MARCH IS WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH: WOMEN WHO ARE TRANSFORMING MUSIC & JAZZ

MARCH IS WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH:
I CELEBRATE WOMEN WHO ARE TRANSFORMING MUSIC & JAZZ
By Dee Dee McNeil/ Jazz Journalist

March 15, 2020

March is Women’s History Month, a time to reflect on the role of women both past and present. March is a time of year that calls for extra love and support of women in jazz who are making a difference. I want to introduce you to some of today’s women in jazz who are changing the face of music in their own sweet ways. READ ALL ABOUT: President of the California Jazz Foundation, EDYTHE BRONSTON; pianist/singer, KANDACE SPRINGS; pianist/composer, CONNIE HAN; Singer/songwriter/ producer and pianist, LAILA BALIA and the immortal NINA SIMONE has a new CD release.

A WOMAN WHO IS BETTERING THE JAZZ COMMUNITY: MEET EDYTHE BRONSON

Edythe Bronston is the founder and president of The California Jazz Foundation. Their nonprofit organization’s mission is to aid and assist California jazz musicians when they find themselves in financial or medical crisis.

The California Jazz Foundation was created in 2006 when Edythe Bronston realized a respected jazz musician in Northern California was in crisis. She called her friend and business associate, Dominic LoBuglio and said she wanted to start a nonprofit that would support jazz musicians in need. With Dominic’s CPA background and her legal expertise as a successful Los Angeles attorney, they created this awesome organization. Both music lovers reached out to friends who had the same love and passion for jazz music. Their associates had to be caring, compassionate and empathetic human beings. At the first meeting of their consortium, they sat around Edythe’s dining room table and agreed that something had to be done for jazz musicians, many without health insurance and some sporadically unemployed. Consequently, those musicians often found themselves in dire financial straits. For these players of America’s highly respected and indigenous art form, there were rarely unemployment benefits or health insurance available. As long as they were healthy and had gigs lined up, they went to work and made people happy with their music. But when the unexpected happened or when musicians began to age or faced health challenges, where could they turn?

Edythe and Dominic proceeded to incorporate and apply for nonprofit status and that first evening, the small, concerned group passed the hat around Edythe’s dining room table to help their first jazz musician in need. It would be almost a year later, in 2007, when they finally attained the 501(c)(3) status they needed to be a tax-exempt organization. To date, they have assisted and supported over three-hundred musicians and have 630 members.

I asked Edythe when she fell in love with jazz?

“I was fifteen years old and my best friend was this guy who was sixteen years old. He said to me one summer night, he had just gotten his driver’s license and he said to me, I’m going to take you tomorrow night to hear jazz. I said what’s jazz? He said you’ll know it when you hear it. So, he took me to this roadhouse to hear Ray Anthony and his Orchestra.”

“Because he had just gotten his driver’s license, we went really early while it was still light out. We got there and I don’t know whether you remember Ray Anthony, the band conductor, but he was very handsome and was known as ‘the poor man’s Cary Grant.’ We walked into this roadhouse and it was a great big place, like a banquet hall, with a huge dance floor. That early, there was nobody there but us. Ray Anthony was at one end of the room with his band when we walked in. There I was in my fifteen-year-old glory, with my crinoline skirt on and he winked at me. Oh, he was very handsome. By the end of the night, I was smitten and I thought I loved jazz. I didn’t know that wasn’t really jazz. (laughter) So, I became a jazz fan at fifteen. It was quite a revelation for me when I discovered Stan Kenton and, of course, my all-time favorite is Charlie Parker.”

Like myself, Edythe Bronston believes that jazz is freedom music. She knows this courageous and doughty music was born out of slave songs, church hymnals, the blues, European classical music and a longing for freedom of expression. This music effloresced through the bell of Louie Armstrong’s trumpet and the creativity of Charlie Parker’s inventive saxophone. Improvisation was born. Both the music and the musicians who play it are an important and undeniable part of our American culture.

On April 25, 2020, at 5:30pm in downtown Los Angeles, the Annual Gala presented by Edythe Bronston and her California Jazz Foundation called, “Give the Band A Hand” will honor iconic composer/arranger Johnny Mandel and pianist, bandleader, journalist and educator, Billy Mitchell. This is the group’s annual fundraiser to support their ongoing program throughout the year.

