On the Road with Diva

On this cool, overcast morning in Providence, RI, I find myself staring at the screen, the letters making their way slowly into some sort of order as my mind spills with an overabundance of thought. Where do I begin? This trip began three days ago, and I feel a bit numb from the superfluous amounts of information presently scrambling my brain. Of course with me, the thoughts are not without emotion attached, and so the sorting takes a little longer!

The trip began in Boston as Diva played to a sold-out room at Sculler’s Jazz Club. The band absolutely tore it up, and Sherrie emceed perfectly, a skill far too often underestimated! She’s mastered it over the years. Diva is 20 years old this year, something that I could never have imagined when I won the audition in NYC way back in 1993. Through the past two decades, we’ve seen many women come and go through the various chairs of the band. Sherrie and I are the only remaining original members, and we’ve grown as close as sisters through the trials and triumphs of creating a business and a band. Stanley Kay, the brain child of the band, is no longer with us, and we miss him so much. Sometimes, I still feel his presence as he barrels to the front of the food table in the green room, a gesture for which he was infamously known! I’d give anything to see that just one more time…He was my ice cream buddy on the road, allowing me to pick the flavor from the freezer at whatever convenience store we’d happen across when the bus driver had to stop to stretch. I heard Sherrie say on the mic, “We love you, SK!” last night as the audience treated us with a standing ovation. He will always remain in my heart, and I feel him every time I step on a stage. What a gift to leave for someone! I hope I will give it to someone someday!

After Boston, we traveled to Providence and Brown University where Diva has been in residency since our arrival. My first duty was conducting a discussion with two other colleagues, the theme being the music business, and our experiences making a living as professional jazz musicians. Coincidentally, the three of us conducting the discussion are the “Mommies”, the Diva members with children, which opened the discussion much wider than we originally anticipated. It was well received, and we fielded some very interesting questions. Tomoko Ohno is a native of Tokyo, Jennifer Krupa is a member of the Navy Commodores, and I am from both the Army Blues and the Army Jazz Ambassadors. So the diversity was present, for sure. We have some very interesting backgrounds and accomplishments between us, all sharing jazz and NYC as common denominators. Later, Sherrie and I worked with the Brown University Jazz Ensemble as they rehearsed for their portion of the concert they will share with us tonight. They are all incredibly intelligent students (obviously, if they’re attending Brown!), and their maturity and openness was refreshing. Afterwards, Diva conducted an open rehearsal with student composers whose compositions we performed last night. It was a very enjoyable evening, indeed!

Yesterday, Sherrie, Noriko Ueda, Leslie Havens and I participated in the discussion portion of a presentation by Dr. Tracy McMullen, assistant professor of music (and fellow jazz musician) from Bowdoin College in Maine. The title of the presentation was “The Other Brass Ceiling – Why is Jazz More Segregated than the Military (and almost Everything Else)?”. We met in the hotel lobby where I noticed the complimentary weekend edition of the USA Today.  What grabbed my attention was the picture of Danica Patrick in full racing garb, next to “boys vs. girl” as the headline. It seemed ironic that this preceded the lecture we were getting ready to attend. But what got my blood boiling was the subtitle under the photo which read, “If Danica Patrick wins Sunday’s epic battle of the sexes, racing will never be the same.”. Perhaps it wasn’t intended in the way which I received it, but I never got the memo stating there was an “epic” battle of the sexes taking place at Sunday’s Daytona 500. Here is a woman who is incredibly competent at her craft, has proven herself in both Indy Car racing and NASCAR racing, yet all they can write about is the fact that she’s a woman. I watched ESPN interview various NASCAR drivers, asking them questions that would never be asked about a man sitting the pole position of any race. Why can’t they just talk about the driver, not the fact that it is a woman or a man? I see so many parallels in jazz with this same concept. I remember the first concert I ever played with the Army Blues. I was so nervous, but not for the normal reasons (whatever they might be). I remember telling SGM (now retired) Mark Taylor, the great jazz arranger and composer, that I was terrified of making a mistake because people could say, “See. Girls can’t play lead, and that’s just proof”. I feel like as a woman, I’m never allowed to make mistakes in performances since it is a male-dominated profession. When men miss notes, they’re just having a bad day. When women do so, the perception is they’re incapable. My friend Glenn Bengry posted this on his FaceBook page this morning: “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good…” (Charlotte Whitton). I feel like this sums up the pressures I feel every single day in my career, and after reading about Danica Patrick yesterday, I would guess she may share the same feelings. That is why the article (authored by men) pissed me off. It is incredibly unfair. But hey, I embrace the challenge, and I’m not scared! Every obstacle that I pass makes me stronger and wiser, after all!

Dr. McMullen gave an incredibly well-researched presentation, complete with photo examples, on the difficulties awaiting female jazz musicians. Personally and growing up, I never thought of myself as being different from the boys in the band(s) with whom I played. I could always play, and they knew it. So did I. We varied in plumbing, only! Perhaps I was blessed, sheltered, ignorant…I don’t know. It wasn’t until I began playing professionally that I experienced any prejudices. My stories pale in comparison to the female pioneers in the field. I am fortunate to enjoy a professional musical life. They were not as fortunate, a truly tragic story in our musical history. How much music has been stifled and left unwritten over the years, the oppression being based in sexism and racism? Just thinking about it staggers the mind. Perhaps we haven’t come so far after all, and this was the point of the lecture. I found my emotions growing to the extreme as I sat, listened, and watched the faces of numerous talented and musical women appear on the screen, only to fade away, right before my eyes. Yes, it is incredibly unfair. I’d like to think it is changing, but not at the level of public consumption, at least not yet. And why is the performance often attributed to gender qualities? The example I brought up was this: If a man plays a beautiful ballad, he’s being sensitive. If a woman plays a beautiful ballad, she’s just being a woman. If a man plays aggressively, he’s being macho. If a woman plays aggressively, she must be a lesbian! WTF?! Society is certainly attached to their labels! Things that don’t fit in the social box are scary, and therefore, must be ignorantly forced inside the container’s walls, at all costs!

