by Kristin Kurens
Patti Littlefield insists she’s not a musicologist or music historian, but given her extensive experience as a singer in jazz, blues, and rock, I’d beg to differ. She’s incredibly knowledgeable of jazz and music in general, which she shares through her curations (like New Mexico Jazz Workshop’s “Women’s Voices”), her performances, and her weekly hosting of All That Jazz on Albuquerque’s KUNM 89.9 FM every Wednesday at noon (local time).
Littlefield was born in Los Angeles. After moving to New York City, she recorded songwriter demos for Ken Hirsch and Doc Pomus; on the West Coast she recorded demos with Marc Allen Trujillo. She worked as a studio singer in New York and Los Angeles for several years. In the early ‘80s Patti moved to Albuquerque and hooked into the local music scene.
She’s been singing jazz, rock, and blues around town since, performing with renowned local musicians. Littlefield is a self-taught singer, deeply steeped in experience: she’s well versed in a range of genres—rock, jazz, folk, blues—and has worked as a studio singer in New York and L.A.
She may not be a trained music historian, but as a performer, curator, and musician, Patti Littlefield knows her shit. After seeing her performance a few months ago, I knew I had to talk to her about music, jazz, and women.
One of the biggest questions that kicks off our conversation is why we don't see more women in jazz. There’s an abundance of female vocalists, but men seem to dominate the industry in terms of composers and instrumentalists.
Littlefield agrees that’s a valid question, one she’s had for years. “When I started doing the radio show at KUNM, it afforded me the opportunity to spend time looking into the various musical questions I had, especially about women in jazz.
“The idea of women in jazz pretty much started in the late ‘20s and really took off in the ‘40s with all-women jazz orchestras holding down the big-band spots for the male musicians who had gone off to war.”
For National Women’s Day, Littlefield compiled a show for KUNM of all women composers and instrumentalists. “There are many women today who are instrumentalists as well as singers, and some who are just instrumentalists.”
She gives me an extensive list of women who have played with the biggest jazz musicians and have fronted or are fronting their own bands. Every woman on her list is a composer.
- Hiromi – piano, born 1979
- Claire Daly – baritone sax, born 1958
- Terri Lyne Carrington – drums, born 1965
- Geri Allen – piano,1957–2017
- Mimi Jones – bass, born 1972
- Esperanza Spalding – bass/singer, born 1984
- Emily Remler – guitar, 1957–1990
- Anat Cohen – sax, clarinet, and flute, born 1975
- Connie Crothers – piano,1941–2016
- Jane Ira Bloom – soprano sax, born 1955
- Regina Carter – violini, born 1966
- Cindy Blackman Santana – drums, born 1959
- Vi Redd – alto sax, born 1928 (still alive & blowing her horn)
- Ingrid Jensen – trumpet, born 1966
- Christine Jensen – alto and soprano sax, born 1970
- Toshiko Akiyoshi – piano, born 1929
- Carla Bley – piano/free jazz/avant-garde, born 1936
- Alice Coltrane – piano/harp, 1937–2007 (second wife of John Coltrane)
- Jane Bunnett – soprano sax/flute, born 1956
- Bobbi Humphrey – flute, born 1950
- Ali Ryerson – flute, born 1952
And, this list is far from complete.
“The big question,” Littlefield is quick to point out, “is why these ladies don’t get the same kind of acknowledgment that men do. Some women are pretty famous on their own, and all of them have had or are now enjoying very good careers in a very difficult business. But I have found that the music biz, like pretty much all industries, is very sexist and, in absurd and frightening ways, is also still quite racist.”
Littlefield has dealt with sexism personally. “I never noticed sexism much until I started singing professionally. I discovered that often I received less money for the same amount of work or could not get the going price for a band if I was booking it—because I was a female.
“And then there are the interesting and frustrating superior and patronizing attitudes of male musicians toward ‘chick singers.’ It’s stuff most of them aren’t even aware they are doing.”
So what levels the playing field? At the core, money, as Littlefield explains. “If the singer can play an instrument really well, if she gets a huge following and lots of gigs, if she brings in the crowds, she can charge club owners pretty much what she likes for gigs. And musicians respect the hell out of money.”
