Jazz Book Review: 'Changing The Tune: The Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival 1978-1985'

Apr 19, 2017

Music educator and author Carolyn Glenn Brewer tells the story of the birth and untimely demise of the Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival.  It was a unique undertaking, especially in the late 1970s, when jazz was at a low point nationwide. Musical tastes were changing, even in a city that was proud of its jazz history.  

In Kansas City, you still had to be in top form to survive a jam session, even though you might not be able to make a living playing jazz. Could a jazz festival that focused on women instrumentalists, bandleaders and composers kindle enough interest to thrive?

Festival founders Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg decided to find out.  Endorsed by and with the active participation of luminaries like pianist Marian McPartland and jazz historian/critic Leonard Feather, the work began to raise awareness (and funding), book the artists, arrange the venues and events.  

Why a "women's" jazz festival?  

"I heard this over and over again, and you still hear it: if a man walks into a gig or a jam session and the rest of the people there don't know him, the assumption is that he can play, until he proves himself otherwise," says Brewer. "With a woman, it's just the opposite.  If a woman walks in and the other players don't know her, they assume that she can't play, until she proves herself."  She admits that there are more opportunities now, but that attitude hasn't completely gone away.

The festival was not to exclude men.  

"The by-laws were very clear. The board agreed right from the beginning that they wanted this festival to promote women, to give women as much of a chance to participate at any level:  bandleaders, writers, performers; but not at the exclusion of men," says Brewer.  "They were saying, we don't want to do to men what's been done to us.  We don't want jazz to be gendered." 

A student scholarship, clinics and workshops, student group performances and educational jam sessions were built in to the festival from the start.  

"Kansas City is known as a jam session town, and has been since the beginning," Brewer says.  "Young players here through the decades have had places that they could go to sit in and learn from the masters.  The whole philosophy of the festival was to make it as educational as possible."

Leonard Feather would show vintage jazz films from his own collection.  There were even introduction-to-jazz presentations at pre-school Head Start level.  

"Changing the Tune" contains loving portraits of headliners like Mary Lou Williams, Melba Liston, and Ernestine Anderson.  Starting in the festival's third year, a new featured concert called TNT, "Top New Talent," put the spotlight on regional and lesser-known national and international artists.

The book is a highly detailed accounting of the tribulations and joys of putting together each annual festival, nicely seasoned with quotes and anecdotes from festival producers, participants and jazz royalty.  Some of the chapters are topped by amusing/irritating quotes, dating from 1598 through 1978, about why women can't or shouldn't play music, jazz in particular.

With "Changing the Tune:  The Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival 1978-1985," Carolyn Glenn Brewer has written an enjoyable and illuminating tour through this historic event, the first women's jazz festival in the world.