall admits, she’s gone through low-down, “what’s it all for” periods. She’s especially discouraged when Black artists alive and working in 2022 continue to be overlooked while white artists are hailed for playing and bringing attention to the music of Mary Lou Williams, Hazel Scott, Dorothy Donegan, Nina Simone and others. “It’s half-assed and not authentic, really. I’m (now) more determined to look at myself. I’m good enough. What do I have to break through? I’ve now stopped thinking about it that way. I’m just going to do what I do. People seek me out for collaboration, and if it speaks to me, I’m in. Music is my life, and I just have to stay true and give opportunities I didn’t have to people coming up. It feels daunting to unearth the stories of these women and do the storytelling from a point of truth. When do the people bragging step aside and give artistic directorship to people of color? We’re not waiting for the answer. We need to start making our own narratives.”