Since its inception, women have been involved with jazz, but often enough their achievements are not well-known or as trumpeted (so to speak) as their male counterparts. Of course we have Billie, Ella, and Sarah, but there are so many more -- singers, instrumentalists and composers -- who have made a worthy pantheon, and a legacy to follow. However, commentary about women in jazz still sticks to a fundamental question: Do they exist?
Knoxville answers the question with a resounding, YES. The history of jazz would not be complete without acknowledging the contributions of the many women who played and continue to play a role in shaping the music. And what better place to start than with the talent that exists in our town?
A project years in the making, the stage is finally set. Kelle Jolly, Knoxville’s most prominent female jazz voice has launched the first annual Women in Jazz Jam Festival, a three-day event scheduled March 18-20th that will celebrate women in all aspects of the jazz genre throughout the local community.
Jolly tells KMW’s Festival Fix the details of making a festival:
It was several years ago when Jolly and friend Emily Mathis gave a presentation on women in jazz at Tabernacle Baptist Church for Black History Month that sparked a flame and spurred an ongoing interest of women in the field of jazz.
Lexi Rodriguez: You have said, “Even groundhogs have a day! I knew I had to do something to uplift the stories of women like me.” Could you go into more detail as to why you believe Knoxville needs this festival?
Kelle Jolly: I learned about the lives of women like Mary Lou Williams who mentored Dizzy Gillespie, Lil Hardin Armstrong who was the wife of Louis Armstrong and The Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-girl, multi-racial big band from the 1940’s. I realized that these women played integral parts in the success of the men around them. I really could relate to this because even I am the wife of a saxophone player. I felt that women deserve to be recognized as valuable contributors to the jazz community.
In 2015 Jolly received a donation from Commissioner Amy Broyles that set things in motion. After an indiegogo campaign that immediately took off, Jolly spent her time recruiting the talented female musicians of Knoxville to perform for the upcoming festival.
LR: What are your goals in creating the Women in Jazz Jam Festival?
KJ: My goals are to bring the talent of women to the forefront, share the stories and music of women who have gone before us, and to inspire young women to pursue a life in jazz. Those are the goals that I would answer on a grant application. It’s true. But if you and I met on Market Square and chatted about the festival, I would tell you that I’m looking forward to having fun with friends, playing some great music and making new jazz fans.
Jolly remains a constant advocate of jazz, along with her weekly radio spot, WUOT’s Jazz Jam every Friday. Jolly has Performed monthly jazz nights at Beck Cultural Center, won the 2015 Martin Luther King Jr. Art Award, achieved a declaration from Mayor Rogero recognizing Jazz Day, and with assistance of Nelda Hill held public reading the of book, “Sweet Hearts of Rhythm”--about a WWII era all-female integrated jazz band at Lawson McGhee Library with author Marilyn Nelson.
LR: You have been involved in several local organizations as well as performed in several bands. Will festivalgoers get the treat of seeing you perform any of your favorite jazz pieces?
KJ: The Women in Jazz Jam Festival Band plays Alive After Five at the Knoxville Museum of Art on Friday, March 18 at 6pm. I sing with the band. Also, ladies from my ukulele club, Ukesphere will be performing too. Not only will people get to hear me sing and play uke, but I have some surprises in store. I’ve been dusting off some of my other instruments. I am also playing the first set at 5:30pm on Saturday night at the Scruffy City Hall.
LR: How did you go about choosing these women in jazz to perform for the festival?
KJ: I contacted all the women I knew that sing or play jazz in any way or style. The WJJF includes local artists. I wanted to also invite regional artists whose music I play on my radio show, Jazz Jam with Kelle Jolly on WUOT 91.9FM. My show airs every Friday at 8pm and I can play the music of artists in our region who normally don’t have the opportunity to play in East TN. I also looked for regional bands that have performed in Knoxville. Venus (the all-girl band), from Atlanta, has visited Knoxville for shows with radio personality Brian Clay. I knew that they would have fans who wanted to see their high-energy show again.
LR: What has the process been like to create an event of this magnitude?
KJ: People are making it happen. The artists that I am performing with have taken on roles that have made it easier for me to manage the planning. Hawa Ware, who is like my sister, designed the logo that really sets the tone for the festival. Debra Dylan at Knoxzine really is someone who I can call on 24 hours a day to help with writing anything. Supporters generously gave to the Indiegogo campaign. Sponsors like VisitKnoxville are there to support someone like me who is doing this for the first time.
Rhea Carmon, the members of SAFTA and Knoxville Girls Rock Camp have agreed to lead music learning activities during the festival. I could go down a list of ways people have supported the festival. Appalachian Community Fund is the fiscal agent for the festival. Their staff has helped me with bookkeeping and more. As I planned the festival, I tried to go to women first or women-led organizations to meet goals. I’m not trying to leave men out. But I want to go to women who sometimes don’t get the opportunities to shine at all.
Even my family has stepped in to help. I visited my aunt in New York in January. And even the members of the Brownsville Heritage House took up a donation for the festival while I was visiting.
LR: Were you looking for any specific traits or special artists? Did you know who you wanted to perform at this event?
KJ: I wanted to get as many artists as I could afford. I wanted to keep the artists local and regional.
LR: Can we expect any surprises from the musicians coming to town? Like original pieces or songs being debuted?
KJ: The one remark that I hear over and over again at WJJF rehearsals is, “I’ve never played in a band with so many women.” People will feel the power of the energy at the festival.
LR: How involved are you going to be come festival week?
KJ: You know what? I anticipate being very busy that week. But now that you’ve asked me that, I think I should set aside some time for a massage and some Thai food.
LR: What part do you look forward to the most?
KJ: I’m looking forward to hearing people still talking about how much fun they had… six months later.
LR: Finally, if there was one thing you would want someone to gain from going to this festival what would it be?
KJ: Be who you were born to be, the world is waiting on you. Jazz music has opened up opportunities for me to share this message with the world.
Women in Jazz Jam Festival has gathered the women of our community for three days of jamming. You can see all that jazz and a detailed schedule down below:
For you festival junkies, WJJF fans and jazz enthusiasts that can’t get enough, you can listen to JAZZ JAM with Kelle Jolly on WUOT every Friday and stay connected through WJJF’s Facebook page.
Just for you: The Marriott downtown is the official hotel for the festival. There may be some surprise jams at the hospitality room.
And YES! Tickets have gone on sale. You can purchase yours here.