Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Jazz pianist/educator Ellen Rowe
What would Detroit’s jazz scene be like without the involvement of female jazz musicians? That’s the question I pondered after leaving the Max M. Fisher Music Center Monday night. I caught the Celebrating Women in Jazz concert organized by the conductor of the Wayne State University Big Band and artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival Chris Collins. 

The concert featured drummer Gaylynn McKinney, piano player Ellen Rowe, bass player Marion Hayden, singers Joan Belgrave and Ursula Walker back my the outstanding WSU Big Band. The concert started with a short documentary film produced by trumpeter Sam Beaubien. For the film, he interviewed Ellen Rowe and Gaylynn McKinney about how they got their start in the music. 

McKinney talked about her dad piano player Harold McKinney, and the time she met iconic jazz drummer Max Roach when she was 10-years-old. Roach had a pair of red drumsticks she wanted, and Roach obliged. Years later when McKinney was a member of the jazz quintet Straight Ahead they opened for Roach at the State Theater (Its name has since been changed to the Fillmore). Surprisingly, Roached remembered McKinney. ”You’re the little girl who took my drumsticks,” Roach said.

The documentary ended with a clip of a live show by the all-female jazz band the Sweetheart’s of Rhythm. Then the house lights came on, and the WSU Big Band played jazz piano player Toshiko Akiyoshi’s “Yellow is Mellow,” after which Ellen Rowe, the evening’s first featured guest, breezed through “It Might as Well be Spring”. Joan Belgrave followed with “Excitable,” the title cut from her 2009 album.

Before Collins introduced Gaylynn McKinney, he said his band big were studying many compositions by female jazz composers as a gesture of sincere gratitude for their lasting contributions to the music. Collins never mentioned any war stories about the difficulties of making it as female musicians. I’m sure there’re plenty. Instead, Collins focused on how gifted the females were, and how important they were to the music.

McKinney stretched out on Neal Hefti's “Cute”. She’s a hellacious and a season drummer. Jazz is her cornerstone although she’s adept at smooth jazz and at funk music. Celebrating the Women of Jazz occasion  was the first time I witnessed McKinney flat out pimp her virtuosity, but she was a big part of a special occasion so showing off was OK.  

Marion Hayden performance was the standout. She showed two promising student bass players the sweet science of walking the bass on Paul Chamber’s “Tale of the Fingers”. Hayden didn’t take it easy on the students, and they surpassed her wildest expectations; especially Gwendolyn MacPhee who walked her bass like a cop walks a beat.

Ursula Walker sang John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s number “Norwegian” and Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now”. Walker has 50 plus years of performance experience, and her voice is still as nourishing as seasonal fruit.

The Celebrating Women in Jazz concert was a smash with only one questionable omission the inclusion of more tunes by female jazz composers, which I thought was odd. Anyway, the music was hotter than hell in August, and the WSU Big Band’s was serious as any university big band I’ve heard. The big band backed professionals, and they didn’t choke.   

If I had my way, Celebrating Women in Jazz would be an annual concert, still featuring Detroiters, but ultimately flying in internationally renowned female jazz musicians such as Maria Schneider, Toshiko Akiyoshi,  and Nancy Wilson.

There’re a lot of female jazz musicians particularly singers who’ve blessed the Detroit’s jazz scene, and they deserve the kind of hero worship Collins lavished on them. What shape would Detroit’s jazz scene be without McKinney, Rowe, Belgrave, Hayden and Walker's involvement? Surely, the scene wouldn’t be as hip.
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