In mid-March, big band fans had the treat of enjoying the DIVA Jazz Orchestra’s extended play at New York City’s Dizzy’s Club. Thanks to the club’s streaming service, it was visible worldwide. DIVA is unique in several ways. It is usually an all-woman aggregation that will soon celebrate its thirtieth anniversary, and they have frequently included musicians from other countries. Perhaps the longest serving of these are pianist Tomoko Ohno and bassist Noriko Ueda, both originally from Japan.
The leader, Sherrie Maricle has strong roots in jazz. As a young girl, seeing Buddy Rich perform live convinced her to switch from clarinet to drums. Her budding talent landed her steady gigs with Slam Stewart, and later studies with Mel Lewis and Jeff Hamilton capped her career preparation. After establishing herself in New York’s jazz community, she received encouragement from Stanley Kay, the former manager of, and substitute drummer for the Buddy Rich big band, to form an all-women big band, because he liked the way she played.
Stanley’s credentials as a serious percussionist, manager, composer and arranger were well known, so it spoke volumes of how isolated women jazz musicians were that he asked if Maricle thought she could find enough women players as good as her to compose such a band. She did it easily. Soon the band was ready and well equipped with charts by many top arrangers, such as Kay himself, Tommy Newsom, Johnny Mandel and many more.
The band’s quality quickly moved it forward, and now it has a history of successful performances at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center and many similar prestige venues spanning the globe. One of which, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club, has booked the band for extended appearances in March, every year since it opened in 2004.
This year, as I have over the years, I attended one night. Because the club live streamed the show, I had seen it four nights previously. As good as that was, being in the same room with those great talents was as different as looking at a magnificent painting of some natural wonder vs walking amid that wonder on a beautiful day. The opening number was a solid joyous roaring arrangement of “Heart,” from their new CD The DIVA Jazz Orchestra Swings Broadway. It immediately reminded me of the Buddy Rich band, and lifted my spirits.
The band mostly performed selections from the CD, all with great arrangements that kept the joy in the room. Some of those arrangements are by Michael Abene and Scott Whitfield as well as band members Leigh Pilzer and Noriko Ueda. Indeed, my good mood remained long after in spite of the dismal savagery in the news.
Maricle is gregarious and treats her audiences as good friends. Her banter between numbers is always a buoyant good fit with the music. Before the band performed “Seventy-Six Trombones,” she jokingly invited anyone who had brought their trombone to join in. Much to everyone’s surprise, one clearly anxious young woman took up the offer and, under the guidance of trombonist Jennifer Krupa, successfully performed.
The set concluded with Sherrie inviting two more young trumpeters to sit in for a joyous rendition of Ellington’s “In A Mellow Tone.” Again, as with the young trombonist, their enthusiasm and excitement about the opportunity was palpable and infectious. It was a great ending to a grand and memorable set. Happily, the band is already booked to return to the club next March. Mark your calendar.
Later I asked Maricle if all of that had been prearranged. She said, “No. Every night, I asked the audience, ‘Does anyone have a trombone?’ I didn’t expect anybody to actually have one. But once I said it and then she appeared with it, I felt let’s have at it then. I was recently at a large college festival in Nebraska. I told the school’s band director, ‘It would be really funny if we had like a zillion trombones on stage.’ And he did, we had probably fifteen or twenty trombonists playing it in front of the big band. I had Jennifer Krupa with me, of course, to lead the pack. The audience thought it was the best thing ever. With that in mind, I kept just making the joke, and that kid had one. That’s cool.”
“The other two young women musicians that sat in, Summer Camargo, a very brilliant jazz player, deeply rooted in the tradition, and Grace Fox, are both trumpeters that have their stars on the rise. Grace recently formed a band of young women players to perform her original music, and I fully support and encourage everything she’s doing.
When I studied with Mel Lewis, he let me sit in with his band at the Vanguard. I just was one step away from having a heart attack with joy, nerves and excitement and just elated to be noticed or encouraged. I’ll never forget that moment from my youth, and if I can provide it for anybody else, I sure will.”
Visit the DIVA Jazz Orchestra online at divajazz.com.