One of the great losses during the pandemic for Seattle jazz lovers has been the postponement of two much-anticipated shows by stellar women-led groups, the Maria Schneider Orchestra and the all-female band Artemis. While they are waiting for concerts to resume, fans should check out three books about iconic women in jazz, all written by women, that speak to each other in subtle ways: Carolyn Glenn Brewer’s history of the groundbreaking but short-lived Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival, Tammy L. Kernodle’s scholarly study of Mary Lou Williams’ development and singer Tish Oney’s account of singer Peggy Lee’s recorded work.
The story of how singer Carol Comer and DJ Dianne Gregg created and curated the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival at a time when the jazz establishment was openly hostile to women is an inspiring chapter of jazz history that was begging to be told. Enter “Changing the Tune: The Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival, 1978-1985” by Carolyn Glenn Brewer.
With crucial help from radio host Marian McPartland and jazz critic Leonard Feather, Comer and Gregg rallied city hall, local businesses and media, an army of volunteers and the National Endowment for the Arts to buy into their vision. In a brisk, clear style, Brewer offers an account of each festival, including stellar concerts by vocalist Nancy Wilson, pianists Mary Lou Williams and McPartland, band leader and composer Toshiko Akiyoshi and all-female groups such as Maiden Voyage and Alive! Along the way, Brewer offers a primer of female jazz that will be welcome to novices. Though she clearly champions her subjects, Brewer doesn’t pull any punches about why the festival fell apart after seven years, thanks to those classic banes of arts nonprofits, volunteer burnout and the failure to professionalize.
When Williams played the first Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival in 1978, she obdurately declared, “I’m very feminine but I think like a man.” Surprisingly, you will find no reference whatsoever to this notorious incident in “Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams,” musicology professor Tammy L. Kernodle’s intriguing, idiosyncratic and sometimes irritatingly high-minded book about Williams, the first major female player in jazz, who in her 20s was already writing arrangements for Kansas City swing band leader Andy Kirk.
But Kernodle hasn’t set out here to write a traditional biography — a very good one already exists (“Morning Glory” by Linda Dahl) — so much as a very personal sort of “Pilgrim’s Progress” about the formation of one Black woman’s creative soul, as told by another. Though she earnestly overidentifies with her subject — “Mary had reached a crossroads, and not even the music she loved so much could resolve the conflicts that raged within her” — Kernodle doesn’t let Williams off the hook for her personal shortcomings, which is refreshing.
The great singer Peggy Lee — most famous for her sensual, million-selling 1958 record “Fever” — was not immune to the male chauvinism that saturated the music business then, starting with her days as a star with Benny Goodman in the early 1940s, and it is safe to say that the same chauvinism has prevented her from being recognized as an industry giant comparable to Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby.
Jazz vocalist and teacher Tish Oney’s “Peggy Lee: A Century of Song” tells all about the icon while also offering incisive technical analysis, singer to singer. (Are you aware that Lee added some of the best lines to “Fever”? Or that she collaborated with Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones and made early precursors to music videos, called telescriptions?) Unfortunately, Oney’s book also is riddled with hyperbolic clichés (God save us from “truly unique”) and organized as a fastidiously chronological, annotated discography, so you have to dig for the chewy bits. But they’re there. (For a traditional biography, see “Fever” by Peter Richmond, “Is That All There Is?” by James Gavin, or Lee’s autobiography, “Miss Peggy Lee.”)
Happy reading, and here’s hoping we’ll see some concerts soon.