There’s also recognition—fame, awards—but that parlays into money also.
The music business isn’t easy—jazz is even tougher. “It’s not easy to get to the top in this business unless you are scary talented, driven, good looking, and have a really good manager. You must also have killer drive. The focus must be totally on your career,” Littlefield says. The women she mentions above have or have had all of the above and more.
And what does any of this mean in a genre with such a precarious future? Undoubtedly, it’s difficult to compare or equate jazz with other music.
What it’s becoming more and more is a backbone, as Littlefield explains. “Jazz is—at this point in time—pretty much indefinable, evolving radically. Many of the up-and-coming new voices in independent music are playing jazz as their basic blueprint which they then overlay with hip hop, R&B, blues, and rock.”
“Jazz as a foundation isn’t new,” Littlefield explains. “This has actually been going on for years: Jazz fusion (a. k. a. fusion) started in the late 1960s, when musicians mingled bits of jazz with funk, rock, R&B. Jazz-fusion groups became popular in the ‘70s.”
Think Spyro Gyra, Yellowjackets, Weather Report, Return To Forever, and so on. Today, look to L.A.-based Flying Lotus, nephew of Alice Coltrane, who fuses jazz and hip hop and much more. (Here’s a fun loop starting with Alice Coltrane, then whipping around to Flying Lotus, and over to Anat Cohen who covers another Flying Lotus song with “Putty Boy Strut.”)
Fusion wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms, Littlefield says. “Die-hard, old -school jazz musicians and critics resisted validating these groups and their music as ‘jazz’, but eventually jazz-fusion became more acceptable over the years.
“I like jazz-fusion; it was exciting and new, with elements of rock combined with killer new sounds, intense musicality, and fresh improvisation. But, there were few or no women truly involved in the jazz-fusion ‘movement.’ There were some women involved in avant-garde jazz like Connie Crothers and Carla Bley.”
In terms of the future of jazz, Littlefield sees it as dependent on fusion for survival.” There will always be the old-school players, and some would argue they are not totally old school. Many still consider Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and the like as the grandfathers of fusion.”
Innovation and risk-taking are unsurprisingly what it takes to make it in a tough industry. Littlefield looks to women willing to think outside of the box and, as a result, rising in the “new Jazz”—Jay Clayton, Sheila Jordan (godmothers of women in jazz), Cassandra Wilson, Anat Cohen, Gretchen Parlato, Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington, Jane Bunnett, Beata Pater, Davina & the Vagabonds, Melody Gardot, Camille Bertault, Térez Montcalm, Sinne Eeg, Barbara Sfraga.
Littlefield rounds out the list even further: “These women are on the cutting edge, combining old school with innovative ideas: René Marie, Jazzmeia Horn, Yoko Miwa. Women are becoming edgier, braver, and more willing to take risks in their lives and in their music.”
This last list includes a heavy dose of singers. “The difference is that they are not only singers,” she says. “Some compose, and/or take big musical risks with instrumentation and new and fresh ways to interpret a song. Beata Pater has turned to singing without words, not scat like Ella, but really like a horn.”
“There really are so many as I look and remember, it would not surprise me if women actually emerged as the leading force in jazz. They are already making a lot of inroads in pop as writers as well as singers.
“I tend to look at these things through the lens of the conviction I have that the Goddess is rising... that may sound weird. But if you think about it, it could be the reason the old men are freaking out and trying to put the female ‘toothpaste’ back in the tube: meddling with our bodies, dictating how we can and cannot make decisions about our own lives, wanting desperately to disempower us, silence us, and keep us in ‘our’ places.
“It’s just time for women to take charge—again. And I think it is very evident in the world of music: A polarity change like this will take time, because the very paradigm of society is evolving.
“And this time, I believe it is not about superiority or who is in charge; it is more about actually becoming both male and female, using those aspects as they were meant to be used: Yin/Yang, the polarities, balance.”
Kristin Kurens is a writer, editor, and artist. She thrives on words, music, art, and aiding the verbally challenged. In her free time she writes fiction, paints, travels, imbibes—always in pursuit of the authentic and strange.