This year, Lincoln Center's director of public programming Jill Sternheimer knew she wanted to do something special for the opening night of Midsummer Night Swing (June 26). In addition to booking a stellar band that would keep people on the dance floor, she decided to make the night a tribute to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female swing band who toured professionally in the 1930s and '40s. She approached the critically acclaimed trumpet player and bandleader Bria Skonberg to put together an all-star, all-female band to kick off the season. Skonberg will be joined by a full roster of first-call musicians, including violinist Regina Carter. I reached out to both Skonberg and Carter to ask about the project, putting together a band, and what makes a great dance tune.
Amanda MacBlane: What was your reaction when you were approached about this project?
Bria Skonberg: I was honored. It was a little bit intimidating, because it's a lot of work to get all the people and charts together, but as I heard Jill's idea and passion for the project, I knew I had to be a part of it. Midsummer Night Swing is such a cool summer highlight and hundreds and hundreds of people come out and dance under the stars. It's a magical experience and place, and this will be my first time leading a group at that event.
Regina Carter: I was thrilled when Bria invited me to be a part of this program. Celebrating such a historical group of women, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, is important; they are a significant part of the history of jazz. I first learned about them in high school when I wrote a paper on jazz violinists and was pleasantly surprised to discover Ginger Smock. Ms. Smock played violin and recorded with an all-women's quintet led by bassist Vivien Garry, which included Wini Beatty on piano, Dody Jeshke on drums, and trumpet player Edna Williams, who was a member of the Sweethearts. The Sweethearts were serious musicians, and their enthusiasm for touring and performing outweighed the many obstacles they faced, including the Jim Crow laws.
"It's not a gimmick, it's just a totally badass band."
AM: How have you approached putting the band together and what has been the response from the musicians?
Bria Skonberg: Let's be clear: it's not an all-girl band, it's an all-star band that happens to be female. Everybody on this list also leads their own bands so they know how to pull people together and how to be a team player. I've worked with most of them in different situations and I know their attitudes, and that's important. You've got to make sure you're playing with people that will come together.
I'm excited about this one. There's so much talent to work with here and I want to show them off. In terms of the response, everybody's been in. Maybe it's the climate that we're in right now, but I think we feel the same way—it's kind of a time to step up and make some statements that we normally wouldn't.
AM: Opening Midsummer Night Swing with an all-woman band is certainly a statement. People will interpret as they will, but what statement are you hoping to make with it?
Regina Carter: I think it's important, especially for young audience members to see women playing instruments that they may typically associate only with men. If the audience couldn't see us, they wouldn't know if we were male or female musicians. It's going to be a wonderful night of women celebrating women, celebrating America's classical music, and having a great time performing some wonderful music.
Bria Skonberg: Well, the band is called Sisterhood of Swing, so unity above all. It's not the first all-female band. All-female bands have been around for at least 100 years, you know. It's not a gimmick, it's just a totally badass band, focused on what the music from that era is about, which is synergy with the dancers. It's not a concert in the usual sense, it's an interactive immersive experience. It makes a statement that this is a continuation of something that's been happening for a hundred years. This is a celebration of more than a hundred years of women in jazz and taking it into the future. We're looking back, but we're also moving it into the future.
AM: Speaking of dancing, what makes a great dance tune?
Regina Carter: Rhythm and how it is articulated is crucial, and keeping the groove simple is also key. Dancing is important when it comes to playing music; it helps with phrasing and delivery. When I teach, I sometimes play some James Brown for my students. The grooves might sound simple, but playing those simple grooves and staying in the pocket is much more difficult to do than it sounds.
AM: What is your hope for the future of jazz?
Regina Carter: I'm happy to see so many young music students interested in and studying this music. Most times these students attend schools in affluent communities, so they have the resources and opportunities, and that's wonderful. My concern is that students attending public schools that don't have the resources or support aren't necessarily being exposed to music or art in school, let alone jazz, and this is problematic. I would love to see some sort of introduction to jazz or jazz appreciation classes in all schools, starting in kindergarten.
Bria Skonberg: My hope is that jazz will continue to unify people and provide a voice for the marginalized as it has since its inception.
About the Artists
New York–based Canadian singer, trumpeter, bandleader, and songwriter Bria Skonberg has played festivals and stages the world over, including the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival, Newport Jazz Festival, Montreal Jazz Festival, and over a hundred more.
Violin virtuoso Regina Carter, considered the foremost jazz violinist of her generation, has released ten albums as a bandleader and been featured on many others. A recipient of the MacArthur Fellows Program ("genius") grant in 2006, she recently released the album Ella: Accentuate the Positive.
Amanda MacBlane is Senior Writer/Editor for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.