A Celebration of Women in Jazz

From left: Corinthia Cromwell, Rhonda Robinson, Camay Murphy, Gail Marten, Carla Wills, Maysa Leak, Gabrielle Goodman and Navasha Daya. Photo by Robert Shahid

by Gina

On Wednesday, March 20th, the Eubie Blake Cultural Center and WEAA-FM radio ushered in spring by celebrating Women’s History Month with a panel discussion on women in jazz.

Internationally renowned vocalist Maysa Leak and WEAA senior producer Carla Wills moderated. The panelists included saxophonist Corinthia Cromwell; vocalist and co-founder of the band Fertile Ground Navasha Daya; vocalist and educator Gabrielle Goodman; vocalist and songwriter Gail Marten; educator and historian Camay Calloway Murphy; and vocalist and flutist Rhonda Robinson. The format provided each of these accomplished women an opportunity to discuss her introduction to and experiences in the world of jazz.

Following her graduation from Morgan State University in 1991, Maysa left the Baltimore area to become a backup singer for Stevie Wonder. She characterized this as a positive experience overall; but when she joined the British jazz funk group Incognito, Maysa found it necessary to establish herself and demand respect from this all-male group. She is currently on tour with Incognito and in the process of recording her tenth solo CD.

Cromwell, a graduate of Howard University and a protégée of Wynton Marsalis, received a Master’s in Music from New York University. Her CD Peace of Mind was recently released. She told the audience that, even today, one of the most difficult challenges she faces is convincing male musicians that she’s a sax player, not a vocalist. Her belief is that one of the strongest elements of the music is its healing power. During the panel discussion she read her poem “Silent Masters,” which honors many of the great women of jazz.

Daya studied and graduated from Morgan State University. In addition to her vocal talents, she is a songwriter and producer. As co-founder and director of the Healing and Performing Arts of the Youth Resiliency Institute, she is known for mentoring the younger generation. An outspoken individual, she believes that one must demand respect from one’s fellow artists.

Goodman is a graduate of Peabody Conservatory and currently an associate professor at Berklee College of Music. She is also a composer and has been a backup singer for Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan, and Patti Labelle. Goodman stressed the importance of demanding respect and appreciating the business aspect of your career.

Gail Marten emphasized the great pleasure that being part of the music world has brought to her life. Marten has received numerous international awards for her songwriting and recordings, and her sixth self-produced CD, In Love Again, featuring pianist Larry Willis, was named one of The Best 20 Vocal CDs of 2009 by jazz critic and journalist W. Royal Stokes. Marten expressed gratitude to the male musicians who encouraged her in advancing her career. She also stressed the importance of what you say to children, as your words may encourage or discourage them from realizing their potential.

Educator, historian, researcher and writer Camay Calloway Murphy is the elder statesperson of the group and the daughter of legendary artist Cab Calloway. Founder of the Cab Calloway Jazz Institute and Museum at Coppin State University, she also served as chair of the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center. Discussing the history of music in the early days, she pointed out women’s second-class citizenship and indicated that life for women in the music world was very difficult. Murphy’s aunt, Blanche Calloway, was part of this world, yet her courage and determination enabled her to establish an all-male band. Financial assistance for her family, not fame, was her main motivation. Continuing to be an avid supporter of jazz is one of Murphy’s priorities, as evidenced by her many community projects.

Rhonda Robinson was educated at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, The Sande Shurin Acting Studio in NYC and Peabody Preparatory in Baltimore. Her initial pursuits were musical theater and singing classical and gospel music. She turned to jazz later in her career. She cited two early female performers, Lillian Armstrong and Mary Lou Williams, describing how their careers progressed through many styles of the music.

At the end of the discussion the group weighed in on the following topics:

Scat singing: All agreed that Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter were the ladies to listen to and learn from, even though Louis Armstrong started it all. The group treated the audience to an impromptu sample of this technique.

Improvisation: “One musician talking to another with their instrument or their voice. In order to speak this language, knowledge of chord changes is necessary.”

Audience: “You must be exposed to the art form. If jazz is to have a future, it is important that we all get out and support live venues.”

Female sexuality: “It must not be your most important asset. Your talents should be your priority and it is necessary to strike a balance between respectability and female appeal.”

This wonderful evening concluded with a jam session led by Craig Alston and the EBCC house band. Many of the panelists and musicians from the audience performed, to the delight of those in attendance. This uplifting event played to a full house.