A Woman Leads the Band

Randi Cee and the Speakeasys swing "Some of These Days" (from left): Corey Gemme, clarinet; Randi Cee, leader; Katie Cavera, bass; and John Reynolds, tenor guitar. (YouTube photo)

Titles are difficult. For years, I floated through life undercutting any achievements while expertly conducting the negative cacophony that played in my head. Women are taught from a very young age to be careful about being confident about their achievements. I mean we wouldn’t want the world to think us “uppity.” My mom was a card-carrying feminist. She dragged me to ERA/NOW meetings and was one of the first subscribers to Ms. Magazine. It didn’t seem to make a difference—I still got indoctrinated as to be careful about my place in the world.

The best example of this fear of labeling myself was straight out of college. I refused to call myself an actor because I wasn’t earning a living at it and the all too common joke would be: “Really? How great! Where do you wait tables?”

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A “Real” Dancer

Twenty-plus years of being a working dancer and becoming vested in my union, I still had a hard time using the title “dancer” for fear of what others would think. Never mind that I had danced on Film/TV/ The Oscars, traveled the world because I could learn real choreography, and people wanted to watch me dance. It didn’t matter that I took dance classes for years. I was not a “real” dancer—I was an actor who could move. I finally let that go a few years ago. It took many of the professional dancers whom I respect so greatly to assure me that no matter how much I hemmed and hawed, my hips spoke the truth. Now I have come to realize if you have been being paid to do something for over half your life you can allow yourself “the title.”

Chasing the Dream

In the last four years, I have taken more control of my life. I have more than one career and I wanted more from all of them. I decided to go after the long simmering dream to sing the traditional jazz and swing music that I had always adored. How would I do this? I could stick a flower in my hair and compliment a lot of male bandleaders and hope one of them would occasionally allow me to sit in—only I didn’t have the twenty years that would take. So I was counseled by a male bandleader, “Just do it. Produce your first show.” That meant I had to lead the band. Shit.

Bandleader?

What exactly is a “bandleader?” I have learned it is a very male-dominated title. Some bandleaders write their own charts. Some can’t recognize a single note on a page. But the two most important things they all must do is find the work and herd cats—the cool cats, aka musicians. There were a few men (and a woman) early on in my endeavors that schooled me about what my responsibilities were as Bandleader. I worked harder at my books than most. I wanted none of those “girl singer” jokes to come barreling my way. And I remember hearing second-hand from the girlfriend of my then trumpet player: “She is doing it right.” He was speaking about my book and the way I was going about bandleading. Yet he didn’t tell me that. I didn’t really care about being called a “bandleader”—like I said labels are not important…or are they?

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Getting Advice

I went to see the film There’s a Future in the Past, which is about the legendary Bandleader Vince Giordano’s experience leading his 11-piece band.  I know Mr. Giordano in a casual way. He was going to be there and I looked forward to seeing him and seeing the film. I was introduced to him when I took a trip to New York; his band The Nighthawks blew my socks off. I also contacted him about getting the rights to a tune I wanted to put on my EP. It was the title track “Any Kind of Man,” by Victoria Spivey. I had a couple back and forth emails with Vince. He knew her and getting to hear from someone who had met her felt like the circle was more complete. I appreciated the time and care he took in corresponding with me. It was a challenge, but I finally found the place to secure the rights to the tune. I know a bandleader who bragged to me that he never bothered paying the royalties—he would simply go and make his records. As someone who relies on residual income for much of my livelihood everything about that seems wrong. As with all things there are exceptions, but if I can, I want the estate to get the few dollars it costs. Every bandleader has a different way of doing things.

In the film about Vince’s journey (created by two talented filmmakers, Dave Davidson and Amber Edwards) we see the struggles and triumphs of keeping a band this size together. The “King of Schlep,” as he calls himself, is a fascinating character. In addition to his passion for saving printed music from the early years of jazz he also makes sure The Nighthawks stay working. Band Leader duties for 11 musicians is truly a Herculean task. I loved every single moment of this film. I urge you to do whatever you need to do to see it. What came through for me was the deep emotional connection he has for the music. It isn’t only gas that kept that schlep van going—it was the love, and maybe a bissel of meshugana (that’s for Vince). The people in the movie theatre clapped after every band number—so yes, the glorious music is also there. I want to ask Vince next time I see him if he had it to do all over again, would he choose the flute and piccolo?

Chant Who’s?

I was out recently and someone who is a hobbyist musician introduced me as a Chanteuse. For the first time in my life, I corrected him. I said something like: I lead my own band and I am looking forward to the next two gigs one at private party at a country club in Palos Verdes (a very swanky area indeed, the mere mention of that rock above the Pacific may cause need for additional oxygen), and the wedding of a swing dance couple.

His eyes went very, very wide and a big ol’ “Ohhhhhhhhhh” came out of his mouth. It was the shock that pissed me off. He is a nice guy, but that wide eyed basset hound look of “REALLY?” yanked my chain so hard.

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I don’t compare myself to any bandleaders. I simply say this. I don’t just sing the music, I hustle the bookings, I hire the musicians, I keep the books up, I also refuse gigs that don’t pay everyone enough. And let’s not forget “sound wench.” If the only thing I had to do was show up, sing, and be paid? Oh, what sheer rapture that would be. Can you hear that? The heavens just opened and the angels sang! I wonder if God gets those cherubs a meal, a couple of drinks, and validates their parking.

In the Studio

While creating my EP I chose a producer who I knew would listen to what I wanted in terms of arrangements and feeling. I heard the ending of my ballad “You Made Me Love You” in my head. I couldn’t put the dots on the paper but I sang him how I wanted the song to end. I also had no problem once in the studio (that I was paying for) telling him I needed a tune “dirtier.” He then used the exact words to my musicians and I got what I wanted.

Boys Club

This Bandleading business is a Boys Club. And every male involved knows it. I once asked a musician for the name of the booker of a club that all my contemporaries were booking and that request went denied. That gentleman had been employed by me in the past. He later became a booker for that very club. He never would give me the information or the chance once he was booking for the club. He was fired as booker and I have yet to book that club. (His band still plays there.) I have no illusions about changing the world, but I’ll bet my music stand light that other women who have been in this game longer have had similar experiences.

Owning It

I don’t think respect is something anyone, male or female, deserves by merely putting a title on what they do. I choose to work hard for many reasons. I also accept art is subjective; not everyone is going to love what I do. (Wait? really? what is wrong with you?) But the larger principle is important: it seems that women in general have a hard time owning their merit. I find that it takes a certain amount of hubris to excel in any artistic endeavor. You are basically saying to the world: “What I have to offer is of worth.” We don’t seem to have a problem as a society when a man does that but if a woman does she gets some pretty unsavory labels fairly quickly.

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The musician tribe is a great thing to be a part of. I respect those that do this and do it well. I go out to hear bandleaders I admire to watch their way of leading, so that I might learn something. I came to this career with a skill set that serves me well: I have performed my whole life. My dear friend and bass player Katie Cavera said to me before I took the bandstand at my very first festival performance, “It doesn’t matter that you don’t need to lead us because we all know the drill. Lead us anyway. You must do that to be respected.”
That Katie is one smart cookie.

A Woman Leads the Band
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