Richmond Jazz Society is a participating organization in Minds Wide Open: Virginia Celebrates Women in the Arts and will be recognizing and presenting women performers at their monthly Guest Educators Series held at Capital Ale House Downtown Music Hall.
Richmond Jazz Society is a sponsor of RVAJazzfest. They are a participating organization in Minds Wide Open: Virginia Celebrates Women in the Arts and will be recognizing and presenting women performers at their monthly Guest Educators Series held at Capital Ale House Downtown Music Hall. For more information, visit vajazz.org.
Pictured: Richmond-based jazz vocalist Ernestine Jackson, by LaMont Crawley
Since 1979, Richmond Jazz Society has been dedicated to the presentation and preservation of jazz in Richmond. Their Guest Educators Series, which highlights some of the best names in jazz, is the cornerstone of what they do and fulfills each aspect of their mission: the education, preservation, and advancement of jazz.
Closing out 2009 and beginning this year, RJS is one of the groups participating in Minds Wide Open: Virginia Celebrates Women in the Arts. “Jazz has been pretty much male dominated,” RJS co-founder and executive director B.J. Brown said, “but there have always been women associating with jazz. It’s also about respecting women as more than vocalists, but as musicians. That’s our key.”
As the only woman on the original RJS board of directors, Brown experienced the adversities that women are faced with, both in jazz and in the office. Through the organization’s preservation project that includes interviews with Richmond’s jazz pioneers, she has learned about other women who have excelled in jazz. “It’s been good learning that there were Virginia women and Richmond women who have been part of the jazz scene from the very beginning,” she said.
She tells stories of women like Aurethia Green Winfree, a tiny woman who would stun people with her energetic piano playing. Brown met Winfree around 1982 and learned a lot from her about women in Richmond who were well known around the time that Jackson Ward was called the Little Harlem of the South. “She was a little dynamo,” Brown said. “We were just so happy to have met her.”
Another woman to leave a mark on Brown is Altevia “Buttercup” Powell, the wife of pianist Bud Powell. Buttercup came back to Richmond in the 1980s to take care of her mother and would do lectures at schools with Brown on her signature topic: MAAM – Musicians Ain’t Always Men. Buttercup was a strong woman as Bud Powell’s business manager, the owner of her own jazz establishment in Paris called Buttercup’s Chicken Shack, and an accomplished jazz singer and pianist.
Virginia “Sunshine” Keels Hartman was a big band singer and a RJS board member. “She had a beautiful voice, a huge voice so big that she did not need a microphone,” Brown said. Another vocalist, Ernestine Jackson, sang at all the local clubs including Bogart’s Back Room, accompanied by pianists like Skip Gailes and Bob Hallahan. “She was really one of the top jazz vocalists in town when Richmond Jazz Society got started,” said Brown. “We presented her often at our club. It was always a packed house whenever Ernestine sang.”
More recently, The Jazz Ladies band was evidence that women could be more than singers. The band included Marsha Meekins on flute, Pearl White on tenor saxophone, Juana Thompson on piano, and Michelle Hammond on drums, and the RJS booked their gigs and helped promote the band.
While Minds Wide Open officially takes place between March and June 2010, Brown and RJS are going above and beyond to present women in jazz, beginning in December 2009 with singer and Newport News native Eve Cornelius. In January, the Guest Educators Series featured the Butterbean Jazz Quartet, a Richmond band fronted by singer Terri Simpson. Brown said, “Terri did, I thought, an excellent repertoire of traditional jazz, standards, and all the way up to contemporary favorites like Sade and Joni Mitchell.”
The celebration of women continues in February with Charlottesville-based singer Stephanie Nakasian. She will be performing with her husband, pianist Hod O’Brien, and daughter, vocalist Veronica Swift. Nakasian is a “very versatile singer,” said Brown. “It’ll be interesting to see the program that she brings.”
Amina Figarova will be the star in March. The Azerbaijan-born and Netherlands-based pianist’s group has a unique sound that Brown looks forward to sharing with Richmond. “I really want Richmond audiences to enjoy her musicality and how she composes and how she approaches jazz,” Brown said. “She’s from Europe and so she comes from a different point of view in a sense, but it’s almost the same. She has soul when she’s playing.”
Booking artists for April, May, and June are still in the works, but they will continue to feature women performers.
Richmond Jazz Society’s Guest Educators Series takes place on the second Tuesday of each month at the Capital Ale House Downtown Music Hall. For more information, visit vajazz.org.