Celebrating Women In Latin Jazz: 5 Top Female Artists

by chip on July 1, 2009

The jazz blogosphere has recently been buzzing around gender inequalities in the jazz world. The discussion started over at Amanda Ameer’s blog Life’s A Pitch, where she observed the amazing lack of women at a Brad Mehldau concert. A little thought and some further research led Ameer to conclude that the jazz world needed more female audience members. Jazz Beyond Jazz blogger Howard Mandel commented upon Ameer’s statement, claiming that the jazz world hasn’t honestly reached out to women. Michelle Obama’s presentation of jazz at the White House sparked another thought for Mandel, as he perceived her breaking up the perception of jazz as a “boy’s club.” For perspective, Mandel included a rather one-sided diatribe from woodwind player Paul Lindemeyer that focused upon the “brotherhood” of jazz. This started a furious debate on jazz vocalist Kitty Margolis’ Facebook page that for the most part decried Lindemeyer’s perspective and celebrated women in jazz. The debate brings some interesting issues to the table, forcing some thought and self-reflection.

This discussion struck a particularly personal note for me, since I have three very important reasons to be invested in the jazz world’s female presence – the first reason is my oldest daughter, born in 1999, the next reason is my second daughter born in 2002, and the last reason is my youngest daughter born in 2005. When I first became a father, I spent my days with my head firmly placed in a man’s world, aware of gender issues but not honestly considering their implications. Parenthood changes us all though, and over the past nine years, I’ve found myself thinking about the importance of a strong female presence in the music world. My daughters have experienced their share of live jazz – they’ve attended concerts and seen Eddie Palmieri, Arturo Sandoval, John Santos, Pete Escovedo, Pat Metheny, Gary Burton, David Sanchez, Ron Carter, and many more. It’s great fun to share this wonderful music with my kids, but upon reflection I realized that my daughters have seen dangerously few female jazz musician role models. I can’t help but wonder how this affects their psyche around the music and their future support for the jazz world. Could this be reason behind the apparent lack of female jazz listeners that Mandel and Ameer have observed? Honestly, I’m not sure. Regardless, I do understand the importance of strong female role models for young women and I’d like my daughters to become exposed to the jazz world’s many fantastic female artists.

I hate to think of the jazz world as a “boy’s club,” but in reality, my experiences stop me from building an intelligent argument. I can’t pretend to understand a woman’s experience as a jazz musician or a jazz listener; I’ve lived through both experiences as a man and wouldn’t have much expertise outside my gender reference. I have developed a deep appreciation for several female artists though; their music and artistic perspectives have garnered my respect and admiration. I believe that the female presence is an essential piece of the Latin Jazz world, in fact, it’s a side of the music that we can’t do without.

I’ve created a list of 5 essential female performers in the Latin Jazz world. On the one hand, these are musicians that create great music regardless of gender. On the other side of the coin, they are fantastic female role models that hold the potential to break the gender gap in the jazz world. Most importantly, it’s an opportunity to celebrate the female presence in Latin Jazz. Enjoy!

Rebeca Mauleon
Pianist, composer, and bandleader Rebeca Mauleon’s unbridled enthusiasm for all forms of Cuban music has resulted in a progression of major contributions to the Latin Jazz worlds, including fantastic recordings, thorough educational materials, and interesting books. Starting her musical pursuits as a Flamenco dancer, Mauleón discovered Salsa and Latin music through the San Francisco Bay Area’s lively scene and public radio stations. She started on an amazing journey, simply propelled by her inspiration and love of the music – a bold feat that only truly dedicated individuals attempt. Mauleón practiced her piano skills and examined every Cuban album that she could find; for some this would be a lifetime endeavor, but for Mauleón it was only a start. Not satisfied with the information around her, she traveled to Cuba on several occasions, met some of the most established Cuban musicians, and spent countless hours reading through academic materials on Cuba. Her hard work paid off – as pianist, composer, and arranger for John Santos’ Machete Ensemble, Mauleón established herself as one of the modern Latin Jazz world’s important artistic voices. Always enthusiastic about the music, Mauleón shared her joy through clinics, magazine articles, and eventually a masterpiece in modern Latin music education, The Salsa Guidebook. This text spread knowledge and passion for Cuban music far beyond Mauleón’s San Francisco homebase as schools across the country adopted it as a text for classes around Latin music. Eager to make a personal statement in the Latin Jazz world, Mauleón left the Machete Ensemble and formed her own groups, which have resulted in three outstanding Latin Jazz recordings. Mauleón’s pure love of Cuban music has driven her into an amazingly admirable work ethic that allowed the spread of the artform, ensuring the longevity of Latin Jazz.

