Kansas historian revisits feminist music festival


Khánh Nguyễn

Music educator, performer, critic and Kansas historian Carolyn Glenn Brewer during her lecture on Nov. 20, 2018 at the RSC.

In 1975, the legendary George Wein, producer and promoter of the Newport Jazz Festival, said he didn’t think women had the talent to carry an entire jazz festival. He was wrong.

Carolyn Glenn Brewer’s history of the Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City tells the story of the talented women jazz musicians who took center stage in the 70s and 80s. These artists showed the world that they were as good as, if not better than, their male counterparts.

Brewer, a historian, music educator, and author, spoke to an audience in the Rhatigan Student Center Tuesday about the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival. The festival survived for only seven years, but musicians around the globe felt its impact. It encouraged women in the industry to take their rightful place on the stage.

For Brewer, the history of jazz is personal and familial. Brewer’s family is comprised of jazz and classical musicians.

“I’ve been around jazz my whole life. My brother and my father both were jazz musicians. My husband is a jazz musician,” Brewer said. Both her sons are also jazz musicians.

As for Brewer herself, she taught music to fourth to eighth graders for 22 years. She recently retired from teaching.

“I don’t play jazz but I write about jazz,” Brewer said. “Classical music is my meat and potatoes but jazz is dessert.”

Brewer’s book, “Changing the Tune: The Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival, 1978-1985,” published by the University of North Texas Press, sheds light on a chapter in jazz history and women’s history. It details the many acts and performances that formed the backbone of such festivals. It also tells the story of the festival’s founders, Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg.

Comer and Gregg launched the festival project in 1978. Comer, a renowned singer and piano player and Gregg, host of “Women in Jazz” on KCUR, were talking in the car during the drive back to KC from Wichita about women in music. Out of that conversation was born the idea for an all women’s jazz fest.

According to Brewer, by the time the women made it to the tollbooth, festival planning had begun.

“Before they had even really digested the idea that they had decided to do this, the ball was rolling. Within six weeks, they had all kinds of stuff ready,” said Brewer. “They had incorporated, they had their lineup, they had a venue and board of directors, they had filed all the papers they needed to for a non-profit. They really got off to a great start.”

In March of 1978, the first Kansas City’s Women’s Jazz Festival kicked off at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan. They chose to hold the event at a Kansas venue because Missouri hadn’t ratified the Equal Rights Amendment.

According to Brewer, one of the biggest festival highlights for Comer and Gregg was trombonist Melba Liston’s return to the stage. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Liston made a name for herself in California during the 1940s big band era. Female arrangers and composers were unheard of at the time. Liston fought a constant battle against rampant sexism and discrimination.

She worked with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones before leaving the U.S. for Jamaica. Liston had become disillusioned with the American music industry.

“She didn’t want to perform anymore. She didn’t want anything to do with the music business,” Brewer said. “She had gotten burned so many times. Comer and Gregg really wanted her to be a part of the festival. They spent six months calling her. They were determined to get Melba Liston to come to one of their festivals. And the second year, she did.”

Liston and her band headlined the 1979 jazz festival. She remained stateside and found her footing on stage once again thanks in part to the determination of Comer and Gregg who, “felt like that was a real success story — like they had really made a difference in the world and to jazz history,” Brewer said.

Brewer’s goal with her book was not just to tell an important story of women in jazz, but also to pay tribute to Comer and Gregg, she said.

“It was their vision, their direction, and they did an amazing thing,” Brewer said. “Though they had a lot of help, the festival was their idea and without them, it never would have happened.”

The festival brought in many international players. According to Brewer, 36 states were represented in the first two years at the festival. It was a major accomplishment.

Once Comer and Gregg stopped overseeing the festival, however, it quickly fell apart. Acts were becoming more expensive to book. Brewer said she thinks the people who took over the festival underestimated the amount of work and dedication it would take. Though Comer and Gregg offered to stay on in an advisory role, their offer was firmly turned down. This ultimately cost Kansas City its festival.

Carolyn Elerding, assistant professor in the department of women’s studies and religion, remarked on the importance of publishing such histories.

“I think that Carolyn Glenn Brewer’s voice is really important right now because we’re at a pivotal moment where feminism — and what I mean by that is the struggle for equality — is more powerful than ever,” Elderding said. “And it’s receiving more resistance than ever.”

Brewer agreed about the book’s timeliness.

“With the whole #MeToo movement now, there’s a lot of controversies coming to light about what women have to do to get and keep jobs in the music business and other businesses,” Brewer said. “It’s helpful to see what another generation did and the dues that they paid.”

For Brewer, it ultimately comes down to equality, she said.

“Just because you’re a woman, it doesn’t mean you’re a better player. But it doesn’t mean you’re a worse player. That’s the thing.”