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The proudest legacy of the late Dr. Billy Taylor‘s reign as the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz is, by his own account, the annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival. “It was the first thing I wanted to do at the Kennedy Center,” he told me in a 2009 interview. “When I told them, they said, ‘Can you find enough women?’ I came back with 100. There are women now playing all kinds of jazz, all instruments; now you don’t hear what I heard when I was a kid: ‘She plays nice for a girl.'”
This is the festival’s 16th year—-and its first without Taylor. Doubtless there will be some form of tribute to the festival’s founder and benefactor at this week’s program, which runs May 19-21. It won’t be the only tribute: The Friday night installment (which is sold out) features a salute to the recently departed singing great Abbey Lincoln by vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater (also the festival’s host for the third year running), Dianne Reeves, and Cassandra Wilson, and an ensemble led by music director Terri Lyne Carrington.
But if you can’t get tickets, don’t despair. There’s extraordinary stuff to be heard on Thursday and Saturday nights as well. Thursday features returning favorite Janis Siegel, as well as fellow Manhattan Transfer member Laurel Massé and New York Voices singer Lauren Kinhan, in the vocal group JaLaLa. But it also features two of the most exciting up-and-comers in jazz. Flutist Jamie Baum (who performs with her septet) and saxophonist Tia Fuller (who performs with her quartet) aren’t big names, but have earned this kind of high-profile showcase; look for them to prove it.
Saturday night, the closer, is even bigger. Corky Hale, who’s been working over 50 years, has the weighty job title of singer/pianist/flutist/harpist, the big feature of the night. But pianist Peggy Stern and saxophonist Sue Terry come close, and singer Marlena Shaw offers a spectacular ensemble featuring Jami Dauber (trumpet, flugelhorn); Janelle Reichman (sax), Tomoko Ohno (piano), Noriko Ueda (bass), and Sherrie Maricle (drums).
Oh, and lest we forget, somewhere among these names you’ll also hear an announcement of this year’s winner (one of five as-yet-unannounced pianists); and, on the Millennium Stage, vocalist Charenée Wade, the runner-up at last year’s Thelonious Monk Competition (and this writer’s choice to win), and over two nights, the eight women chosen for this year’s second Emerging Artist Workshop. Now that’s a festival.