Posted March 30, 2012

Saxophonist is comfortable as the only girl in the band

Documentary and performance by Temple Jazz Band highlights the women of jazz

Courtesy Boyer College of Music and Dance
Saxophonist Maria Mirenzi (left-center) and former jazz band trombonist Kate Rhoda (right) are among a rare group of women jazz instrumentalists. Mirenzi will perform with the Temple Jazz Band at the premiere of a new documentary focused on women instrumentalists.

In a genre traditionally dominated by men, it can be difficult for women jazz musicians to gain a foothold and build a career. But despite the odds, countless women have forgone the traditional rules of the game and forged ahead.

“There may not be many women instrumentalists in jazz, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t made great contributions to the music,” said Maria Mirenzi, saxophonist and the lone woman member of Temple’s Big Band. “They’re definitely there as singers, composers and performers.”

On Monday, April 2, Mirenzi and members of the Temple Big Band will pay homage to unknown women instrumentalists prior to the Philadelphia premiere of The Girls in the Band, a documentary that looks at the history of women in jazz. The sold-out performance and screening will be held in the Franklin Institute’s Franklin Hall.

Nearly a century ago, Mirenzi may not have had an opportunity to sit in with an all-male ensemble. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, very few women were granted the privilege of playing side-by-side with their male counterparts. Instead, hundreds of women musicians were relegated to glamorous All-Girl Bands, performing in sequined gowns and flirtatious costuming.

The women endured sexism, racism and diminished opportunities for decades, yet continued to elevate their talents in a field that seldom welcomed them. By the mid-‘50s, female big band and jazz musicians had literally disappeared; their names and contributions to music forgotten.  

Produced and directed by Judy Chaikin, The Girls in the Band reveals the untold stories of these women and their groundbreaking journeys from the late '30s to the present day. The film features contemporary artists like Geri Allen, The Diva Jazz Orchestra and Esperanza Spalding, a gifted bass player/singer who was named new artist of the year at the 2011 Grammy Awards.
Although Mirenzi is the only woman in Temple’s award-winning Jazz ensemble, which is led by Director of Jazz Studies Terell Stafford, she doesn’t feel out of place.

“I used to feel a little left out among a group of boys,” said the Mountaintop, Pa. native. “But the other musicians in the jazz ensemble are great; they always make me feel like I’m part of the team. The fact that I’m a woman is never an issue.”