Nearly three decades ago, a group was started with a simple mission – to play contemporary big band jazz, rooted in a traditional style. The brainchild of Stanley Kay, former manager of the Buddy Rich Orchestra, the DIVA Jazz Orchestra started auditioning potential members in 1992 after Kay approached drummer and current DIVA Jazz Orchestra leader Sherrie Maricle about forming the group. Kay had heard Maricle play some years earlier and was so impressed with her talent that he approached her and asked if she knew any other women that played like her.
Flattered by his compliment, Sherrie shared that there were a number of talented women jazz players, and the idea for the orchestra was born. There had not been an all-woman big band since the Sweethearts of Rhythm in the 1940s, and Kay wanted to rectify that situation by making the DIVA Jazz Orchestra woman-focused. The major stipulation in forming the group, though, was that the music came first. As Maricle puts it, no one wanted to be thought of as “a girl group that plays jazz.”
She goes on to say, “No woman in jazz goes around thinking, ‘Oh, I’m a woman in jazz!’”
From the start, it was all about talent. Forty women auditioned for the group in June of 1992, and 15 were selected to join. Their first gig was at New York University in March of 1993. The group played a big band style that was both familiar to audiences and also strikingly new. These early pieces were composed or arranged for the group by big-name jazz musicians, such as Tommy Newsom of the Tonight Show Band and Buddy Rich Orchestra alum John LaBarbera. Now, each piece is either an original composition or an arrangement written by an orchestra member or other renowned writer. In fact, 12 of the 15 current members are composers and arrangers, a fact that shows just how multi-talented this group truly is.
In over a quarter century of playing, they have toured the world, visiting a number of countries in Europe, South America, and Asia, and thrilling audiences at such storied venues as the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall. In 2017, they performed at the NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert at the Kennedy Center. Since last year, they have been on a 25th Anniversary Tour, taking them up and down the East Coast, over to Texas, up to Ohio and back to Philadelphia and New York City.
As part of their touring, the orchestra spends a lot of time on education and outreach. When they play at a school, they try to engage the students in the music and educate them on the life of a touring musician. School performances include a Q&A session, demonstrations of different instruments and styles, and often group lessons. These lessons can be on jazz improv, lead playing, or a masterclass from any of the musicians in the group. Young musicians get to learn more about their instruments from true professionals, gaining both valuable knowledge and talented role models.
To Maricle, it is vitally important for young musicians to listen to the type of music they are learning to play, especially in jazz. The swing styles are nearly impossible to play without knowing how they are meant to sound. If students do not listen to jazz, it is unlikely they will ever get the right sound, feel, and phrasing just from reading the music on the page. Learn more about educational opportunities with the DIVA Jazz Orchestra here.
The Orchestra also presents a scholarship each year in honor of founder Stanley Kay. It goes to a young drummer who shows great potential, providing $500 to a summer jazz camp of the winner’s choice. Information on the Stanley Kay scholarship can be found here.
The DIVAs will be at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on April 27, continuing nearly thirty years of quality, highly exciting music and inspiring the next generation to pick up their instruments and play. Check out their additional tour dates here.
And should any young men dream of joining, fear not. There have been some men in the DIVA Jazz Orchestra. As Maricle says, “Gender never trumps talent.”
And the DIVA Jazz Orchestra has talent to spare!
View Pepper’s videos on The DIVA Jazz Orchestra: