No Boys Allowed: Katie Cavera’s Women-Only Jazz Jam in full ukulele mode. Katie is standing at the back with the yellow uke, and Randi Cee is pictured center with the banjolele. (photo submitted by Randi Cee)
My mother tried. I got piano lessons as a child. I just didn’t “get it.” The woman she hired was a crummy bored piano teacher and I was a crummy bored student. Uninspired squared. There was one recital. I had learned the piece by rote—my ear probably helped that process immensely. The lines and dots, as far as I can remember, meant little or nothing to me.
Then shortly after college, I booked a big job where I had to go into the studio and sing for John Williams and I was faced with sheet music—and I vowed then to learn what the Rorschach dots and lines meant. So I took an Introduction to Music Theory class at a junior college. The professor loved me, but boy, did I struggle. He thought it was strange that someone so engaged, with a BA under her belt, had such a hard time the material. “You invert your correct answers,” he said. “You are probably number dyslexic.” Which just means I need to work a bit harder.
My friend, mentor, and bass player (when I can get her), Katie Cavera, recently decided to start a jam for women only. Yup, no boys allowed in this clubhouse. No prior music training to join into the mix—just a desire to have fun and learn something about music. Oh, and as she herself said: “Snacks are usually involved.”
The first jam I couldn’t make because I was gigging out of town. The second one I was in New York City, but three times a charm. I was excited to finally get to join in on the jam and I had an amazing time. My ax of choice is the piano; my goal is just to become a better bandleader by having a better understanding of the language of music. I also learned one chord on the stand-up bass because I love it so. There is a giddy joy from plunking out a melody with a simple syncopated left hand helping to be a part of the rhythm section. Keyword here is “simple.” My hands are so small I can just palm a golf ball. Back in the dark ages of regular check writing (before debit cards) cashiers would watch and exclaim, “Oh my gosh—your hands are the size of a child’s!” If something as commonplace as a hand is diminutive enough for someone to take notice…you know you have an undersized appendage.
I was curious about why Katie decided to start this group. And that led to other questions. You may know Katie from the jazz festivals and if you are on the West Coast you know her as an in-demand trad and swing stand-up bass player. However, that wasn’t her first instrument. She started by fooling around on her dad’s Kimball organ after becoming enchanted with “The Entertainer” from the movie The Sting. Because of her small hands, she ended up on something more manageable than keyboards: the banjo. I know how she feels but I am not going the banjo route—don’t believe the picture. I just needed a prop.
Katie is also a card-carrying Magician Member of the Magic Castle, a highly prestigious Los Angeles magician’s club. She informed me that the sexism you find in music is also prevalent in magic. “…something like 3% of all the Magician Members of the Magic Castle are women. And if you’re a Magician Member that means you passed the audition process to become a member in full standing at the club, so you have a working knowledge of the art and have demonstrated a certain level of skill as a performer.” She went on to tell me that there is a woman’s group of members of the Castle that includes hobbyists like herself and professionals. They meet up to support each other, work on tricks, and socialize. They often go out en masse as a group to support females who are performing at the Castle. She thought the same model would work for females who wanted to play trad jazz music, but had no real way of doing this.
It seemed like a natural progression to ask her about her experiences in the male-dominated field of music. “The thing about jam sessions that are led and usually dominated by men,” she said, “is that if a woman shows up she’d better be pretty good or even great or she’ll run the risk of being cast aside or made to feel unwelcome. There’s definitely a level of ‘judgieness’ (okay, that’s not a word but you know what I mean) that women have to deal with simply because they are women. And yes I did deal with this a lot early on, and every now and then I still deal with it. Seriously. But at this point, it seems ridiculous or even a little sad and I know it says more about the person making the comment than me.”
In our Katie-led female only jam, we have every level from never having played an instrument to those that are quite skilled. We meet once a month and, depending on everyone’s schedule, we get a different group for each session. Which means each time the group meets, it will have a different sound and will be unique.
To see who might be interested in the jam Katie reached out to the swing dance community because they already have a love of the music and she figured some might have played an instrument in the past—and if not, that was okay, too. She knew that they at least had (hopefully) some sense of rhythm and even some basic music concepts from dancing.
The moment the group was formed I was so happy to have someplace safe like this to learn. It has been a catalyst to do more music theory homework on my own. Learning music even at its most basic level requires a commitment to memorization which, if you have numbers-resistant gray matter, means you need to step up the time it requires.
The group is very new, and just like all good adventures you never really know where the road will take you. Katie, my optimist touchstone (they don’t call her the California Sunshine Girl for nothing), had this to say:
“I just hope that people enjoy these sessions as much as I do and that I can start to expand my circle of female jazz musician friends. If we keep at this long enough maybe some of them will join or form their own bands. So let’s just all get together and play and laugh and have fun and be bad together. Eventually, we may be pretty good and we’ll see what happens from there.”
I look forward to our next get-together because even though I am happy with the “gift basket” I got from my gene lottery, that section of the brain that houses math (which is also where the music theory hangs out) is like an opium den, spitting and hissing like a cranked Model A. As soon as I started leading my band, it was clear I needed to learn or look foolish so I chose the former. And even though there are many vocalists, both male and female, who can’t read a note of music, I knew the drill: be better or be marginalized; you aren’t going to get the free pass that the guys get.
Katie has gotten many calls from me over the last four years with music questions. She is not only a fantastic musician, she is a treasured friend. I can always rely on her whether it’s a question about music or about a sexist sideman encounter. She serves it up straight to me, always willing to share her sunshine and her own brand of no-nonsense truth-telling.
So, get ready pre-frontal cortex—we are adding on. It’s not going to always be smooth and you know it will be messy, but like all good renovations, there will be something of value and worth when it’s finished. More than likely it will always be “under construction” which as an artist isn’t a bad way to live your life.
Randi Cee is a bandleader and vocalist based in Los Angeles who specializes in swing and hot jazz. Visit her online at www.randiceemusic.com.
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