It’s been a summer of jazz on the Vineyard. Between the first annual Martha’s Vineyard Jazz Festival and jazz musicians playing a part in the programs of the M.V. Chamber Music Society, The Vineyard Playhouse, and the Hebrew Center’s Summer Institute, Islanders have enjoyed visits from some of the most accomplished jazzmen in the country.
This weekend will bring a leveling of the playing field as women of jazz will hold court at the Martha’s Vineyard Jazz and Blues Summerfest at the Union Chapel tonight and tomorrow. And the lineup of women artists from the fields of jazz, blues, and R&B is impressive.
Audiences will get a chance to hear from two female artists who are currently making waves in the music world, an established husband/wife duo who have released a number of CDs throughout their long joint career, and one of the few all-female jazz ensembles that includes veteran players on piano, sax, flute, bass, violin, and drums.
The festival took a break last year, after successful runs in 2008 and 2009, while organizer Sheila Baptista recovered from breast cancer. Some of the proceeds from the festival have been earmarked for a New York-based breast cancer support group and, depending on ticket sales, some funds will also go to Shaw University, Ms. Baptista’s alma mater and one of the landmark historically black colleges that was recently closed down due to tornado damage. The festival sponsors are American Legacy Magazine, JRI Travel, the Milestone School, and Vera Moore Cosmetics.
The participating musicians are all managed by Ms. Baptista’s Lewis & Kirk Expeditions, Inc., which she describes as “a woman-owned, minority-owned musician production and performance company.” Says Ms. Baptista of the 12-year-old organization that was co-founded by herself and Beverly Lewis, “Our focus is on women in music. Women who don’t often have a chance to have their voices heard in the jazz and blues world. We try to create forums for women to be heard and bring a different sound to a song.” The artists managed by Lewis and Kirk perform styles ranging from classical, gospel, jazz, and adult contemporary. For the festival, Ms. Baptista says, “We’re going to try to give you all things jazz, contemporary, Latin, straight ahead, smooth jazz, Caribbean-flavored funk jazz.”
Ms. Baptista is a singer who founded and originally played with Lewis & Kirk’s anchor project, the jazz ensemble SAGE, who will perform Friday night. She comments on her inspiration in forming the six-member group, “I had not seen an all-ladies ensemble perform in this way.” In 2002, she recruited some of her friends and associates from her years as a professional musician and named the group in honor of her grandmother, Maggie Waddell, who was fond of cooking with the herb sage. Of her grandmother, who made do with very little throughout her life, Ms. Baptista says, “Her home was open to everyone. She was so giving to people. She taught me so much about the values of life. The best we can do is help others and develop opportunities and platforms for others.”
Among other arenas, SAGE performed at one of the major inaugural balls honoring President Obama and at the Major League Baseball All Star game in Phoenix earlier this year.
One of the original members of SAGE who has now gone on to a successful solo career is Ragan Whiteside, who, with her band, will perform her blend of jazz, funk, and R&B on Thursday. Ms. Whiteside is a flautist, vocalist, and composer who has released two CDs and was the 2006 winner of Washington D.C.’s Capital Jazz Festival Challenge. She has always had an interest in jazz, even in her days studying classical flute, and was happy to have the chance to join SAGE. “It helped in terms of my transition from classical to jazz,” she says. She also credits the mentorship of Grammy nominee and contemporary jazz great, Bob Baldwin. Ms. Whiteside comments that flautists are not that common in jazz. “When I can actually play, I catch them off guard and I gain their respect,” she says, adding, “People dig it after they hear how the flute can be used in that [jazz] setting.”
Also on Thursday’s bill will be singer, guitarist, and songwriter KJ Denhert, who has won acclaim for her blend of urban folk, jazz, and blues and has won multiple songwriting and Independent Music Awards. In 2009, Ms. Denhert was named one of Jazz.com’s top female vocalists and her guitar playing has similarly won her much critical praise. Ms. Baptista describes Ms. Denhert as more blues oriented than the other performers, and her music is played regularly on MVY radio
A husband/wife duo will fill the final festival slot. Singer, pianist, flautist, and songwriter Andrea Rohlehr and her husband, James Rohlehr, guitarist, singer, and songwriter are the core members of the AndJam Band. As a team, the two won the 1997 President’s Award for excellence in songwriting from the Songwriter’s Guild of America/New York and have released seven recordings.
Ms. Baptista has been a frequent Vineyard visitor since she was a child. Her aunt and uncle own a house in Oak Bluffs. She says of the Vineyard, “I find that the Island is one of the most receiving places that you can go. It receives your body, it receives your spirit, it receives the whole of your person. It allows you to step back and reformulate who you are without any pressure.”
Ms. Baptista has brought her bands together for concerts throughout the east coast. She says, “One of the goals of these concerts has been to give people the opportunity to see how you can bridge contemporary music with music that has been marvelously performed for years. There’s that bridge between the old and the new and the young and the old. This is about ties to all things.”
Martha’s Vineyard Jazz and Blues Summerfest, Thurs. & Fri., 7–10 pm, Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs. Thursday’s show will feature KJ Denhert and Ragan Whiteside. Friday SAGE and the AndJam band will perform. $20; $25 for preferred seating.