For Jeanie Bryson and Virginia Mayhew, female jazz musicians who will be performing in the inaugural Trenton Women in Jazz Festival the evening of Friday, May 11, those who came before are just as important as those who are here now.
Bryson is the daughter of the legendary jazz great Dizzy Gillespie. Bryson, who grew up in East Brunswick, has been performing for more than 20 years. She has begun preparing a repertoire of Gillespie songs to perform.
Mayhew, a saxophonist, has just finished recording a tribute to Duke Ellington in collaboration with guitarist Edward Kennedy Ellington II, the grandson of Duke Ellington. “It’s really great that women get a chance to be featured like this,” says Mayhew.
The Women in Jazz festival has been organized by the Trenton Downtown Association’s Trenton2Nite. Mayhew and pianist Tara Buzash will give a free jazz instrumentalists’ clinic on Friday, May 11, at 4: 30 p.m. at Gallery 125, and Bryson, Miche Braden, and Wenonah Brooks will give a free vocalists’ clinic at the same time at Cafe Ole.
Bryson then performs with her quartet at 9 p.m. at the Trenton Masonic Temple, and Mayhew performs at 8 p.m. at Gallery 125. For a schedule of all performers visit www.trenton2nite.com/womeninjazz.html.
Bryson’s latest project, following five CDs, is a live show called “The Dizzy Gillespie Songbook,” featuring her father’s music. Although she has included his music in her repertoire, she has never before concentrated on putting together an all-Diz show.
It was a question of style more than anything. “I’ve been Dizzy’s daughter for almost 50 years now, and I hadn’t really thought of it. It seemed to me that I had always tried to capture the spirit of who he was on stage, the joy of playing, and that was always as important as the music I play. Those who knew my father tell me how much I remind them of him, in the way I look, the way I act, the way I move. With this project, I just wanted to evoke the spirit of my father.”
But Bryson knows that her style, which is soft and conversational and concentrates heavily on the interpretation of lyrics, is often at direct odds with Diz’s music. “My style and his are different,” she says. “I’m not a scat singer, and I don’t do much improvising on the melody. He was one of the great creators of that. But I feel that I’ll be true to him.”
Bryson, 48, is also the daughter of composer/performer Connie Bryson. She was born in Manhattan but was raised by her maternal grandparents in East Brunswick from the time she was a small child, while her mother spent most of her weekdays teaching and playing music in Manhattan. “Back then it was a lot more rural than it is now,” says Bryson, who still lives in East Brunswick. “We always thought this was the country. When I came out here I thought this was the sticks.”
Her grandparents, jazz enthusiasts, always had lots of jazz records around, including those of Gillespie. With her mother, whom she saw every weekend and most of the summer, she got more of a musical education. “My grandparents loved Oscar Peterson, Nancy Wilson, Dinah Washington, Brasil ’66,” Bryson says. “There was a lot of jazz, but not exclusively (Gillespie).” Her mother, on the other hand, included Bryson when she would sit at the piano and compose.
Bryson also saw lots of her father’s performances. “I would go with my mother to see him,” she says. “What a thrill it was to be able to see a band of that caliber.” When she got older she went to see Diz, especially in New York, on her own. “We had a relationship that was separate from my mom’s relationship with him,” she says. “I was just a loving teenager who was spending time with my dad.”
She graduated from Rutgers in 1981 with a degree in anthropology. “Being a people person, I just loved learning about people and cultures and our differences,” she says. “It was a very easy fit for me.”
In addition to festival work and club dates nationally and internationally, Bryson has and will continue to perform at the new Salt Creek Grille in Forrestal Village. She has been performing with guitar and piano there. “It’s a very beautiful place,” she says. “It’s a good place to work on new songs.” (She next plays there on Sunday, May 13, at 7 p.m.)
She is also spending a lot of time being a mom. Her son, Radji Bryson-Barrett, 24, is a well-known karate instructor and mixed martial artist. As a child, Radji was an accomplished swimmer and all-around athlete. When she was interviewed last week, Radji, now a karate and grappling specialist, had just finished his second fight in a competition. He had won his first fight fairly handily last December, but his second fight did not go as well. “He broke the orbital bone in his eye socket,” says his mother, with a wince and concern in her voice. “It was really brutal. I hope he never gets back in the ring. As a mother you don’t want to think about those types of things.”
“It’s called Thank You, Uncle Edward,” says tenor saxophonist Virginia Mayhewof the new CD she’s making with Ellington’s grandson. “Ellington didn’t want to be called Grandpa, because it made him feel old, so his grandchildren were stuck with calling him Uncle.” Mayhew, a native of San Francisco who moved to New York in 1987, spoke to me from a New York recording studio, where she had taken a break in recording the CD.
Mayhew knew the younger Ellington because they studied karate at the same place; Ellington was also a bartender at Sweet Basil, a club that Mayhew often frequented as a fan and musician.
The project will feature one musician who actually played with the Ellington Orchestra, the great Scottish baritonist Joe Temperley, and another, Wycliffe Gordon, the trombonist most commonly associated with Wynton Marsalis, who seems to have channeled several of Ellington’s great trombonists.
Mayhew, who has played with musicians as diverse as Earl “Fatha” Hines, Frank Zappa, James Brown, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Claudio Roditi, and Chico O’Farrill, thinks of Dexter Gordon as one of her most significant influences.
She is looking forward to playing at the Women in Jazz festival. Although there hasn’t been any significant increase in opportunities for women in jazz — Mayhew says there still isn’t a female horn player with a major record deal — things have nevertheless improved. “Things aren’t great for anyone but I try not to think about that. I am just moving straight ahead and trying to improve myself.”
Women in Jazz Festival, Friday, May 11, 4:30 to 11 p.m. Trenton Downtown Association, South Warren and West Lafayette streets, Trenton. Workshops in jazz instrumentalist and vocals at 4:30 p.m. Jam from 5:30 to 10 p.m. at the Marriott. Performances by Tara Buzash Trio, Virginia Mayhew Quartet, Crystal Torres and Costa Rica, Princeton University JazzTet featuring Audrey Wright, Jeanie Bryson, Carol Heffler, Donna Antonow, and Nicki Denner Latin Jazz Trio. Rain or shine, all venues are indoors. www.trenton2nite.com. 609-393-8998.