Originally Posted on Desert Sun by Will Dean
Attendees at this month’s Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival can expect plenty of the unexpected. Just as the musical genre thrives on improvisation, the festival’s artistic director relishes mixing things up to create a feel-good show. Sweet Baby J’ai is the type of musician who will wow a sophisticated audience with mad washboard-playing skills, or perform an impromptu duet using spoons with jazz master Herbie Hancock.
J’ai returns Oct. 9-11 to lead the third incarnation of the festival, created and presented by Gail Christian and Lucy Debardelaben of Palm Springs. As in past years, J’ai has invited top women musicians to participate. She recently revealed to Desert Outlook what festivalgoers can expect, her passion for musical storytelling, and the nightmarish gig that turned into one of her most rewarding.
You’ve been described as a musical storyteller. How is that different from being a singer?
I love to give history behind the music that I perform. There are so many stories of those musicians who had to go in the back door, and female musicians in particular. I sort of tell those stories of those people I stand on the shoulders of, and stories about the songs themselves.
What does jazz offer the listener that other musical genres may not?
The wonderful thing about jazz is that it has this huge umbrella. It has improvisation. Jazz means that an ensemble is going to come together and they’re going to improvise. When you’re playing jazz, as a musician it is your choice what voicings you choose. You can hear a standard like Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” 100 different ways because each musician brings a different flavor.
What are some common misperceptions about jazz that may keep people from giving it a listen or attending a jazz festival?
Some people think that it’s elitist music. I’ve heard that term thrown around. I get so many people who come up to me and say, “I didn’t think I like jazz, but I love what you do.” People have this idea that jazz is just this very static music.
Tell me about a show or experience that you’ll always cherish.
To pinpoint one, that is difficult. Here’s one that covers both, one of the worst experiences and one of the best. At the last minute I got the call to do this show during the holidays up in Mammoth. None of my band members was available. I had to call referrals. Even the referrals were booked, so I got referrals of referrals. I was playing with musicians I hadn’t played with before. I thought we would be fine because jazz is improv, right? I got up there and one was a drug addict who couldn’t even sit up straight. It was an absolute nightmare and I had a contract for a week.
Joe Sample [pianist and composer] came in and fired the band from the bandstand, and Joe played with me for the rest of my stay. It was fantastic. We had a great time. That was a lot of fun.
Another is I did a spoon duet with Herbie Hancock on the fly. It was very hip.
Whose music are you listening to these days?
I have a mixture. It depends on the mood. Now that they have Pandora, you can put on a genre. Like on a Sunday morning when I’m cleaning, I want to hear some Latin jazz. I want to it to be loud, I want to hear voices, and I want to dance while I’m vacuuming. … Sometimes when I’m upstairs on the deck with a glass of wine and I want to relax, I’ll put on Amy Winehouse’s channel.
What can festivalgoers expect this year?
We have got a couple of legends in the mix this year. We’ve got Diane Schuur and we have Nona Hendryx, who is like the queen of funk doing jazz. Opening for Diane Schuur, I have a dancer, Dawn Robinson, who’s going to do a tribute to Billie Holiday. We’ve got some great surprises for you. The lineup is so packed of talent that it’s so much fun.
What’s your biggest challenge as the festival’s artistic director?
As an artistic director it’s my job to make sure that this program is the best that it can be. All of the things that go on in the back, they have to be handled and that is a lot. It is unbelievable, but it all comes together and that’s what makes it worth it.
First of all, it’s a jazz festival that showcases female musicians. … The reason I’m doing it is, I go to festivals all the time. I’m doing the jazz series at the Hollywood Bowl. I’ve been there almost every Wednesday night and I haven’t seen a female musician yet. We don’t get a chance to play at these major events. That’s not true for female singers. But as a musician, it’s rare that you get an opportunity. This is why I’m doing a festival showcasing female musicians.
Are you working on anything you’d like Desert Outlook readers to know about?
I have a new CD that hits the stores [in October]. It’s called “Straight to That Place.” I went there because I hadn’t recorded in five or six years. I’m just so happy that I’m about to bust at my seams. It is a celebration of some of my favorite musicians and some of my favorite composers. I did a Nina Simone song and a B.B. King tribute. I did some jazz standards and wrote some songs of my own.
If you go