Audra Menconi isn't sure what made her want to be a drummer. No one in her family played a musical instrument, and she has no vivid memories of life-changing childhood experiences watching drummers execute paradiddles on a bandstand.
All she can remember is that when she was about 10 years old, she had an important announcement for her parents. "I was going to a private school that had no music program and I just remember walking up to my parents and saying, 'I want to go to public school, I want to be in the band, and I want to play the drums.' They just kind of looked at me and said, 'OK.'"
Twenty-five years later, Menconi is a respected jazz drummer, a graduate of the New England Conservatory, and a music teacher at St. Mary's University. She is also something of a rarity in the world of jazz: an accomplished female jazz instrumentalist.
Since its inception, jazz has been a boys' club, spotlighting countless great female singers (such as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald), but rarely enabling women to make a mark as players. The few notable exceptions, like Carla Bley and Geri Allen, have only served to reinforce the rule.
But an adolescent Menconi wasn't yet conscious of this tradition, and she probably wouldn't have let it dissuade her anyway. She had fallen in love with the drums, and had little time for negativity.
Her dedication to instrumental prowess is matched by pianist Olivia Revueltas, guitarist Polly Harrison, and singer/pianist Bett Butler, who join forces on Friday, August 22 for a Women In Jazz concert at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church, presented by Musical Bridges Around the World and KRTU.
Harrison got her first guitar when she was about 15, and recalls that her earliest musical inspirations were records by Howard Roberts and Harold Bradley.
"I really wasn't familiar with any female players early on. I just liked the harmony of jazz and got interested in the guitar for some reason," she says.
After playing in a couple of all-girl bands - including one that flirted with Sergio Mendes-style Latin jazz - got together with singer Kyle Keener in 1971 to form Small World, a combo that emphasized her love of the so-called "great American songbook."
"We were interested in swing and standards, the mainstream jazz repertoire," Harrison says of Small World. "And we were interested in vocal jazz. We did a lot of three-part stuff. And at that time, the organ trios were real popular. That was kind of the in-thing. Of course, we were interested in Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery."
In high school, Menconi got her first exposure to jazz and was initially drawn to big bands, particularly those led by Buddy Rich, Charles Mingus, and Thad Jones. Very quickly, though, she gravitated toward small-band cool-jazz, as exemplified by Miles Davis and Art Blakey. Menconi's first paying gig, however, didn't come with a jazz band.
| WOMEN IN JAZZ: |
and Bett Butler
Friday, August 22
Laurel Heights United Methodist Church
227 W. Woodlawn
Menconi's defining experience came in 1988, when she attended the two-week Jazz in July workshop in Massachusetts, run by legendary drummer Max Roach.
"There were 10 drummers there, and of course, I was the only female," she says. "What `Roach` teaches is approaching the drum set purely from a musical standpoint, melodically. That's kind of his trademark as a drummer. When he plays his solos, you hear the melody - not just the licks and the chops and technique of the drummer, but the melodic aspect. That's what stuck out in my head from him: playing the drum set and always thinking of a song, rather than thinking of all the technique that you've learned."
The experience was so pivotal for Menconi that she decided to use it as a model for the Jazz in July Band Camp she created in San Antonio in the mid-'90s. "I used the same format they did, and it was very successful, and then I had my daughter," she says. "So it's kind of been on the backburner for a couple of years. I'm hoping, now that she's getting older, to put my energy back into it, because I was really proud of it."
One of the fascinating things about the Women in Jazz concert is that each of the featured artists represents a distinct subgenre of jazz: Harrison's love of standards; Revueltas' self-taught mastery of the chordal voicings of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington; Menconi's appreciation of free, improvisational jazz; and Butler's connection with classic singers like Holiday and Fitzgerald.
Menconi will play with her band - Joël Dilley on bass, Andy Langham on piano, and Cecil Carter on trumpet - and each of the other women will share her rhythm section.
While these women tend to downplay the impact of their own achievements, they're generous in crediting the role that their parents played in their musical development.
"My parents were incredibly supportive," Menconi says. "We lived in a two-story house and I kept my drum set in my room. I can remember coming home everyday from school and going straight up there, and I don't remember them ever telling me to stop. I remember my brothers and my sister telling me to shut up, but never my parents." •
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