By Mike Hennessey
DIVA, the all-women big band founded in New York in March 1993, has earned tremendous acclaim from public and critics alike over the past ten years. It is a hard-swinging outfit with some outstanding soloists and it plays with great precision and vitality. The ensemble draws its musical inspiration from some of the great big bands of the swing era, including Count Basie, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich and Stan Kenton, but infuses its arrangements with the progressive harmonies of today. Among the notable composers and arrangers contributing to the band's library are Michael Abene, Jerry Dodgion, John McNeil, Tommy Newsom, Ellen Rowe and Scott Whitfield.
Says drummer/leader Sherrie Maricle: "We are carrying on the tradition initiated by the legendary big bands of the past. We are dedicated to the cause of keeping big band music alive and swinging because we all have a passion for that music."
The DIVA library includes such immortal big band standards as Lionel Hampton's "Air Mail Special", Duke Ellington's "Caravan" and "In A Sentimental Mood", Benny Goodman's "Stomping At The Savoy", Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" and also some impressive original compositions and arrangements, including "Three Sisters And A Cousin," a witty response to the classic composition, "Four Brothers", which Jimmy Giuffre wrote for the Woody Herman band.
The orchestra also features inspired arrangements of familiar standards, such as Bud Green and Michael Edwards' "Once In A While", Cole Porter's "All Of You", Pinkard, Tracey and Tauber's "Them There Eyes", William Donaldson and Gus Kahn's "Makin' Whoopee" and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring" and "My Favourite Things."
When DIVA played at the 1998 New Trier High School Jazz Festival in Winnetka, Illinois, James Warrick, the Co-ordinator of Jazz Studies, wrote afterwards: "I can say without reservation that DIVA was received by our sell-out audience with more appreciation and enthusiasm than any other band we have ever hosted." And bands which have previously appeared in the festival include those of Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Artie Shaw!
Said Warrick: "DIVA played with tremendous polish, enthusiasm and well-rehearsed attention to detail. The charts were exciting at the right time and introspective at the right time. Everyone in the audience was both entertained and educated."
Reviewing DIVA's recent performance at the Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz, critic Owen McNally wrote: "Any successful festival has to have a dynamite closing act. That role was filled dramatically by DIVA, the explosive, all-women's band from the Big Apple. DIVA is a hard-swinging band grooving in the classic tradition of the Count Basie, Woody Herman and Buddy Rich orchestras. Its ensemble sound crackles with clarity, precision and power."
And the Washington Post's Mike Joyce, reviewing a DIVA concert at the Women In Jazz event at the Kennedy Center, wrote: "The concert ended with the sort of bang only a big band can detonate, thanks to DIVA, alternatively known as No Man's Band. Drummer and leader Sherrie Maricle was largely responsible for the band's formidable rhythmic drive, particularly during a flag-waving arrangement of "Caravan". Yet the combined brass and reed sections frequently generated a powerful momentum of their own."
Ken Rattenbury, a writer for the British magazine Crescendo & Jazz Music, described DIVA as having "great strength, subtlety and eyes-down commitment and no less than a dozen soloists of excellent stature and unflagging invention."
Says Sherrie Maricle: "We truly love to play and we hope that our love of the music is passed along to the audience. Pleasing the audience pleases us."
Sherrie was born in Buffalo, New York and raised in Endicott, NY, where she began playing drums at the age of 13. In addition to her work with DIVA, she is a percussionist with the New York Pops Orchestra and leads the Jazz quintet, Five Play. She is Director of Percussion Studies at New York University, Education Co-ordinator for the New York Pops' "Salute To Music" education program and a past President of New York State's International Association of Jazz Educators. She received a B.A. from SUNY-Binghamton and her M.A. and Ph.D. from New York University.
The DIVA band is the brainchild of Stanley Kay, a former manager and relief drummer for the Buddy Rich Big Band.
It would be fair to say that Stanley Kay is a man who likes a challenge. After all, anyone who opts to take the post of relief drummer with Buddy Rich must be possessed of a pretty adventurous spirit.
Kay joined the band in that capacity in the summer of 1946, when he was 22, and he went on to become Buddy's manager. Some 44 years and quite a few challenges later, he set himself another formidable task when he decided to put together an all-women Jazz big band, DIVA.
In between those two landmark events, Kay played drums for Josephine Baker, Herbie Fields, Frankie Laine and Patti Page, among others. (Incidentally, when the DIVA leader, Sherrie Maricle, gives Stanley an on-stage name-check as the band's founder and manager, she will often add, "...but Stanley's most significant contribution to Jazz was, of course, when he played drums on the Patti Page hit, "That Doggie In The Window"! Stanley, as is his wont, takes it in good part).
It was in 1990 that Stanley Kay embarked on the second major challenge of his career. He was conducting a band, which included Sherrie Maricle on drums, when the idea of creating an all-female Jazz orchestra came to him. He was tremendously impressed by Maricle's drumming and wondered if it might be possible to recruit other women musicians with the same level of accomplishment.
He organised a nationwide audition of players which produced some outstanding talents and the DIVA orchestra eventually came into being. The band made its concert début in March 1993 and released its first album, "Somethings Coming", in January 1995, it has since built an impressive international reputation.
Over the past few years the band has played a concert at Carnegie Hall, a sell-out, and has appeared at the Kennedy Center in Washington, the Teatro de Sistina in Rome, the Hollywood Bowl, the Playboy Jazz Festival, on the S. S. Norwayís Jazz cruise, on the QE2 Jazz cruise and at the Montreal, Berlin, Berne and Pori Jazz festivals. Guests with the band have included Clark Terry, Joe Williams, Diane Schuur, Rosemary Clooney, Terry Gibbs, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Nancy Wilson and Randy Brecker.
"I'm proud of these ladies," says Stanley Kay. "I have always believed that, given the proper training and opportunities, women musicians can be as good as the best male players. DIVA have proved my point comprehensively, and they do it every time they play."
And having proved the point incontrovertibly, Stanley, Sherrie and the band are now opting for a change of policy. As Sherrie explains:
"Sherrie Maricle and the DIVA Jazz Orchestra is the official name of our ensemble. The band has evolved professionally and commercially to a level that allows the music, the ensemble creativity and connectedness, attitude, professionalism and individual musicianship to determine the personnel.
"As Stanley says, "Music has no gender. If you can play, you can play." In its current incarnation, the DIVA Jazz Orchestra is a brilliant, cohesive, creative, empathetic, genuine ensemble. No player is easily replaced. When a substitute or replacement is needed, we will now go for the best player we can find...the word best covering all the criteria listed above, regardless of gender, although we are still interested in promoting and hiring qualified/professional women Jazz musicians. In the ten years DIVA has been in existence, evolved and thrived, it has become increasingly difficult to find professional women Jazz musicians to perform with the band, hence the need to be gender-free. Whereas our original incarnation (DIVA, no man's band, of which I was not the leader) was created to be an ensemble of the highest musical level, it also had the mission to give women a professional Jazz opportunity that was (is) usually difficult to come by. And if anyone needs confirmation of this, just look at most professional Jazz bands, past and present."
by Mike Hennessey
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