Jazz festival brings women’s voices, and their drumsticks, to the stage

Washington Women in Jazz Festival pulls back the veil on female music scene.

Image by Evan Ziegenmeyer

Nearly eight years ago, Amy K. Bormet saw an opportunity to promote the work of an underappreciated and underserved population in the Metro-D.C. area: female jazz musicians.

The pianist, vocalist and composer quickly established the Washington Women in Jazz Festival, a series of concerts and jam sessions that spotlighted the talent of her female colleagues. Today, that festival spans more than a week, March 10-18, and includes a Young Artist Showcase, music business workshop and discussion panel sprinkled in with its performance roster.

The festival isn’t short on NoVA musicians, with Fairfax-based trombonist Shannon Gunn performing opening night at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and George Mason University doctoral student and saxophonist Leigh Pilzer leading the Washington Women in Jazz All-Stars on March 16. Bassist Karine Chapdelaine, a Dumfries resident, will also play several shows.

Bormet, who now lives in L.A., has started to translate her vision to her new city, planning an L.A. Women in Jazz Day. But in a recent interview, she makes clear that she’s not done with D.C.

You graduated Howard University in 2010 with a master’s in jazz studies and then turned right around and created this festival in 2011. Had you witnessed a deficit in the D.C. jazz landscape when it came to female performers, or what inspired you to start the festival?

I think going to Howard was an extremely empowering experience in terms of seeing another side of the D.C. jazz scene and really seeing the program that the school had to offer. From there, I met a bunch of women at the Mary Lou Williams Festival at the Kennedy Center and I met all these women that were living in D.C. And I was like, “I have never heard of you—oh my God, you sound so good.” And then I tried to plot and plan how I could make them play on gigs with me. So this was my plan, that if I booked a bunch of really cool concerts that all these women who were super inspiring would play with me, and out of that grew this realization that it’s so empowering and amazing to have all women playing together.  It is such a rarity and now, more and more, people are realizing that it’s a really powerful experience.

Tell us about the festival’s relationship with Sweden.

Three years ago, I went to Sweden to speak at an equality conference, on music equality. So then when I got there, I was like, “Hey, you should send some people to come play at the festival.” And so they did, and we did a whole day of events. And then we went to Sweden and did a tour with the two bands for two weeks. This year, I’ve got a bassist coming from Austria, and we’re going to play a gig at the Austria Embassy, and she’s going to play with the Washington Women in Jazz Ensemble. So, [I’m] trying to continue that path and get some people over to the U.S. and over to D.C. who may not be superstars in the jazz world but are deserving of attention and time, and also creating connections between D.C. women, women in Europe and women abroad.

In the era of #MeToo, do you feel like the festival mission is in any way more urgent, or do you not consider the political atmosphere?

I think it’s great that people are bringing so much awareness to sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace. Everyone who works in the music scene, especially the women, know the difficulties that we face. And I also think that this is something that’s never not been there, and this is a systemic problem that we all face. So it’s not just the harassment, it’s not just the assault. It’s the system.

How do we go about changing the system and educating people? I think it’s been great to have not only women involved in the program but to have men; I’ve had college students, men, [as] interns, and we’ve done masterclasses and workshops at high schools and colleges around town. And we have a Young Artist Showcase—this year, I have 20 college women coming from across the U.S.—to really give some solidarity and some backing and some “you are not alone, you are not crazy.” We can all be together and celebrate what makes us unique as women in this scene, and also know our rights and know how to explain ourselves. And know how to deal with the adversity that’s faced for women in the music scene.

What are your plans for the festival as it approaches its 10th anniversary?

I’m trying to get some support and some funding for the Young Artist Showcase so that I can make that even bigger. And [I’d like to] teach them how to advocate for themselves and to show them the process of what we do in D.C. Making music is a political act even if you don’t intend it to be. Being a woman and making music is a political act. I’m also developing more programs, women in jazz exchanges with other festivals that are abroad and working in Europe because so many countries in Europe have done a lot for women’s equality, a lot for women in the workplace and a lot for women in the music scene.

Interview has been edited and condensed.