They Came, They Jammed, They Conquered: WJJF Festival in Review

The very name of the event tells the story. The Women in Jazz Jam Festival reigns queen.

If jazz had not been a male-dominated field from the beginning, there might be no need now for a festival underscoring the role of jazz women. As is true with other art forms and in other areas of human endeavor, women's accomplishments in jazz often have been overlooked or dismissed. The truth is the role of women in jazz has been much greater than that of “the figure behind the throne.”  They had always been there. They were center stage. 

Friday Night

“We’re here to have a good time,” Jolly sings, backed up by intermittent gospel-style piano.

“We’re not going to leave the women behind tonight. So we’re gonna sing something.”

The first Women in Jazz Jam Festival kicked off at noon on the WDVX Blue Plate Special Friday afternoon with creator Kelle Jolly. But for those with an insatiable appetite for jazz, the fun had barely begun.

Before the evening performance, Alive After Five workers pulled down extra chairs and had to reluctantly turn people away at a sold-out concert event Friday night.

After a brief intermission, Jolly brought the audience back with ukulele. Sarah Clapp Glipin performed an original song for her sister in Memphis ballad-style, while Evelyn Jack brought the house down with a smooth and sultry piece—a standing ovation. 

Workshops and Scruffy City Hall Saturday Night Concert

“Kelly is a great example to bringing people together through music—bringing a dream to life,” said Be You! Magazine publisher and WJJF morning workshop leader Monica Ware while teaching others to create vision boards.

The WJJF Workshop and Vendor Market at the Emporium continued with singer Christina Watson who helped to improve the performances of a brave few of amateur musicians who volunteered to sing; one being Carolyn Jolly—Kelle Jolly’s mother—singing a spiritual.  

As well, Knoxville claims several historic female jazz singers. Proven in a final workshop, was the rediscovery of Leola Manning, a jazz legend of the 1930s who relocated to Knoxville in her final years, and Ida Cox, the uncrowned queen of the Blues.

At last a morning of jazz education, a final concert of jazz jamming, and several unashamedly noshed Krispy Crème donuts concluded, and festival-goers readied for the evening’s Scruffy City Hall concert.

Jolly convened a remarkable lineup of musicians for the most highly anticipated concert at the Women in Jazz Jam Festival Saturday evening concert and a significant event in the WJJF’s weekend-long celebration. How often, after all, do you get to encounter on the same stage such leading figures as Kelle Jolly and The Will Boyd Project, Christina Watson with Keith Brown and Friends, VENUS, The All Girl Band, and others? When they converge in a single performance, something important is likely to happen.

So it did on this night, though not in ways some might have predicted. For anyone who expected that these high-powered ensembles would produce eruptions of noise, energy and chaos underestimated the complexity of these musicians' intentions. Jolly and colleagues instead produced music of considerable intricacy and understatement, ensemble passages of high tonal sheen and sequences of events that could be foreseen by no one besides the players themselves.

Christina Watson with Keith Brown and Friends took the stage at Scruffy City Hall next. While Kelle Jolly and The Will Boyd Project riled up the audience with their first set, Watson soothed with Kenny Wheeler’s cerebral jazz standard, “For Jan.” Here was musical expression that whispered more often than it thundered. And in even the most languidly dense passages of “La Vie En Rose,” Watson and ensemble took pains to make sure that every note, instrumental color, and detail of phrase rang out lucidly.

Closing on Saturday was VENUS, The All Girl Band from Georgia, which Kelly aptly called the “all that” band. Blasting a mixture of neo-soul and jazz-rock, VENUS performed without pause, leaving listeners to follow the ebb and flow of ideas rather than track a straight line from beginning to end, from tension to resolution and from build-up to climax. The music flowed from one passage to the next and the next, textures continually changing and no single motif dominating the headline progress, the wall of sound that was VENUS. 

Sunday at Red Piano Lounge

The afternoon was rainy and grey, but by 2:45pm a gathering of happy jazz lovers felt warm with anticipation in the Red Piano Lounge.

Though many WJJF musicians performed at the fest, the last artist, Dara Tucker, gave a satisfying end to the final leg of WJJF. Her rich, controlled voice pierced through the trio of musicians behind her.

Taken from the 1971 musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Tucker sang “Pure Imagination” in a syncopated 5/4 jazz-bop. She followed that with a never before heard piece that she recently decided to include “Any Time Your Heart Breaks.”

After a quick intermission and early Sunday drinks, the audience settled in for round two. She sang a song she hoped was better suited for radio play. Ironically, it mentioned being on the radio. She ended her night with a sweet rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You” and lastly, a piece that stylistically floated around cool jazz. The cheers started before the song was over. And stage breakdown immediately ensued—audience and musician alike helped.

“[This festival] was the vision I had with more color and more sound,” said Jolly. “It was even better than I could have ever imagined.”

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