“What I’ve learned, when you talk to a jazz musician, there’s no hidden agenda. What you see is what you get. And that’s the beautiful part of it. As long as they have a job, a gig, and as long as they have their health, they’re good. They don’t internalize that something could happen to them. They don’t think about getting older or what if they have an accident or they get sick. They don’t have any cushion. It’s just such a tragedy. Terry Gibbs is a good friend of mine and he told me that when he started out with his first band, he was paying musicians more than any other bandleader was at that time. Shockingly, the amount that he was paying is the same amount that they are being paid today. It’s tragic!” Atty. Bronston’s voice is full of compassion.

But where is the corporate support for the California Jazz Foundation? Why aren’t companies like Gretsch, who has literally cornered the endorsement market of the jazz scene, and who boasts a popular line of jazz drum kits, or Ludwig drums, Yamaha, or DW drums, contributing to this important nonprofit effort? Why aren’t Piedmont piano company, or Steinway, or Shadd Pianos, named for Warren Shadd, the first African-American piano producer contributing? Jazz musicians play all the popular instrument brands and many advertise for these companies and their products. How about VISA and MASTERCARD and airline companies that fly these musicians around the world to perform? The California Jazz Foundation needs and is looking for corporate sponsors.

“Well, I think that’s why Billy Mitchell has been so successful …because he’s dealing with children and corporations care about kids. We haven’t seen the same kind of support for the master musicians who are playing the music and continuing the legacy of jazz. We always say, the L.A. Jazz Society takes care of the kids (through their program ‘Jazz in the Schools’) and we take care of the sick and the older musicians. We’re two groups who are very friendly and refer back and forth. They seem to have an easier time getting grants than we do, probably because people care more about children. We’ve been able to survive, but with more corporate grants, we would be able to help more musicians. We’ve helped over 300 musicians and 77% of our grants, from the very beginning, have gone to alleviate homelessness by paying rent, mortgage payments and taxes, in addition to assisting with health challenges,” Edythe Bronston sighs.

Speaking of pianist, Billy Mitchell, not only will he be receiving an award from the California Jazz Foundation, but he will also be given an award by the Jazz Journalist Association at this April 25th Gala event. Mitchell has been based in Los Angeles since 1970 and has backed up artists like Gloria Lynn, Esther Phillips, Billy Paul, Randy Crawford, Linda Hopkins, Barbara Morrison, Cheryl Barnes and many more. He is a member of the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited headed by jazz legend, Kenny Burrell. Mitchell has appeared in the Clint Eastwood motion picture, “Bird.” As a journalist and clinician, he’s written and published books and his articles in Gig Magazine chronicle his life and love of the music he performs and teaches. As founder of SAPPA, the Scholarship Audition Performance Preparatory Academy, and founder, director of the Watts-Willowbrook Conservatory & Youth Symphony, he transforms lives every day, reaching into the under-served communities of Southern California to inspire young musicians.

The other recipient of the California Jazz Foundation’s “Terry Award” is Johnny Alfred Mandel. As a composer, arranger and conductor, his songs for film soundtracks have become iconic, including the Grammy and Academy Award winning, “The Shadow of Your Smile” and the beautiful, “A Time for Love.” A former trombonist and trumpet player in big bands, he has worked with Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Diane Schuur, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand, Shirley Horn, Ann Hampton Callaway and countless more. He penned the popular Television theme song for the M.A.S.H show. In 2018, Johnny Mandel received the Grammy Trustee Award from The Recording Academy for “individuals who, during their careers in music, have made significant contributions, other than performance, to the field of recording”. He’s also the recipient of the NEA Jazz Masters Award.

The California Jazz Foundation is proud to honor these two legendary and locally based Southern California musicians.

“Our programs create excitement,” Edythe Bronston says with pride and conviction. “So many of our jazz musicians and our stars are dying. It’s always a wonderful evening and it has buzz. We have people who come every year. You never know who will attend and the music is always amazing. We invite everyone to purchase tickets or to support our mission by becoming members. Everywhere I go, I meet new friends who wish to join our cause, simply because of their abiding love of the music and the musicians who give so much of themselves. We celebrated our fourteenth year on January 30th of 2020. Please help us by making a tax-deductible donation. With your support and generosity, we will always be here to assist our jazz musicians.”

