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Swinging Into the Spotlight: The Sensation of the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival

Published onAug 09, 2022
Swinging Into the Spotlight: The Sensation of the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival

The Beginning

The First Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City, MO, was organized by Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg in 1978. They had visited the Wichita Jazz Festival and wanted something similar in Kansas City that was specifically for women. The festival consisted of clinics and workshops one day, and performances and a concert the other day. For attendees not interested in playing jazz, there were countless opportunities to sit and enjoy the music created by others. It was a weekend for those who were “just becoming interested in jazz, as well as for those old-time fanatics who [had] often wished for more than one woman on a bill.”1 When organization for the festival began, Comer said that performers from all over the country reached out to them, and they “had no idea there was such a proliferation of female jazz performers.”2 Men were the face of the jazz world, and for the most part, the larger music industry in general. When women saw an event meant to showcase their talents and help initiate connections, they flocked. The event gained media attention, and NPR (National Public Radio) taped the concert held on Sunday evening, while PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) produced a documentary of the festival.3 This overall success led to the event being continued for several more years.

The Good

Therese Edell and Teresa Boykin, partners and owners of Sea Friends Records, a women’s recording label, wrote an article reviewing their trip to the Second Annual Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City, MO, held in March 1979.4 The first day of the festival consisted of the workshops, and the pair were able to attend a few. Edell commented on the fact that when she had the opportunity to play the cowbell in an ensemble, she was happy that most of the others participating in the ensemble were also women. The afternoon and evening of the first day were spent listening to those who signed up to play with the house band. However, the pair were disappointed by the lack of black musicians, especially considering the fact that jazz music comes from black people. Fortunately, the Big Apple Women in Jazz, a group consisting of representatives from the Universal Jazz Coalition, performed, and the duo was excited to see that the members were mostly black.

While they did not have a fully female stage (the MC and many backup musicians were male), “the festival [represented] an attempt to highlight women in a field of music that is almost entirely dominated by men.”5 Its purpose was to “promote women in jazz and ultimately to help create role models for younger women jazz musicians.”6 Carline Ray7, a bassist who performed at several of the KC jazz festivals, and Helen Sung8, a pianist, had both commented on the fact that for women to be noticed and have a place in the jazz world, they have to be twice as good as their male counterparts. In this sense, the festival was also meant to offer women the opportunity to play alongside each other instead of competing for the “woman’s” spot.

Selected performances from the Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival, March 19, 1978. Sets from NPR Jazz Alive! broadcast by Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams. Courtesy of Internet Archive user Jazzenmore.

The Bad

While reviewing several of the performing groups, Edell and Boykin noted that “men in the audience responded as they would to a woman walking down the street.”9 They continued with the comment, “although it was a women’s jazz festival, they still thought the music was just for them.” Despite the fact that the festival was created to give female musicians a space to be celebrated and highlighted, some men still thought it was for them. Cathy Lee, a fellow journalist who covered the event, compared the actions of those men to that one obnoxious family member at a family reunion. She added, “dealing with them is part of the experience.”10 For women in a myriad of industries, the possibility of an environment to themselves is extremely appealing. Few women have the opportunity to shine in the jazz world, and those who do rarely get to do so alongside fellow women.

The festival gave out two scholarships, and both were given to men. While the submissions were sent in and judged anonymously, it was noted that the men were still more likely to win due to their privilege. Edell and Boykin emphasize that a woman winning the scholarship might allow her to afford daycare for her kid and thus give her more time to take lessons or practice music, while a man who wins likely already has the opportunity to study like that.11 The music industry is a challenging industry to make a living in, with only the most famous musicians earning enough money to solely focus on their craft. Jazz music is a subset of the larger music industry, and it is dominated by men. A select few men are able to rely on their music to make a living, so barely any women can do the same. Furthermore, women are often left in charge of raising children, so they essentially have no time to devote to music. However, as mentioned by Edell and Boykin, being the recipient of a scholarship has the capability of granting a woman time to dedicate to jazz.

The Overall Importance

Even though a few key areas of the festival were dominated by men, the mere existence of this event indicated a shift in the gendering of the jazz world. For the most part, when women were involved in jazz music, they either sang or played the piano. As one researcher noted, “because women who played instruments other than piano were seldom the ‘favored artists’ of the ‘superior genres,’ and because they were hardly ever recorded, they have had little access to the deceptive ‘coherence’ of mainstream histories.”12 However, the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festivals were chances for women who did not sing or played instruments other than the piano to be recorded and heard. As previously mentioned, both NPR and PBS focused media coverage on the event, extending its reach nationwide.13 The workshops offered an opportunity for those with less experience to learn from professionals, and the open jam sessions allowed people to show off their skills and learn more about playing in a group. Furthermore, younger musicians could learn in an uplifting and collaborative atmosphere from those who had already navigated the adversities of a male-dominated jazz industry. Overall, the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festivals were important for all involved, and they offered unique opportunities for current and future women in jazz.

About the Author

Samantha Crossman is a freshman at Wake Forest University. Her love of jazz music came from playing bass guitar in her high school jazz band for three years. She taught herself bass after watching the musical School of Rock and deciding that bass guitar looked really cool.

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