In the column I wrote in the Spring of 2002 about the 3rd Annual National Smooth Jazz Awards, I offered high praise for the moment in the show when guitarist Joyce Cooling, bassist Jennifer York and saxtress Pamela Williams jammed together in a true display of musical “girl power.” Then came my oft-repeated lament about the strange reality that, despite this moment and the wonderful subsequent performances by Keiko Matsui and Sheila E., smooth jazz is such a male dominated genre. In an age long past the dawn of women’s lib, when women run corporations and Hollywood studios and are regularly appointed to key Cabinet positions and elected to Congress, why do so many jazz fans still think it’s a bonus when an attractive female with a sax or axe in her hand can actually play?
I remembered an interview I did with Dutch saxophonist Candy Dulfer in 1991, when her laid back instrumental hit “Lily Was Here” was all the rage. Despite her impressive pedigree (her dad was popular sax player, she toured with Prince), she had no problem admitting that all the attention she was getting was less due to her funky, Sanborn-styled alto than her exotic physical attractiveness. Has this changed now that we’ve crossed into the 00’s?
Who better to ask than another “hot chick” saxwoman who has a Berklee education, a good decade plus of major side gigs (Backstreet Boys, Jonathan Butler, Adam Sandler) and, by the way, can truly blow the horn — Mindi Abair? Early airplay and consumer response to her long-awaited, crisply produced, fresh alt-pop-edge-funk-smooth-jangly rhythm guitar spiced GRP debut It Just Happens That Way are encouraging. Out of the box, it was a fixture in the Top Ten on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart. Her fresh faced, blond good looks and the fact that she’s dynamite in a mini skirt may pique male hormones, but spin the disc, check her out onstage (as hundreds, including numerous male all-star smoothies, did for her March record release party at Hollywood’s Garden of Eden), and those looks truly become the side attraction.
“The guys I play with both in my band and in others I’ve played with over the years get a kick out of the whole ‘Can she play’ routine,” says Abair over lunch at a trendy Hollywood eatery near her home. “When I toured with Adam in ’96, the whole time, fans came up to me after the shows and said it’s extraordinary, it looks like you were actually playing it. Then their jaws dropped when I said, ‘uh, dude, I was.’ I loved playing in all sorts of bands at Berklee and in those developing days, I had less of a sense of humor about it, because of insecurity.
“I think it takes incredible confidence as a woman to be an artist,” she continues via email. “I walk out onstage every night, as a new artist, and I have to prove myself because people expect me to be less than average. I’m not sure men deal with that. They can walk onstage and be at ground zero. They’re expected to be good, and looks don’t come into play. I played the Berks County Jazz Festival recently and one of the promoters came up to me at the end of the week and said that I was the real thing. He said that surprised him because when you see a pretty face, you expect that it’s just an image covering something up. I think one of the reasons I stayed in the industry despite this stereotype is that I don’t mind walking on stage with something to prove. The women I’ve known who have been successful in music have all been self-confident, not bitchy or arrogant, just sure of themselves. It takes that to survive.”
Even with one of the most exciting and listenable and successful genre CDs of 2003 thus far, Abair can’t quite be expected to singlehandedly spark an explosion of new female star power in the genre. Still, she’s encouraged that this is an amazing time for women in jazz and as her ilk becomes more commonplace, people’s fears of a woman pushing boundaries (music, mountain climbing, whatever) will subside. She was encouraged on her world tours with the Backstreet Boys when little girls would come up to her and view her as a role model.
“They’re happy to see that it’s possible for a woman to thrive in a boy dominated club, as if there are no limits anymore,” she says. “When I was younger and fell in love with the sax, there were no women role models, per se. My dad was a big influence and my boys were Sanborn, Cannonball, The Yellowjackets and Wayne Shorter. But no one discouraged me. I don’t hold it against anyone that I’m judged by different standards, but I know there would be more women out there if those standards were a bit easier. I’m doing my part, though. Hopefully after me, sparkly eyeshadow on jazz artists will be more acceptable to the masses.”
Next, we take this question to the vocal side of the genre, where Phoenix based R&B/jazz/pop singer Khani Cole seems especially qualified to comment. Her type of steady success gives hope to those who aren’t the one in a million Norah Jones type global phenomenons. Cole has the best of two worlds, doing various tour dates domestically and/or internationally every year while enjoying the comfy fruits of being a regional phenomenon. The sultry voiced Milwaukee native has three popular indie CDs to her credit, and her most recent, the retro-meets-modern soul influenced Lifetime (scheduled for re-release on A440 Music later this year), spawned two European chart hits “Sunshine” and “All About You.”
She’s packed clubs and swanky hotel lounges for ten years in Southern Arizona, leading her band (all males, all brilliant, naturally) before nightly standing room only crowds for seven years running at A Different Pointe of View at The Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs resort. Local radio support has been constant. If we want to know what the smooth jazz elite thinks of her, all we have to do is look at a recent roster of weekend sit-ins at her gig — Brian Bromberg, Eric Marienthal, Nelson Rangell, Michael Lington and Richard Smith.
“There’s something people love about that old fashioned, voice-piano, Fabulous Baker boys style of performing, where a singer can combine belting with the laid back, sexy approach,” she says of her unique niche. “I have some wonderful loyal fans both here in Phoenix and in many other places. They come back many times and bring friends along. There’s a time and a place for the power thing, but people who come to hear adult oriented music want some peace in their lives, something mellow and not overproduced.”
As for the “women in jazz” issue, “I’ve always been a singer, and I’ve been somewhat annoyed by the common misconception that a singer is not a musician, because the voice is truly an instrument. That said, being a singer has always been the more acceptable, traditional role for a woman. It’s been a struggle for those who play instruments to gain credibility, maybe because talented girls growing up just don’t see a lot of success stories with the sax or rock guitar. I always loved the Wilson sisters from Heart because they were great guitar players, but generally people always ask, ‘Can she play?’
“It’s certainly gotten better,” Cole continues, “and there are more women out there doing well who are not singers than ever before. I lead a band full of guys and they’re great to work with. There’s no ego getting in the way. I just expect them to do their best, and they trust me. When a young woman comes up to me and says she wants to do what I do, I tell her if she works hard and is good, everyone, male and female, will respect her. Music fans always want to hear a good, honest female vocalist. It’s a totally viable career.”
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:
1) Rick Derringer, Free Ride (Big3 Records) — What’s amazing is not how much fun it is to hear the guitarist’s classic rockers like “Frankenstein” revamped as cool instrumentals (“Smooth Frank”), but the fact that he’s not on Higher Octave Music, which has helped make adults out of 70s rock legends Craig Chaquico, Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain. The originals are a blast, too.
2) Steve Cole, NY LA (Warner Bros.)
3) Streetwize, Work It! (Shanachie)
4) Lisa Marie Presley, To Whom It May Concern (Capitol)
5) Peter Cincotti (Concord)