You can visit the California Jazz Foundation (CJF) Online at:
http://www.californiajazzfoundation.org
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KANDACE SPRINGS – A LIVE REVIEW
Feb 22, 2020/Samueli Theater in the Segerstrom Art Center

The Segerstrom Art Center is a state of the arts complex in Costa Mesa, California, a very affluent area of Los Angeles County. It offers several parking structures and theaters of various sizes and a wealth of talent for the community to enjoy. The room where Kandace Springs is performing Is set up like a nightclub venue. The round tables are draped in white table cloths with a small, flickering lamps in the center that made the space feel cozy and intimate. All the tables on the main floor housed four chairs. A balcony, with tables for two, sat above the main floor on both sides of the room. It’s a comfortable cabaret set-up with a capacity to hold 320 people. Tonight, it was full.

A female drummer saunters on stage, sits behind her trap drums and began to solo with gusto. Another female enters, picks up the double bass and joins in. They set up a funky, smooth jazz, soulful groove. Then Kandace Springs prowls across the stage like a lioness. Dressed in black pants, she sits down at the electric piano, soaking up the center spotlight. The show has begun. This pianist/vocalist has a head of hair like a lion’s mane and it bobs and moves with her tenacious delivery on the piano keys. Her voice is husky and rooted in gospel. It’s somewhat reflective of Stevie Wonder when she makes certain vocal ‘runs.’ I’ve seen this artist on YouTube performing with Kenny G, Daryl Hall (of Hall & Oats) and a big band. During the opening number, her bassist sings harmony with Kandace.

Because I’ve been in the music business for such a long time, I can tell this is a new band. Still, their voices blend beautifully. The longer they perform together, the tighter this ensemble will become. Kandace Springs moves from the electric piano to the grand piano to perform the second tune, “Gentle Rain.” Afterwards, she announces that she has a new CD coming out in March on the Blue Note label. Tonight, we are getting a live preview of this new recording. She tells us, her friend, Christian McBride, is playing bass on her Blue Note production. However, “tonight Caylen Bryant (on bass) will accompany me on “Devil May Care,” she says giving a nod to her bassist. Kandace swings this arrangement, propelled by the talented Taylor Moore on drums and amply supported by her multi-talented bassist. In between each song, Ms. Springs interacts with her audience, offering a warm exchange of information. She shares that she and Norah Jones are Blue Note sisters and they perform a duet on her new album celebrating Ella Fitzgerald. “Norah Jones plays the Steinway grand piano and I play the electric piano on the tune, Angel Eyes,” she tells us. The trio digs into this tune, featuring Caylen duetting vocally with Kandice, and on the fade of this song, all three female musicians sing a haunting, harmony part. It’s extremely effective, with a wee bit of gospel flavor to it.

Then came a piano solo where Kandace Springs shows us, she definitely has ‘chops’ and is a classically trained pianist. Her love of piano started at age ten when her dad brought home a piano. Kandace comes from a musical family. Her father was a popular, working soul singer in a country-western town. His name is Scat Springs and he had his own Nashville band. His vocals were so strong that he sang backup for several well-known musicians like Brian McKnight, Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Michael McDonald and Donna Summer. A daddy’s girl, she tagged along to his sessions. It was her father that introduced her to legendary singers like ‘Ella’, Eva Cassidy and Nina Simone. Her dad helped her record a demo at age fifteen and it got a lot of buzz.

For her next song, Kandace celebrated Carmen McCrae, performing solo, just her piano and voice singing a soulful rendition of “In My Solitude.”

Then she ripped into a classical-sounding composition to show she was a studied musician. I heard shades of Rachmaninoff, Shubert and Bach. This interlude faded seamlessly into Jobim’s tune, “How Insensitive.” Kandace liberally shares her spotlight with the two talented ladies in her band. She features them next. Taylor Moore on drums is an amazing technician on her instrument. She really fired-up the crowd.

