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On The Corner Masthead

WOMEN WHO PLAY

July 12, 2016 | by Erin Putnam

Sasha Berliner (Photo by Scott Chernis)

Jazz big bands have historically been male. While there have been many women to break through (Lil Hardin Armstrong, Valaida Snow, Mary Lou Williams, Melba Liston, Alice Coltrane, Maria Schneider), the ratio is still not great today. However: this is being challenged every day by incredible female players who have zero interest in seeing the scales tipped this way. We talked with several of our High School All-Stars to learn more about what initially interested them in jazz, what propelled them forward, and what they love most about playing.

Sasha Berliner graduated just weeks ago from the Oakland School for the Arts, and is headed to the prestigious New School in New York this fall to study vibraphone. We asked Sasha where she got her start, and she told us that she was given the choice between jazz studies and classical studies at her school; she chose the jazz route. “It ended up heavily influencing the way I thought about my own (original) music,” says Sasha. “Jazz is a very complex language with many intricacies, but I started getting comfortable (improvising) when I came to embrace the fundamental aspects of jazz like the simple beauty of the melodies, the swing, and the development of ideas and creativity.”

Kate Williams, a trumpet player going into her junior year, sat down with us to talk about her first year in the High School All-Stars program. Kate made it into the prestigious All-Stars Combo the first year she auditioned, and said that while it was tough, it jump-started her composing. Once she gave it a try, she said, she realized that writing tunes for the octet was not the “daunting” task she had thought it was. Check out trumpeters Kate Williams and Akili Bradley, as well as Sasha Berliner at the vibes, and hear from Director of Education Rebeca Mauleón in this video feature on women in the band:

Kate’s first SFJAZZ event was SFJAZZ’s inaugural Jazz Girls Day: a free workshop for female jazz musicians in the Bay Area featuring an all-female faculty. This annual event, established in 2015, was organized to mirror Berkeley High School’s workshop of the same name. BHS Jazz Program Director Sarah Cline says of Berkeley’s Jazz Girls Day program, “In my four years as a student in the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble, I was either the only girl, or one of two. Thirty-five years later, when I became the director of the program, there were all of two girls in the band. I could not believe that so much time had passed, and yet girls were still somehow excluded. I knew I had to do something to help young women feel comfortable in the room, to help them know that their creativity and their voices are important and that there is a place for them in the world of jazz.” SFJAZZ’s next Jazz Girls Day is March 17th 2018; you can reserve your spot in this free workshop online now.

Akili Bradley and Kate Williams (Photo by Scott Chernis)

The truth is, when the women of jazz dive in, everyone benefits. New ideas are added to the mix, and diverse attitudes and relationships emerge. “I loved building both musical and family-like connections with the people in the program,” Sasha told us. “Everyone is super supportive of everyone else -- their dedication to the music, and their personal life alike. I know some of these friendships I formed solely as a part of this program will last a lifetime.”

Jazz’s disparities can be uncomfortable; they feel discordant with a beautiful art form that is so celebratory and inclusive. But not talking about these disparities will only continue to deprive this great tradition of great musicians. So let’s talk about it! Let’s upend this – come show us what you’ve got and we’ll do the same. Sign up for our free summer education programming on our Community Page, check out our upcoming Women’s History Month Discover Jazz course, “The Great Women,” and learn more about our Jazz Ensembles for year-round access to great music and educators.

For more on righting the ratio, check out Judy Chaikin’s documentary, “Girls in the Band,” and “Whistling Vivaldi” by Claude Steele.