The third annual Diet Coke Women in Jazz Festival at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola hits the stage for the full month of September, celebrating the contributions that women have made to jazz. The festival promises to be an eclectic mix of musicianship highlighting a variety of instrumentalists and vocalists.
Back by popular demand after appearing at the inaugural women's festival, the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, led by drummer Sherrie Maricle and featuring vocalists Dee Daniels (September 11-13) and Carmen Bradford (September 14-16), promises to impress.
The all-female ensemble was founded by Stanley Kay, the personal manager and assistant drummer for Buddy Rich in the Buddy Rich Big Band. In 1990 Kay was conducting a band in which Maricle was playing drums. Impressed by her skill, he wondered if there were other women musicians with a similar caliber of musicianship. A nationwide audition of players produced a core group of musicians who performed their first concert together in March 1993. Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams, Diane Schuur, DeeDee Bridgewater, Rosemary Clooney, Jack Jones, Clark Terry, Dr. Billy Taylor, Terry Gibbs, Randy Brecker, and the late Tommy Newsom have performed with the DIVA Jazz Orchestra throughout the United States and abroad.
Following is an exclusive Playbill interview with Maricle:
Playbill: What was the impetus to start an all-female jazz orchestra?
Sherrie Maricle: Well, it was Stanley's idea. Prior to that I was not particularly enthused about all-women groups, at least of my generation. But when Stanley had the idea, I knew it would be 100 percent serious and only focused on making great music. So I jumped wholeheartedly into partnership with him, because of him.
When I moved to New York, a lot of the women bands that were in existence were okay, but they wore sequined dresses, put on some lipstick, showed some cleavage, instead of — "Can you play your instrument great?" (Laughs) I was honestly a little bit sad when I would see many players who were spectacular, incredible jazz players, doing things like that just because it was harder to break into some of the more mainstream, top-notch jazz gigs. I'm talking about the mid-1980s when I moved to New York.
So Stanley had this idea, and I knew it was going to be amazing, and I was thrilled because of his association with Buddy Rich. I knew where his musical sensibilities were, and I was very excited about it. It was always and only focused on making great music.
Playbill: There's Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, Louie Bellson, Chick Webb … has there been a big band led by a female drummer?
Maricle: Stanley thought I was possibly the first one to lead a concert jazz group, a jazz big band in the ilk of the people you were just mentioning. I don't know, it's a good question for the historians. From my research, I could possibly be the first one.
Playbill: It seems there are more and more female drummers coming up these days — Cindy Blackman, Terri Lyne Carrington, Kim Thompson, to name a few. That wasn't a thing in the past. What made you take up that instrument?
Maricle: I always loved large marching bands when I was a kid, and I loved the excitement when I'd be at a parade and see the drums play. That was the first time I remember being interested. Then when I was 11, my teacher took me to see Buddy Rich and his orchestra, and after I saw that I declared to myself — and to everybody else that I knew — that that was what I was going to do.
I don't know what it was that I loved. Like so many who play jazz, you never can really define why you love it. I mean, you can list things about rhythm, harmony, melody, orchestration, and the sound of the ensemble, but you can never really define your passion. It's like coming up with a definition for love. You can try, but you can't really.
Playbill: What is it about jazz that pulled you towards that direction as opposed to something like rock?
Maricle: I love the feel of swing. I love the sound and the power and punch of the big band. The big bands also have incredible finesse because the instrumentalists are so sophisticated and so virtuosic on their instruments.
Playbill: You hit it right on the head. There's nothing quite like the power of a big band. What is that power? Controlled chaos?
Maricle: (Laughs) That's a good way to put it. Of course it's the orchestration with all the brass and saxes. It takes elements of all other styles of music and puts it together in a different way. Part of it is the instrumentation, but I think the harmony of big band writing, especially these days when you hear the way the music is arranged and re-harmonized, the impact of those chords and those sounds are so powerful — it's the perfect combination.
Playbill: How did you go about picking the band? Auditions?
Maricle: Yeah, the initial audition was in 1992 and about 40 women came to it. It was just word-of-mouth through education circles, different universities and colleges, and different musicians in the city who I had known and worked with. Of the original auditioning 40, we picked our initial 15 and went on from there. Now we're like a magnet for women musicians. Men have played with us on several occasions because the band has evolved so far that it has a truly international reputation for excellence. We would never ever sacrifice musical integrity for gender.
Playbill: Does gender matter when it comes to how one approaches the instrument? Does a man play differently than a woman?
Maricle: No. Not really. I mean jazz is as individual as the individual playing it. It's all driven by personality. The main thing that I've noticed that's different, if there is anything, is how our members are not inhibited to express their joy onstage — their joy and gratitude about being able to play music and get paid for it. They're much more likely to be supportive and encouraging, kinda like the old days that you see on DVDs when band members really supported each other and were encouraging to each other. That's the only difference I notice.
Playbill: The DIVA Jazz Orchestra performed at the inaugural Diet Coke Women in Jazz Festival in 2005. What can we expect this time around?
Maricle: We're looking forward to it. Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola is the best room in New York City, if not the world. It's our favorite place to play. It's got the total, complete, and utter ambience of class, sophistication, and incredible sound. It has remarkable people to work with. And the intimacy, which is my favorite thing — it not only sounds great but the intimacy of the room is what DIVA thrives on.
For the complete third annual Diet Coke Women in Jazz Festival schedule, visit www.jalc.org.
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director for Public Relations — Jazz at Lincoln Center.