Caylen Bryant lays down her double bass and straps on her electric instrument. The trio does a unique arrangement of Sade’s tune, “Love is Stronger than Pride” with the drummer and bassist singing back-up vocals that enhance Kandace Springs’ smokey delivery of this popular song. Next, Kandace tells us she credits Norah Jones for inspiring her to learn and perform the first standard she ever played and sang before an audience. Then she performs, “Nearness of You.” This was followed by a funky, but still very jazzy rendition of “People Make the World Go Round.” She stunned the audience when she sang and played Billie Holiday’s tear-jerking song, “Strange Fruit.” It was a very moving performance. The trio rebounded from this emotional ballad to a song the group ‘War’ made so popular; “The World Is A Ghetto.” Judging from these two songs, Kandace Springs seems to have a little bit of an activist edge to her music. The drummer tears into her solo on this arrangement and the audience goes crazy.

The jazz community has had an open space available for a female pianist and jazz vocalist. We have been waiting for someone to soulfully fill the hole that legends like Nina Simone, Roberta Flack and Shirley Horn left in our musical fabric. That’s why I was happy to hear Kandace tribute Roberta Flack, going back to the grand piano to play and sing a beautiful rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” She closed out their concert with a fiery arrangement of Nina Simone’s, “I Put A Spell on You.”

The room rose in a unified standing ovation to show the three talented ladies how much they were appreciated. I look forward to hearing the new album by Kandace Springs titled, “The Women Who Raised Me.” Like two of her idols, Norah Jones and also Diana Krall, she continues to break new ground, playing piano and singing. Her choice of blending musical genres, with a youthful jazz infusion, while celebrating the spirit of her jazz elders like Carmen McCrae, Nina and Sarah Vaughan, (who all played piano beautifully) makes Kandace Springs a fresh, blossoming talent in my New Artist series.

(Note: This Kandace Springs article was previously featured Cover Story at http://www.lajazzscene.buzz)
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CONNIE HAN – “IRON STARLET” Mack Ave Records

Connie Han, piano/composer; Bill Wysaske, drums/producer/composer; Ivan Taylor, bass; Walter Smith, saxophone; Jeremy Pelt, trumpet.

This is pianist, Connie Han’s follow-up album to her debut “Crime Zone” production. Although only twenty-three years young, her style, technique and presentation are seasoned and powerful. Her playing echoes the influence of innovators like McCoy Tyner and Hank Jones; Kenny Kirkland and Bill Evans. The first song is an original composition by Ms. Han and it races ‘straight-ahead’ and dynamic. It’s the title tune, “Iron Starlet.” Her photos on the album are seductive and dominatrix. Tunes like her “Iron Starlet” composition, or the third cut, “Mr. Dominator” reflect the CD artwork. Jeremy Pelt’s trumpet rolls across the rhythm section like a whip. Ms. Han’s piano playing is exciting and plush with energy. On the composition titled, “For the O.G” Connie Han showcases both interesting and technically adept prowess on the piano. She is a strong player and one with great melodic ideas that she develops, like a well-written novel, turning the pages slowly on this Track 4, letting us simmer in the heat of her story. She gives drummer, composer and producer, Bill Wysaske, an opportunity to solo on his trap drums. Wysaske has written “Boy Toy” and “Captain’s Song,” for this project. Bassist, Ivan Taylor, also takes a notable solo on this “O.G.” song that Connie has penned. The saxophone of Walter Smith III adds touches of sophistication and embellishes the production.
When Han describes her long time partnership with Wysaske and his drums she explains:
“We subscribe to a philosophy of music that is driven by complex and sophisticated rhythm. The Rhythm isn’t hard just to be hard. It all comes from a place of pure human instinct.”

On “Hello to The Wind” Connie Han shows a softer side to her playing during the interpretation of this Chambers & Gene McDaniel’s composition. Another familiar jazz tune that she includes on this “Iron Starlet” production is “Detour Ahead”. Drummer, Bill Wysaske, has arranged both of these songs.

