The highest-profile example is the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival. But organizers in Washington have decided that this year’s undertaking, running Thursday through Saturday, will be the last to focus exclusively on female headliners. Next year, it will be rechristened the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival, keeping the name of the venerated pianist, composer, arranger and all-around jazz lodestar, but featuring at least one all-male act for the first time.
Kennedy Center programmers said the emphasis on women was too limiting and might at this cultural moment have the unintended negative effect of raising the question of its performers: Is she a great musician, or a great female musician?
Center officials characterize their decision as a victory for female jazz artists. After all, they said, women have proliferated at all levels in jazz since the late pianist and educator Billy Taylor founded the festival in 1996.
“I believe that with the current role of women involved in music, the designation may seem a bit pejorative,” said Kevin Struthers, the Kennedy Center’s director of jazz programming who has overseen the festival since 1997.
“With the name change,” Struthers said, “we’re not going to diminish the opportunities for women to perform here. I hope the impact will be a fulfillment of Billy’s vision that we don’t need to designate these wonderful women by gender. Talent is talent is talent.”
The decision to redefine the Kennedy Center’s jazz festival was urged by Jason Moran, the 38-year-old pianist and composer who began working as a jazz adviser to the arts center in 2011. A year earlier, he received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in part for opening the boundaries of jazz to include hip-hop and other musical expressions.
Moran said his musical development was “inspired by everyone,” including women such as the jazz pianist Geri Allen, so he did not place a stark emphasis on gender. In his mind, the Kennedy Center’s festival would benefit by concentrating instead on the legacy left by Williams, who died in 1981 at 71.
Although she remains largely obscure to non-jazz followers, Williams enjoyed a sprawling career that included writing hits for the big bands of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. Her apartment in Harlem had an open-door policy for musicians seeking her guidance, among them pianist Thelonious Monk, saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Miles Davis.
“Mary Lou Williams is such a pivotal figure to the music — her mentoring of modernist jazz artists,” Moran said. “Her relationship to the music — to think she’s only important to female musicians would be to limit her importance to the world of music.”