'We sell out everything': Amy K Bormet and the Washington Women in Jazz Festival

"Created by Amy K. Bormet in 2011, the Washington Women in Jazz Festival creates equitable performance opportunities for women while uplifting the image of the jazz community and drawing in dynamic new audiences." Amy has built a remarkable, diverse, and popular jazz festival in Washington D.C., providing more press and performance opportunities to women jazz musicians there. In September, I interviewed Amy about the festival, the D.C. jazz scene, and women in jazz.

M: How did you first come up with the idea for the festival?

A: In 2010, I did two residencies at the Kennedy Center. I did the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead residency, and I was the only female instrumentalist at that. That was when Dr. Billy Taylor was alive, and he asked me to do the second one, which was the Mary Lou Williams Emerging Artists thing. The Mary Lou Williams Festival started out as a women in jazz festival. The contrast between the Betty Carter residency and the Mary Lou Williams residency was my big aha moment, because when I was at the Mary Lou Williams residency I saw all these women leading bands and a lot of women from D.C. who were on the festival, and I realized it would be a great space for me to have a local variant. I wanted to do something that was a little more flexible and small and that I could really take to the D.C. community.

I started there, inspired by Billy Taylor, who started the women in jazz festival at the Kennedy Center. I started thinking about the women I knew who were playing in D.C., and I started getting together with all these women I had been wanting to play with and using it as an excuse to have this festival. That's how it started.

A lot of the women I know in D.C., when I started the festival, didn't really have their press together. They weren't getting a lot of attention in the paper. I had just put out an album in 2011, and I felt like I wasn't really getting any attention. A lot of people were playing on the scene, but not a lot of people knew about it. So I made this behemoth thing where I have a bunch of concerts, and then I had to attract attention. Instead of just me by myself, I made a collective of people who were interested in playing and performing in D.C.

M: I don't know how big the D.C. jazz scene is. Does everyone kind of know each other, or did you have to reach out to people?

A: You'd think because it's not a huge city that people would know each other, but a lot of people don't. I was coming from a very interesting place because I was a D.C. public school graduate, I had gone to Howard University, but I had pretty much been gigging in D.C. since I was 16, and working, and playing in all these different places, and popping from scene to scene. I was really well connected with the older school of D.C. musicians, but then I also knew all of the college musicians, and, because I was a white woman, I knew all of the white women who played in the military bands. I knew all these sneaky back door spaces into different scenes in D.C.

I feel that has always been a strength for me; I can introduce people to other people they didn't know who were right next to them. I had Jen Krupa, who's this fabulous trombonist who went to Juilliard and plays for the Navy Commodores, play, and all of a sudden Kris Funn, who's this great guy who's a bass player in Baltimore and played for Kenny Garrett, was like, "Who was that? Who was that on trombone?" And I was like, "You know she's been living here forever."

It's the same with any music scene. It's separated scenes by age or by gender or by race or by anything that people can use to separate themselves. People like to think that music is a collective experience for everyone and that it's 'a universal language,' but a lot of times they're not taking the effort to really meet people who are of a different generation or a different space or a different school even.

M: So you took it upon yourself to introduce these different realms that you knew about to each other.

A: Yeah, definitely! Now, we still have jam sessions, but we had a lot of jam sessions at the beginning to get people involved. I have a Young Artist Showcase that I do with college women in the D.C. area. I bring all the college women together and we do a show, and then I have older people on the scene giving them comments so they can have some feedback, and then we have a jam session afterwards. It's a public show, and it's a pretty nice thing that we have for them every year. Every year I'm kind of making my own crop of people who are interested in being on the festival, and then those people I have come back and play on the festival later. I have a roster now of people, and I'm constantly looking for new people. Now I'm splitting my time between D.C. and L.A., so it's a little bit more complicated, but I'm always looking for people and everyone else knows that I'm always looking to lift up different women and to connect these different parts of the scene.

I pretty much know most of the people in D.C. at this point. I've made lists of all the high schools and all the colleges in the D.C. area, all of their teachers that are teaching jazz. On top of that, my husband used to teach at Levine School of Music, which is the biggest community music school in D.C., so there's a whole other group of people there which is younger and older than these high school/college students. I've got that whole spectrum of people, and that comes in really helpful when I'm promoting the shows. Because I do get the publicity, and we sell out everything. We get attention.

M: Is there a particular audience that you try to reach? How do you publicize?

A: I think it's unique the way I've gone about doing things. D.C. is split up into four quadrants. There's different amounts of arts related activities happening in each quadrant of the city. In Northwest, which is well funded, you have the Kennedy Center, a lot of the Smithsonian museums, a lot of the jazz clubs, universities. Obviously, I do a lot of things there. But I'm from Northeast, so I was like, oh man, what are we going to do in Northeast? In Northeast you see a lot more DIY spaces and warehouse spaces, and now there's a new performing arts center that's been there about ten years anchoring the arts district part of Northeast D.C. Southwest is really small, and we play at a church over there. Southeast is really underserved. There's Capitol Hill, which is very well served, obviously. We play on Capitol Hill for the Capitol Hill people, and we go to Southeast and play at the Anacostia Community Museum.

I try to have not only these different areas but different price points. So I have a lot of free concerts. I've been doing free concerts at the Smithsonian. And then we have all the way up through more targeted jazz concerts, with tickets $20-25. Having that whole range lets people go see music in the space that's comfortable for them. And then hopefully that will entice them to go to other spaces that they might not have thought about. That's been something that's really cool is to see these people from more accessible places in Northwest going to more inaccessible places and saying, "I didn't even know this space was here!" And getting the communities to connect on top of getting the music scene to connect.