Every tune is charismatic, like the pretty artist herself. Her left hand is often busy beating rhythm into her mix, while her right-hand races around the treble clef, searching for creative ways to explore the unknown and make it visible. She’s aggressive and tenacious on both the grand piano and the Fender Rhodes. When she does settle down, there is a tenderness on the keys that is palpable. For example, on the waltz arrangement of “The Forsaken,” another original composition by Connie Han, Bill Wysaske pulls out his brushes to support the tune and bassist,Ivan Taylor, who soaks up the spotlight like a sponge. His double bass solo is sensitive and exploratory.

Over time, I’ve learned to listen closely to what people say and play. Especially when they describe themselves and their art. I’ve learned to believe them. This is a “play it again” project! That means I’ll listen to it more than once. Perhaps Connie Han summed things up best in her liner notes when she wrote:

“This band can go from the blues to the esoteric. But we always strive to bring out the darkness, grit and depth in this music as much as possible. Those are the elements that we’re inspired by and the values that we hold quite dear.”
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LAILA BIALI – “OUT OF DUST” Chronograph Records

Here is an artist who blends jazz and pop/soul and folk music in a way that still crowns ‘jazz’ king. Her voice crosses genres. She has a tenacious delivery and exhibits a soaring vocal range on the very first tune of her album. As an awesome pianist and a competent composer, her song “Revival” talks about global turmoil and elicits a call-to-arms, encouraging the world community to unify.

She sings: “women fighting for equality … six million more united into one … paint your signs, pick up your shoes; take a stand, there’s no excuse …”

Her next song is titled, “The Monolith.” Webster’s dictionary describes monolith as a large, single upright block of stone or concrete, especially a pillar or monument; also it could be a large organization or pillar of the community. In this scenario, Laila Biali lyrically describes a woman trying to break through something as strong as stone in her life. Her vocal tone is haunting and the mallets of the drums adds to the drama. The original composition titled, “Glass House” was co-written with her husband and album co-producer, Ben Wittman. She layers voices in warm harmony during this arrangement. Here is a song addressing the epic challenge of suicide in our communities and the after-effects of their very personal family member’s suicide. On “Wendy’s Song,” she plays a piano ballad that is dedicated to a close friend who she lost to cancer. The melody moves from alto to soprano like a sunrise. Laila Biali’s voice is smooth and full of shine and luster. The soprano saxophone solo adds a smooth jazz flavor to what sounds more like a folk song at the beginning of this arrangement. Even though these events are heartbreaking, Laila Biali manages to find hope in the debris of tears and sadness. She finds reasons to lift herself, her loved ones and the world “Out of the Dust.” This is an album of resilience and fortitude.

“These new songs took shape as I processed my own feelings of doubt and loss,” Biali reveals. “I believe that nothing is wasted, that even life’s greatest challenges can produce something meaningful, even if only to make us more aware of and empathetic to the struggles of those around us.”

The song “Sugar” is a jazzy, bebop production with a repeatable ‘hook’ that’s catchy and melodic. This is a song with unexpected modulations and it’s quite joyful. Additionally, Liala Biali adds the most wonderful rendition of “Take Me to the Alley” written by singer, songwriter, Gregory Porter. Liala’s voice is tender, warm and emotional on this great composition that tributes the down-trodden being lifted up.

Liala Biali has already been honored as SOCAN Composer of the Year at the 2005 National jazz Awards. She’s been consistently performing worldwide and in spite of her own personal challenges, she has used those obstacles to create music and inspire others. She’s won a Juno Award in her native Canada. This is a Canadian award that mirrors our United States Grammy Award. She’s worked with both award-winning trumpeter, Chris Botti and the awesome and talented singer/songwriter, Sting. This is a woman who is making history, one step at a time, and is proud to rise up, “Out of Dust.”
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NINA SIMONE – “FODDER ON MY WINGS” – Verve Records

Recorded in 1982, not long after she moved to Paris, Fodder On My Wings is said to be one of Nina Simone’s favorite albums, yet has remained one of her most obscure. Originally recorded for a small French label and only sporadically available since its initial release, Fodder On My Wings will be reissued in a variety of formats including CD and LP, as well as widely available digitally for the first time, in both standard and hi-res audio, on April 3 via Verve/UMe. The original album will be expanded, with three bonus tracks from the recording sessions, a rare French reissue released in 1988. Nina’s legacy lives on!


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