This is the article I wrote for the Jazz at Lincoln Center ‘s 25th Anniversary book “In the Spirit of Swing”. Wynton called me up one day and asked me to write a piece for the book, but did not give me any opinion on what to write about. I decided to write about the importance of staying true to your own artistic self, regardless of the politics involved in any situation. It’s crucial for artists to have a very strong resolve about who they are and what their “sound” is, and stay focused on that no matter what the court of public opinion may throw at you. Here is what I wrote:
“Jazz at Lincoln Center has always stood by a steady philosophy. Jazz swings. Jazz has blues. Jazz is a musical language that has remained true to its traditions while still evolving throughout a century of history. In my short career I have had the opportunity to be a part of this tradition, and much of my experience has been through Jazz at Lincoln Center.
For me it began in high school as a member of the Hall High School Concert Jazz Band, performing at the Essentially Ellington Festival. Four years in a row the band covered some of the greatest music ever written, which in itself is an education to last a lifetime, let alone competing against some of the country’s most talented young people, all vying for accolades from Wynton, Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, and countless other jazz greats who judged the bands.
My inspiration to move to New York came from having been exposed to great jazz at a young age, and the energy and soul therein. Since then I have partaken in almost every aspect of Jazz at Lincoln Center, as a graduate of the Juilliard Jazz program, to being a touring member of the JLCO. I have also worked as a mentor for the Essentially Ellington festival, and performed at Dizzy’s Club with my groups. Jazz at Lincoln Center has become like a second home for me.
What draws people to want to be a part of Jazz at Lincoln Center is its consistency. Audiences at Rose Hall know they’re going to hear a class-act, swinging, high-quality performance by a seasoned group of masters. However, several critics have argued that since Jazz at Lincoln Center is funded partly by public monies, it should reflect all aspects of society, often alluding to the fact that there isn’t a woman in the band. They question why a racially diverse orchestra who is represented by musicians of all ages can’t include at least one female. Since public tax money is partially contributing to the institution’s success, shouldn’t it provide equal opportunity to musicians of all races, backgrounds, and genders?
When it comes to choosing musicians for an ensemble, bandleaders often consider a number of factors. Is this person punctual? Do they jibe well with the other band members? Can they play all the instruments the music requires? Depending on the gig, factors like gender, body type, and other superficial qualities may come into play. Do they look good in the costumes? Can they dance? Sometimes bandleaders do in fact hire a musician based on gender. There are all-female bands in existence where the number one prerequisite is obviously the fact that the members are women. Every bandleader has his or her own priorities when forming an ensemble, and each priority is valid. To each his own.
I know that in the past I have been hired because of my gender. Rarely do I ever escape a performance where someone in the audience approaches me, applauding my resolve to become a jazz musician despite the fact that I am a woman. Quite honestly, I don’t actually KNOW what it feels like to be a female jazz musician, simply because I’ve never been a man before.
Wynton has always chosen his band members very carefully. In his groups, the absolute first requirement of all the musicians is “Can he or she swing?” This is by far the most crucial factor in determining if someone is right for the band, and has been since Jazz at Lincoln Center started twenty-five years ago. The orchestra is comprised of some of the most gifted, talented, knowledgeable, and yes, swinging jazz musicians alive. Each member has earned a spot in the band, not because he was born looking a certain way, but because he has studied the music, and has an innate gift of executing it with the soul and feeling appropriate for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Diversity is alive and well in the band, not due to strategy, but due to happenstance. I too have had the privilege of performing and touring with the band, and I just happen to be female. I most certainly prefer it this way, because I know I’m hired based upon merit, not on my appearance. This makes me proud because I worked a lot harder to become an accomplished musician than I did to become a female.
The tide of public opinion ebbs and flows. Some institutions have proven to be malleable in their philosophies, bending whenever a negatively-tinged article is published, or if a prominent funder expresses distaste with a decision. Music is first and foremost at Jazz at Lincoln Center – it is the creed on which the establishment is based. If other ideals supersede those that make the music great, then the foundation on which Jazz at Lincoln Center stands becomes compromised. For twenty-five years Jazz at Lincoln Center has brought jazz, swinging jazz, to the masses. Consistency has been the key to its success, and it’s what its structure is built upon. This has been the mission since the beginning, and this is why Jazz at Lincoln Center is and will always be The House of Swing.
Erica von Kleist”