At the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History they’re the girls in the band, instrumentalists in the 18-piece Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (SJMO) founded in 1990 “as the nation’s jazz orchestra” by Congressional appropriation and the advocacy of jazz-loving Congressman John Conyers (D-MI).
Trombonist Jen Krupa had been living in Washington several years before she began playing with SJMO. “I was ecstatic!” she says about getting that first call. Baritone saxophonist Leigh Pilzer suspects that she owes her position to a recommendation from SJMO lead alto saxophonist Charlie Young. And lead trumpeter Liesl Whitaker says that while she received the call for an SJMO gig right after arriving in town and played with the orchestra for a couple of years, she wasn’t called again for nearly five years. She says she never asked why the call back took so long. “I was scared of what they would say. My Dad was so thrilled that I was in the orchestra.”
Their pathways into music and jazz were as varied as they are. Childhood exposure to pop, classical, and vocal music, and early training on instruments ranging from piano to cello preceded their interests in jazz and big band. But of the many factors that led Jen, Leigh, and Liesl to becoming professional jazzwomen they all count a love of music, supportive family, and community mentors who helped them fulfill their musical passion and steer them past gender biases that might have derailed their dreams as key.
“There’s something about being a girl in a man’s field,” says Liesl. “We work harder to prove ourselves.” Even then, “As the saying goes, a woman has to work twice as hard as a man to be considered half as good,” adds Leigh.
So when SJMO women were asked to perform at the Jazz Appreciation Month 10th Anniversary in April 2011 Launch featuring original members of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm they jumped at the chance to honor the legendary band members and pay homage to the legacy of women and jazz.