Very early in my Army career, I remember an incident on a Twilight Tattoo that took place. I won’t say the name because he has long since retired. But there was an E9 (Sergeant Major) with whom I worked that I absolutely adored as a friend and a colleague. In fact, I still do, all these years later! After nailing a high G within a chart, he turned to me, an E6 (Staff Sergeant) at that time and a woman, and said, “Man, Liesl, I bet you could suck the paint off of a lead pipe.”. Immediately and without a thought, I turned to him and yelled, “Fuck you, Sergeant Major!”. The looks on the faces of the Privates that sat within the Third Infantry just yards away, as they heard my reaction, were absolutely priceless. They were certain that I’d be dropped right there on the spot, forced into endless push ups, or otherwise disciplined in the most humiliating and public way imaginable. But the repercussions were exactly zero. Why? Because he was completely out of line, and I was completely in line! He meant it as a joke. But this one went a little too far for even the closest of friends early in a budding relationship. He apologized later, and that never happened again. That comment would never be made to a man in the Army.

Sherrie asked me a long time ago why I thought there were personality challenges in Diva from time to time, especially in the beginning years. My theory is that when girls are growing up as jazz musicians, they are often the only girl in their respective community doing so, giving them a very unique attribute amongst their peers. When you throw them all together in one band, they’re no longer individually special. I think that’s a hard obstacle for some personalities:  eating humble pie!

Last night, we performed the first of our two concerts, debuting the student compositions in the middle portion of the show. I was happy for the students as they took their kudos from the audience for their hard work! It is indeed wonderful to perform and hear brand new music! Diva, again, received a wonderful standing ovation at the end of the night, and my heart swelled with love for my fellow band mates. I am in awe of them!

This morning, I was roused by a first for me. Our room in the hotel is on the side of the building that is adjacent to a parking garage. As I slowly came to my senses, I recognized that my sense of hearing was what was causing my stirring. Slowly, I tuned into my ears, and I realized what I was hearing was a man singing opera at the top of his lungs in the parking garage. I listened for quite a while – he was very good and not in a hurry to stop – a smile forming across my lips, my eyes remaining closed, both as a result of his purity and lack of inhibition. It was absolutely beautiful! What a great way to awaken?!

Now, I sit. Reflection is good for me. Writing allows me to sift through everything: the thoughts, the emotions, the reactions, the numbness. It’s all real, and it’s all right! More will come when it comes…Until then, one hour at a time.

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6 Responses to On the Road with Diva

  1. mark taylor says:

    Nice writing, keep it up, I hear a book someday!

    Like

  2. Marla Kleman says:

    Maintaining a career as a working jazz musician is tough enough. Any type of discrimination on top of day-to-day living – I can’t imagine dealing with both things. Creativity, determination and motivation win. Beautiful, Liesl. We so enjoyed having all of you and your extraordinary musicianship at Scullers!

    Marla

    Like

  3. Jan Leder says:

    I enjoyed this so much I must share it on Facebook. It’s precisely why I originally compiled my discography back in 1978. Thanks, Liesl!

    Like

  4. Glenn Bengry says:

    As you know, boys are sophomoric and fairly clueless, and then they grow up to be sophomoric and fairly clueless. Tact is a rarity amongst this group, and seeing as though they havent’ been around that many women that play, they still say stupid things. For as many women as have blazed the trail, you guys are still trailblazers, and as such have to put up with a lot of ignorance from ignorants. You and your colleagues are heroes to another generation of youngsters, Serious heroes. My teacher was the first black to play in white contexts time after time after time, beginning in the 1930’s. I stand in awe of what he endured while blazing that trail. It sucks that people have to endure such ignorance and lack of respect, You and your mates are exceptional musicians and have my great admiration and respect. As another distinguished trumpeter friend once said to me,
    “Fighting ignorance is a losing proposition, but I’m GOING DOWN SWINGING.”

    Like

  5. Steve Schmidt says:

    Your thinking, feeling, perceptions and ability to clearly and deftly write them are admirable – and refreshing. Keep it up, Liesl…the good playing and the good writing !

    Like

  6. lee hill kavanaugh says:

    Hi Liesl! What a writer you are! Your blog is wonderful!
    I found it when a former DIVA told me about the reunion in April. Gosh, it’s been a blink of an eye with passing time. I read where you have a son. We finally were able to have children, too. Hannah is 11, and looks like me; Jesse just turned 5, and looks like a miniature Keith! Quite a feat to drop bass trombone bombs with a human being floating inside of you!!! But any mom who plays in a big band endures the physicality of that. For a while, Hannah thought all mommies and daddies played instruments.
    I lost track of so many DIVAs when I left. (before Facebook.) I don’t know who else became a mom, or even where they’re living now. It would be great to get everyone back together! And sadly, I only recently heard about Stanley….I’m not very good on keeping up with friends. He was such a blessing to DIVA, bless his soul.
    I’m a reporter at The Kansas City Star. My beat is story-telling.
    Keep writing Liesl! Stories are powerful!
    Many hugs,
    lee hill kavanaugh

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