Talking about evolution and female musicians quickly gets into thorny territory, but when it comes to the sudden emergence of JazzGirls Day, Sarah Cline has a theory.
Cline launched the first event, designed to encourage young women’s exploration of jazz and improvisation, at Berkeley High in 2012, one year after her historic appointment as the director of the school’s storied jazz program. Since then, JazzGirls Day, which takes place at BHS on Saturday, has spread around the country, embraced by SFJAZZ, Jazz at Lincoln Center and various schools from Boston and Washington D.C. to Austin, Texas and Bloomington, Indiana.
But Cline hesitates to take full credit for the rise of the movement. Rather, she sees the advent of JazzGirls Day as a case of convergent evolution, like when unrelated organisms develop parallel structures in response to similar pressures.
“The same year I started it here there was also a JazzGirls day in Seattle,” says Cline, an accomplished trombonist who graduated from BHS in 1981. “It was an idea whose time had come, and two groups thought of it separately.”
Seattle, which also boasts some of the nation’s best high school jazz programs, created a similar program, but it was Cline’s concept that ricocheted around the country. Pianist Rebeca Mauleon joined the faculty on JazzGirl Day’s inaugural run and in 2013 she brought the idea to SFJAZZ, where she’s the director of the education program (this year’s event takes place March 14). Tenor saxophonist Jessica Jones, a Berkeley High graduate long based in Brooklyn, was also on faculty that first year. She took the idea back to New York City, where it’s taken root at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
JazzGirls Day is free and open all all girls who sing or play an instrument. This year’s lineup of BHS instructors is as impressive as ever, including pianist Erika Oba (BHS class of 2004), drummer Ruthie Price, bassist Ruth Davies, saxophonist Nora Stanley (BHS class of 2014), drummer Daria Johnson, violinist Irene Sazer, and saxophonist/flutist Jean Fineberg, co-director of the Montclair Women’s Big Band. Jessica Jones is also back in town to participate in her alma mater’s JazzGirls Day and play a few gigs with her acclaimed quartet (Thursday March 12 at San Francisco’s Bird & Beckett Books and Records and Friday March 13 at the California Jazz Conservatory).
She’s been pleased to see Cline’s JazzGirls Day idea spread far and wide. “Other people have duplicated it,” says Jones, whose band features fellow BHS alum Tony Jones on tenor sax, Stomu Takeishi on bass guitar, and drummer Deszon Claiborne. “I’ve been hearing about similar programs in Indiana and North Carolina, even Germany. It’s getting to be international. This idea of having a day where you show up and dip your toe in the jazz pool, take some risks, it’s a great way for a lot of girls to feel comfortable experimenting.”
It’s not the only resource available in Berkeley for aspiring young women looking to jam. Fineberg and trumpeter Ellen Seeling, her fellow Montclair Women’s Big Band director, present the 12th Annual Girls’ Jazz & Blues Camp at the California Jazz Conservatory Aug. 3-7, drawing on many of the same faculty members as JazzGirls Day. The impact of these programs on the scene is evident.
Since the BHS program started JazzGirls Day the number of young women in the jazz band has tripled from 10 to 30 percent. Cline remembers when female members of the band were few and far between. “I was the only female for the first two years,” she says. “The next two years two of us, and for one semester there were three, which was incredible. When I came back to run the band in 2011 nothing had changed in 30 years. I was overwhelmed with learning to run the program, and the push really came from my students, who prodded me to start a program focusing on girls. Nora Stanley was one of them.”
More than a numbers game, getting a critical mass of young women helps create a more welcoming environment. “Girls often have a very different way of being in a situation, doing things together instead of individually.” Cline says. “Creating a space that feels more girl friendly is something people haven’t thought about enough in such a male-dominated area. This definitely makes it a better space for everyone.”
Recommended gigs: Fabiana Cozza at Hillside Club / International Women’s Day at the Back Room
São Paulo vocalist Fabiana Cozza made her Bay Area debut last summer at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, bringing a delicious blast of samba to San Francisco. She plays the Berkeley Hillside Club on Friday with São Paulo percussionist Douglas Alonso, and Rio-born Oakland guitarist Ricardo Peixoto, focusing on a repertoire of modern and classic sambas.
A double bill at The Back Room offers an ideal way to celebrate International Women’s Day on Sunday March 8, featuring the rich vocal harmonies and intermingled roots of True Life Trio and acoustic forays of Chimera. True Life features fiddler Leslie Bonnett, guitairst Briget Boyle, and accordionist Juliana Graffagna, with all three women contributing on vocals. To quote myself from an earlier Berkeleyside piece: A spin off of Kitka, TLT has expanded on that innovative all-women vocal ensemble’s powerfully evocative repertoire of traditional Eastern European and Balkan songs with finely crafted arrangements of Cajun, Appalachian and even Mexican standards. Chimera is a string quartet featuring violinist Sarah Jo Zaharako, violist Katrina Wreede, cellist Moses Sedler, and harpiest Diana Rowan. The group blends influences from Western classical Indian music, Balkan, Middle Eastern, Celtic traditions and beyond.
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