at the Montclair Jazz Festival:
Family Jazz Discovery Zone, 3:50 p.m.
Led by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and guitarist and vocalist Camila Meza
Saturday, Aug. 11, Nishuane Park
By GWEN OREL
There were more female chaperones than there were female students.
And there were only four chaperones.
Seven years ago, during its summer student workshops, Jazz House Kids held an overnight at the Montclair Citadel.
The stark lack of female students was an eye-opener for Jazz House Kids’ Founder and President Melissa Walker.
Walker asked Zoe Obadia, a young alto sax player, what she’d like to see most. Obadia replied, “I’d like to not be the only girl in the band.”
Her statement was the beginning of the project called Chica Power.
Obadia has since graduated from the Juilliard School. Chica Power, which includes workshops with a female jazz player and combos made up of girls, is going strong.
“The idea was born to create a program that would celebrate women in jazz, that would bring them to the forefront, that would create a mentoring that would really give presence to women in jazz,” Walker said. Jazz House Kids began bringing in more female guest artists, and discovered that even the celebrated artists had felt isolated.
Today, Jazz House Kids has about 28 percent women.
What began as a summer program is now year-round, with a residency in the spring free to New Jersey students. A group called the “Chica All-Stars” will perform at the Montclair Jazz Festival.
‘EVERYONE NEEDS A ROLE MODEL’
It’s very important for the girls to see someone who looks like them. “Everyone needs a role model,” Walker said. “I grew up in an environment where my family was the only people of color in the entire school district. No one looked like us.”
The mentoring relationship has been important to 17-year-old trumpet player Emily Springer. The Montclair High School graduate will attend Smith College in the fall. As an older student, she is able to let younger girls know it’s OK to make mistakes.
“[The program] has meant a lot to me personally. I wrote my college essay about Chica Power,” Springer said. “[The reality of the jazz world is that] you most likely are going to be the only female in the band. Jazz House Kids is trying to change that. You get to play in ensembles that are all girls, something that never really happens in the world.”
And Chica Power sends the message that the jazz community is there for her, said rising senior, 17-year-old bass player Chloe Raichle, of Wall Township. “It’s really important for us to stick together and encourage each other,” Raichle said. As a woman, instead of thinking, “I have to be more aggressive,” she can instead feel “I am like everyone else, and we’re all doing this fantastic thing together.”
‘IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC’
Last Wednesday, Aug. 1, about 10 girls sat at classroom tables pushed together, eating their boxed lunches, to talk with renowned trumpet player Ingrid Jensen. It was one of three lunch sessions Jensen would have with the girls. Jensen, who has done the Chica Power workshops with the girls for a few seasons, told Montclair Local that for people who would say “gender is over, it’s a non-issue” she answers, “Not in jazz. Jazz is one of the youngest forms of music there is, and it’s the last one to change. It’s a real boys’ club on many levels still, if you look at the festivals and look at the magazines.”
Raising the level of the players will help, so having opportunities to study, at places like Jazz House Kids, “is what it’s about.”
She has had to find her own path more than her male peers had to, she told the girls, but that’s a good thing.
When she went to Berklee College of Music she wanted to play with more challenging ensembles than she’d been assigned to. So she wandered the halls and listened to other combos. She thought, “These guys are burning,” and knocked on the door and asked to play. “I didn’t get credit for it, but it was worth it. So a lot of the times, I had to put myself out and put myself in places.”
The group talked about collaboration and competition: how male players sometimes seem reluctant to let them in, and how female players often don’t know how good they are. And sometimes girls end up absorbing those competitive traits as well.
But a woman can survive without being a fighter now, Jensen said. “There are hip men. Men are evolving. I think there is a whole new generation that is encouraging women and hiring them. Once they’re out of that teenage hormone stage, where all they’re thinking about is one thing.” The girls laughed.
“We have to keep this in perspective,” Jensen said. “It takes a long time, and it takes a lot of work. There’s no app. I have to practice every day.”
She told the girls that they don’t have to be aggressive to play if it doesn’t feel right to them. “Smile and make as much music as you possibly can, or look aggressive and mean and make as much music as you can, or somewhere in the middle. Because it’s really all about the music.”
‘I JUST KEEP PLAYING’
Following lunch, Jensen went to perform in a faculty concert with drummer Billy Hart, guitar player Dave Stryker and Jazz House Kids Artistic Director, bass player Christian McBride.
Students rushed back and forth in the walkway between the classroom and concert hall. Some went in to listen. Some went to take a private lesson or practice. It’s a busy day for students every day of the two-week session.
Zion KeZia Adams, 17, came out of the lunch with Jensen feeling enlightened. The rising
senior from Camden, who studies trumpet and vocals, plays in a female ensemble called “The Trumpet Chicks” at home, so she’d had some of these talks already. But seeing a broader spectrum of girls going through the same things she has experienced was powerful. And at Jazz House kids, Adams said, “We encourage each other. It’s a family. Even females can get competitive with each other.”
A pianist at Jazz House told her to come to a jam session, get out of her room, stop practicing and go play. “I’ve been encouraged before, but not by people I didn’t know.”
One of the students hurrying by was violin player Jasmine Paul, 14, of Union, one of two violinists at Jazz House Kids this summer. The rising freshman has sometimes even been told violin is not a jazz instrument by males, she said. Some people see instruments as male or female, and think a girl playing trombone is
weird. When they tell her violin isn’t a jazz instrument, she isn’t phased. “I am confident in my ability. I love playing jazz, and I love the violin. So I just keep playing. I will continue to play it no matter what they say.” And then she asks them if they have ever heard of Regina Carter, the jazz virtuoso. “Sometimes that may keep them quiet. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
Paul’s confidence is a sign of Jazz House Kids’ success.
“We don’t offer classes,” Walker said. “We offer an immersive experience to be a part of the community.”