M: Do you think that, as a curator, you have an obligation to consider things like race or economic status or reaching outside of schools and colleges? Do you feel there's an ethical responsibility to, I don't want to use the phrase affirmative action, but to make sure that you get a certain slice of demographics represented? Or are you more concerned with the music and getting a diverse bunch of music?

A: I am super, super concerned with diversity in every single aspect. Diverse audience, diverse musicians. And that can be difficult when I'm building this little circle around me. I'm building a community, and sometimes it can be awkward to reach outside of that community. I've had women say, "I don't play at festivals that are just women." A lot of questions arise, like, what if I have a man in my band? I'm like, fine, it's your band. This is about you; this is about your project. But if you know some women you'd like to play with, that's what I'm celebrating; that's what I'm highlighting when I put this together. But like I said about the neighborhoods, that's what I find the most attractive about how this has ended up. I can go into these different spaces with all different types of music, and I can get musicians from all sorts of backgrounds to come and perform in those communities. I think people really appreciate it if you can meet them halfway and not try to get an audience that's just a typical jazz audience, whatever that even means anymore. Not a Blues Alley [expensive club] tourist crowd. It's a very hyper-local D.C. crowd.

M: I don't know what you think about this, but I've had many discussions with other female jazz musicians about why more women don't play jazz. Do you think it's a myth that women don't play jazz as much or do you think it's really true that there are fewer women...I should say, fewer non-male identified people than male identified people? Do you have any theories about why that might be?

A: I do get frustrated, because people are like, "Where do you find the women to play at your festival?" and I see them everywhere. But I do think it's true, as you can see in the educational system. You see people starting out at pretty even numbers in terms of instruments, but then the older you get, it's like, we're in high school and suddenly there's only three girls in the jazz band but still a lot of women in the concert band. And then you get to college, and you're like, what happened?

It's the same as anything else in the unconscious bias we have towards women. We don't want women to be loud and confident and to mess up. So telling them to be jazz musicians is difficult. A lot of the classical musicians I've talked to, especially in L.A., are seeing that it's a short change to be just playing written music. So to me, the real question is, there's plenty of women musicians, but why aren't they comfortable improvising? Even just within different genres of improvised music, you see way more women playing free jazz than you see playing bebop. Now we've gendered these incredibly specific genres of music. It's okay to improvise, but it's not okay for you to play bebop, and it's not okay for you to scream and wail and play the blues? There's this unconscious bias that pushes people to not feel comfortable being outgoing about their music.

M: Do you think there's anything that teachers can do to support young women who are interested or maybe who should be pushed a little into trying some new things? Whether or not it's okay to push someone is a whole other issue.

A: I think there's a lot of things that people can do. The way people are studying gender bias now is really important to...everything. I think we're going to start to see, as people become aware of that, more and more women playing music. One of the big things that has been, for me, really eye opening is an exchange I did with my festival and the Swedish Women in Jazz Festival, and we had a bunch of Swedish women come over, and then we also had professors from Sweden come and talk about the way they treat gender bias in education, and the way that they do their improvisation classes and the way that they try to actively seek out what is discouraging to women instrumentalists or women in music. That's been really interesting because when I was in Sweden, I actually see what they've done, experimenting the last thirty years with this, and I see a lot more younger women playing music.

That's something I'm trying to work on with the festival is having these young artists come and play, and get feedback, and make connections, and have a jam session, and hang out. So many things can be done, and so many experiments are being done all over the place. But Sweden is a very small country, and it's very easy to be experimental there. The U.S. is huge. How do we create something that can be replicated here? In Sweden, they have federally funded jazz clubs, federally funded music festivals, and if you get federal funding, you have to have a goal of getting fifty percent of the people on your festival to be women. How are we going to do that? Because nothing we have is federally funded.  I, personally, am getting private funding. I'm getting little piecemeal pieces of funding from people and from corporations and from the venue. And all they're concerned about is selling tickets. "Yeah, it's great, community is great, that's nice." But if you can't keep the doors open, you can't worry about community, you can't worry about trying to have more women. You can't worry about, "Oh, man, there's not going to be any women in the future because I'm not showing any female role models!" You can't worry about that if your lights aren't on.

M: What do you hope for the festival in the future? Do you want it to stay at its current scale or would you want it to become bigger?

A: I'm working on trying to do more exchanges. I want to do more international work with the festival. D.C. is such an international city. We did the Swedish exchange, we did one over the course of three years, and it was amazing. I want to do a project in South America. I'm working on going to Chile and working on going to Brazil. I really want to use this festival and this platform that I've spent the last seven years cultivating and turn that into something where I can bring people from different countries to play at the embassies in D.C., show them what we've been doing, and hopefully inspire them to do something there. Which is what happened with Sweden. I inspired them to do this jazz festival there. That's something that I feel like is a very marketable project, and it's something people can grasp easily and say okay, I understand that women are not being showcased the way that they should be in the jazz scene. I want us to be diplomatic and to be ambassadors for women. Just trying to combine resources with other countries and find these other women in places who are struggling but also really energetic about creating space for themselves.

M: Could you name a handful of women artists who you're really into right now? It could be from D.C., the U.S., abroad.

A: Joanne Brackeen, Katie Thiroux, Nicole Saphos, Christie Dashiell, Leigh Pilzer, Janel Leppin.  [Several of them have new albums out.]  I pretty much listen to Betty Carter's Feed the Fire every day. It's just in my car, and I listen to it as much as possible, because Betty Carter and Geri Allen is the best combination that's ever existed.


Amy K. Bormet, currently living in Los Angeles, is an in-demand pianist, vocalist, and composer. Her latest project, Ephemera, is a platform for her new art songs with improvisation.




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