I knew jazz’s glass ceiling had started to shatter when I saw the two Janes on the Monterey Jazz Festival program.
Let me explain. For some 30 years, two of the world’s finest soprano saxophonists, Jane Ira Bloom and Jane Bunnett, happened to share a given name, and of course the female gender. If one got booked at a festival, it was a safe bet that the other needn’t waste her time pursuing a gig there, a ridiculous state of affairs given that they’ve created utterly distinct bodies of music (and a situation largely unfamiliar to, say, similarly disparate saxophonists David Sanchez and David Binney).
Presenters seemed to feel that a few women bandleaders on a roster covered the female base, and that two female saxophonists, let alone soprano saxophonists, would oversaturate the market. The Monterey Jazz Festival was hardly immune, and not so long ago you had to scan the program carefully to find a bare handful of women instrumentalists (it’s a very different situation for female vocalists).
In 2016 the MJF presented four women-led bands, which was an improvement on previous seasons. Last year there were five. But this year’s festival, which runs Sept. 21–23 at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, features at least 15 ensembles led or co-led by women players, starting with the debut of the latest edition of the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour Band, which includes trumpeter/vocalist Bria Skonberg and tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana. (The sextet’s 2019 tour hits UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on April 3 and Sonoma State’s Green Music Center on April 4.)
Breaking the unofficial Janes embargo, Bunnett, who’s also a fine flutist, performs 7:30 p.m. Friday in Dizzy’s Den with her all-women Cuban band Maqueque featuring drummer Yissy Garcia, a rising bandleader in her own right, while Bloom’s quartet with pianist Dawn Clement plays the intimate Pacific Jazz Café at 9 p.m. on Friday. In a year marked by the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, the breakthrough is not unrelated.
“I felt this would be a good year to come out with all the guns blazing,” says Tim Jackson, the festival’s longtime artistic director. “There so many incredible women-led groups. I’ve presented Jane Ira Bloom at Kuumbwa,” the Santa Cruz jazz venue that Jackson co-founded and continues to run, “but how come I’ve never presented her at Monterey? I missed this one. First and foremost, I want to present women in strong, meaningful ways — the right venue with the right project at the right times. We’re not only presenting Bloom with her group, she’s playing duo with pianist Fred Hersch, something they have a lot of history doing.”
More than sheer numbers, what’s impressive about the MJF program is that the women represent a broad and deep cross section of the contemporary scene. And since women bandleaders are often more likely to be open to collaborating with other talented women, many of the ensembles feature world class sidewomen. Israeli tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Anat Cohen performs with her Tentet featuring Australian-born trumpeter/composer Nadje Noordhuis and guitarist Sheryl Bailey 7:30 p.m. Sunday on the Jimmy Lyons Stage.
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