Urban Culture Vulture: Jazz and the Heart of the Matter: “The Divas Ride Again”

On Sunday, I wrote about ASU professor Andrew Barnes and his lecture on West Coast Jazz. As much as I enjoyed Professor Barnes’s lecture, something about it did strike me as off — namely, its failure to mention any female jazz musicians or singers. Considering women’s undeniable impact on jazz as singers alone, I felt compelled to fill in this obvious gap in my newfound knowledge of jazz. I knew about Dizzy Gillespie, but what of Mary Lou Williams, the legendary female jazz pianist whose work is frequently cited as one of his major influences? Or Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane’s pianist/organist/harpist/composer/ wife? Even women’s most widely recognized contribution to jazz music, their work as vocalists, was something that I knew nothing about.

It’s fitting, then, that today I’ll be talking about something I went to in conjunction with that lecture: ASU’s Louise Lincoln Kerr Cultural Center’s 10th annual “The Divas Ride Again” jazz show. The concert featured four legendary local jazz singers, Delphine Cortez, Nancy Gee, Margo Reed, and Sherry Robertson, and an extraordinary band composed of pianist Joel Robin, bass player Bob Lashier, drummer Cleve Huff, and saxophonist Jerry Donato. What better way to learn about female jazz vocalists’ influence and power than to experience it firsthand?

Gee, Reed, Roberson, and Cortez have been performing together through the “Divas” concert series for 10 years. Photo from the ASU Louise Lincoln Kerr Cultural Center.

What first struck me was the women’s obvious rapport with the audience; especially when dealing with a genre that’s stereotypically difficult for younger generations to connect to, that’s refreshing. In an age where being young, thin, airbrushed and autotuned to perfection is the norm (even a prerequisite) for female singers, it was great to see four unabashedly human talents performing on stage.

The first performer of the night, Nancy Gee, bravely admitted to her struggle with Bell’s Palsy, cautioning that it could affect her performance (it didn’t), and then sang through it beautifully. Massive talent Margo Reed sang, with a wink and a smile, “I need a little sugar in my bowl,” then joked to some of the audience’s more straight-laced members, “Maybe some of you don’t understand what this song is about. I can’t say it out loud to you.” Singer Delphine Cortez admitted her reluctance to follow Margo, whose voice has fittingly garnered comparisons to Billie Holiday, then went on to deliver yet another fantastic performance.

Even more than their amazing vocal abilities, what these four women brought that night was an enormous amount of love — for each other and the music. While watching Nancy Gee’s performance, I saw Margo standing quietly in the wings, beaming with her eyes closed and moving her head with the music. This was the very real human heart of jazz that I had been missing out on, and I can’t thank her enough for helping me find it.

Every year the show is co-presented by Jazz in AZ, a non-profit community arts organization that aims to encourage the appreciation and performance of jazz in Arizona. In addition to the myriad of jazz shows and events they help to put on (they have something going on almost every single day this month alone), Jazz in AZ funds a scholarship program that allows talented young jazz musicians to pursue their dreams. Jazz in AZ is also doing a special Valentine’s Day presentation at the Musical Instrument Museum on the Feb. 14, if you’re into that sort of thing

Email me at jlpruett@asu.edu