At the Kimmel, clearing space for women in jazz

Guitarist Monette Sudler. (Credit: Michael Donella)

As members of the cast of the new opera Charlie Parker's Yardbird took their bows on the stage of the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater this month, it was notable that the women outnumbered the men. The Opera Philadelphia world premiere, with a libretto by Bridgette Wimberly, looked at the life of the famed saxophonist through the eyes of the women in his life, with a standout performance by soprano Angela Brown as Parker's mother, Addie.

As Jay Wahl, the Kimmel Center's artistic director of programming, points out, "Jazz has been a very male-dominated art form, and the idea of motherhood in jazz is not something that gets talked about very often."

Coincidentally, the subject will be broached once again this weekend, a few floors down in the same building. As part of this year's Kimmel Center Jazz Residency program, vocalist Venissa Santi and guitarist Monnette Sudler will premiere their jazz musical, On a Line, which looks at the lives of three female jazz musicians.

"Narrative allows them to talk about an issue which is central to the human experience - both being a child and being a parent - yet not something I've heard very much of in the jazz idiom," Wahl says. "The idea seems pretty audacious and exciting."

"I wanted to hear the music of these people's minds," Santi explains. "I wanted them to address aspects of the business, aspects of their artistry, aspects of their personal lives, the exploration of love and creativity, and the way they're thinking about what's happening in the world."

Santi, Sudler, and singer Joanna Pascale all play themselves in the piece, which finds each at a different point in her personal and professional life. Sudler, a veteran of Philadelphia's jazz and blues scenes, has a 30-year-old son; Santi, who fuses influences from her Cuban heritage with jazz in her own music, is the mother of an 11-year-old. Each son appears in the musical in scenes with his mother. Pascale, on the other hand, is single, leading to trenchantly humorous scenes regarding the treatment and perception of women in the business.

Sudler has seen subtle shifts in the attitude toward women in jazz over her four-decade career. "There are a lot more young women playing now, and playing very well," she says. "But people mostly don't think about women in music, how their lives are and the prejudices involved. The most important part is being a musician and being creative in spite of all the extra stuff."

"We would appreciate being respected as musicians first, not as women - and not hit on," Santi adds.

On a Line is one of two world premieres set for this weekend in the Kimmel's SEI Innovation Studio. The other is a "jazz love story" composed by the Cuban-born Philadelphia percussionist François Zayas. The piece melds influences from jazz, classical music, Balkan brass band traditions, and Zayas' Cuban background, and also incorporates dancers, a singer, and a DJ. The idea is that the romantic leads of the piece are represented both musically and physically. Each is played by a dancer and also given voice by either singer Chrissie Loftus or the samplings of DJ Ben Scheible.

Zayas also played a part in last year's Kimmel Center Jazz Residency program, collaborating on a piece with saxophonist Bobby Zankel and choreographer Raphael Xavier. This year, he takes the lead, drawing inspiration from his work with the West Philadelphia Orchestra, the prolific local Balkan brass band that lends several members to the project.

"I see a connection between Cuban music and so many different styles of music," Zayas says. "I wanted this piece to sound somehow classical, and I wanted it to sound like jazz, and I wanted to explore some sounds from regions like Serbia and Turkey - though what I wrote doesn't sound like gypsy music from Eastern Europe, at least to my ears."

This year marks the second in what Wahl hopes will be an ongoing residency series. He insists it's too early to assess the program, saying, "I think we'll know what kind of impact we've had after we've done this for four or five years and we can start to look at a catalog of work that we've catalyzed and see what Philadelphia jazz today sounds like."

But the residencies have already produced results, with the Fresh Cut Orchestra parlaying its involvement in last year's program into a scheduled concert at Washington's Kennedy Center in December. Kevin Struthers, the Kennedy Center's director of jazz programming, was back for this year's selection panel, along with SFJAZZ artistic producer Lilly Schwartz; and Todd Stoll, vice president of jazz education at Lincoln Center. Wahl is committed to continuing the program next year, with the application process opening this weekend to coincide with the premieres.

"What I want to do and what the Kimmel wants to do in terms of its role in jazz and the city is to push the artists to both play to their strengths and explore new areas," he says. "The Kimmel Center can act as a megaphone to tell the world about the talent we have here in the city."


Kimmel Center Jazz Residency

8 p.m. Friday (Venissa Santi/Monnette Sudler) and Saturday (François Zayas) at the Kimmel Center's SEI Innovation Studio, Broad and Spruce Streets.

Tickets: $15.

Information: 215-893-1999 or