Jazzwomen Jam

by Sherrie Tucker

For this month's column, Jessica Valiente, leader of the Latin Jazz band Los Mas Valientes, has kindly agreed to share some of her thoughts on leading and playing in a gender-balanced Latin Jazz band. Los Mas Valientes, which cut their first CD in May, consists of four women (Valiente, flute; Debra Kreisberg, alto saxophone; Anna Milat-Meyer, electric bass; Yasuyo Kimura, congas) and four men (Rick Faulkner, trombone; Willie Rodriquez, piano; Eddie Osorio, timbales; Jose "Apache" Rivera, percussion). Valiente does most of the composing for the octet.

What are the advantages of playing in a band with other women?

"I don't know if I would say that we have benefits as much as I would say that we don't have the disadvantages that result from being the only woman working with a bunch of men. We don't really have to deal with the sexual crap and general sordid rudeness that you encounter when men don't feel any reason to restrain themselves (more than one woman in the room). I like to think that it's partly because there are a lot of women present and they keep themselves in check. On the other hand, I think that the men in the band are very respectful, well-behaved sorts who are equally decent and polite no matter what the situation. This was an important consideration when I hired them. Still, to further answer your question, I think there's a sort of openness and camaraderie in the band that is very female, and I think that this has been good for the men as well."

What do audiences expect when they come to hear you?

"Here comes my pet peeve. I find that the public generally expects and even assumes that if a band is led by a woman, it must be an all-woman band. This has even happened in the press, with journalists who don't check their facts. (In fact, it happened very recently in an article by a woman in a local paper; I still mean to contact her about that.) Nothing against all-woman bands; I have some friends who lead all-female projects (I used to lead one myself), and I understand the place and need for these bands. Still, I often find it necessary to point out to people that yes, I am a woman bandleader, and yes, these men work for me. Also, while I understand that the self-imposed apartheid of all-women groups is still somewhat necessary, I want people to get to the point where it isn't strange or remarkable that there are both men and women [instrumentalists] on the same stage. Other than that, I really like the response we get from a lot of our women fans, especially the large contingent of middle-aged Latin women who come hear us. They have been waiting for someone to represent them for way too long, and they get really excited when they see a woman calling the shots, women playing in the rhythm section, and women blowing horns. Probably the one who is met with the most skepticism is Yasuyo, and I think this is equally because she is Japanese (perhaps more so) as it is because she is a woman. But I find, whether it's an ethnic or a gender bias, our audiences are not stubborn. After hearing her lay down a mean groove and taking her first solo, they are convinced and they take her very seriously."

Do the women in the band get tired of reviewers commenting on your gender?

"It really depends on their approach and their intent. Some industry people come at it from an exploitative, gimmicky point of view, and others are genuinely supportive and curious. We have plenty of smart-ass answers for the former, but we appreciate the interest of the latter because it gives us the opportunity to convince the public of our capabilities and our depth. I know many female Jazz musicians don't want to deal with the women issue anymore. I don't blame them; we want to live in a world where it's a nonissue. But for now, the world of Jazz seems to be about thirty years behind many other professions in terms of opportunities for women, and it's in our best interest to keep the issue alive until things change."

What are the challenges and the rewards?

"Now that the CD is out and our reputation is growing at a good pace, I'm much more focused on the challenges and rewards of being a bandleader in general than I am of being a woman bandleader or working with women. It usually doesn't come up. I do remember the days, however, when nobody knew who we were. I would frequently show up for a first-time gig with a band of four men and four women, and the club owner would say, disappointedly, 'I thought this was an all-girl band' (I don't know why. You have the picture and three of the men have hair on their faces), or worse, when I still had to struggle for the respect of the men in the band. For a long time, although it was subtle, none of them would listen to what I had to say unless my husband, Rick, said it (I would make him tell them what I wanted, sometimes, just to get it over with quickly). Now that has all changed. I think when they saw what my abilities as a producer were, how smoothly CD production went, and what a great product we have, they all changed their attitude."

Thanks, Jessica, and best of luck to Los Mas Valientes! Any Jazzwomen out there who want to take a solo in this column, write me at Jazzwomen Jam c/o the Women's Studies Department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Box 4137, Geneva, New York 14456-3397, or e-mail me at <Jazzwmnjam@aol.com>.

by Sherrie Tucker

Jazz Now Magazine -- November 1999 Issue