Required Listening:

Round Trip

Descarga en California

Sofia Koutsovitis
Vocalist Sofia Koutsovitis elegantly represents the fusion of South American musics and jazz with a fearless creative edge and a sensitive artistry that sets her apart from her peers. Her knowledge of South American musical styles inform the basis of her unique artistic approach; Koutsovitis boldly visits music from her native Argentina, but also dives into Peruvian, Brazilian, Colombian, and Cuban musics. Her incorporation of South American musics reach far beyond the simple process of inserting rhythms underneath a series of familiar chord changes though. Koutsovitis takes pieces from Argentinean, Brazilian, Peruvian, and Cuban composers, poets, and instrumentalists, fusing a wide inspirational palette into her work. She avoids direct copies of the original pieces though; Koutsovitis sees these works through her own artistic lenses that show the distinct influence of modern jazz performance techniques. As a performer, Koutsovitis utilizes an absolutely captivating combination of emotionally charged phrasing, broad dynamic range, and gorgeous tone. She applies all these skills thoughtfully into each piece, taking the opportunity to create a personal and reflectively thoughtful statement every time that she walks towards the microphone. Koutsovitis asserts a commanding presence that makes her a strong bandleader and desired supporting musician – whether fronting her own group or working as a member of Geoffrey Keezer’s Aureá, the Afro-Peruvian Jazz group Alcatraz, or the Colombian group Folklore Urbano, Koutsovitis’ consistently engaging presence always shines. Her respectful integration of culture, refined vocal talents, personal composition and arranging skills, as well as a carefully constructed artistic performance approach make Koutsovitis a major player in the Latin Jazz world that needs to be heard.

Required Listening:



Jane Bunnett
Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett has built a strong reputation as an adventurous musician that never stops exploring new artistic directions. Already a proficient jazz saxophonist with a respected career in Canada, Bunnett and her husband trumpeter Larry Cramer journeyed to Cuba on a whim in search of a great vacation. They found their desired get-away, but along the way, they discovered so much more – a highly developed musical world with an impressive amount of history and performance aesthetics to explore. While in Cuba, Bunnett became addicted to the music and returned countless times over the course of several times, studying the music and collaborating with Cuba’s many strong musicians. The fusion of Cuban music and searching modern jazz became a trademark of her career, defining most of her recordings that followed. Along the way, Bunnett developed a distinctive melodic approach on one of the soprano saxophone, a rich instrument often overlooked in the jazz world. Bunnett’s Latin Jazz interpretations stepped beyond a general adherence to the clave though, she has made a mission of injecting her music with authenticity and constantly exploring new directions. Each recording has included different combinations of musicians from Cuba and the United States, and in many cases, Bunnett let the Cuban musicians serve as mentors on the recording. While Bunnett never lost her voice as a leader, each new project served as a learning experience for her, expanding her mastery of the music. At the same time, Bunnett placed herself and her collaborators in different contexts. From pure Cuban folklore to symphonic sounding layers of strings, Bunnett takes every opportunity to push Latin Jazz in an original direction and wait for a response. Her latest release incorporates Cuban musicians, touches of Haitain song, and rich layers of African vocals that result in an intoxicating musical blend. A true role model for all of us, Bunnett has built her career on the cutting-edge of Latin Jazz and she shows no signs of stopping – a lucky thing for all of us that get to enjoy her artistry.

Required Listening:

Spirits of Havana

Embracing Voices

Kat Parra
One of the highly respected traits among jazz artists is the courage and conviction to pursue an individual voice and original performance approach; vocalist Kat Parra nurtured this trait by following her life’s path and building upon her strengths. Originally focusing her energy upon flute studies, Parra found a natural ability in singing and fell in love with the expressive qualities behind jazz vocals. Rather than taking the safe path of her already established classical flute skills, she let her passion guide her musical development and dove into the world of jazz with a strong mentor, Patti Cathcart. Parra knew that a strict adherence to the jazz tradition wouldn’t be enough, so she let her multi-language abilities lead her to the musics of South America and the Caribbean. Driven by her new inspiration, Parra connected with some of the best Latin musicians in the Bay Area, performing with local salsa band Charanga 9, trombonist Wayne Wallace, and more. Each step led Parra to the construction of her own artistic personality, but she never sat comfortably upon her success; like any true artist, Parra kept looking ahead. Further studies in Cuba and beyond as well as the release of her first album as a bandleader led Parra deep into a successful performance career. Along the way, a new direction emerged for Parra that would define the next piece of her career – an investigation of the Sephardic music from the Spanish Jews. Newly aligned with Wayne Wallace’s Patois Records label, Parra included some ingenious arrangements of this music on her second release. Along with piano player Murray Low, Parra created a full repertoire based upon this music and found multiple performance venues for the material. Funded by a grant from the Zellerbach Foundation, Parra solidified a group and recently journeyed into the studio to record a full CD for her new group, The Sephardic Music Experience. The development of a strong musical personality takes years of exploration, experimentation, and hard work – Parra paid her dues and has arrived as an experienced musician with an individual voice. Her experience provides ample inspiration for any aspiring Latin Jazz musician.

Required Listening:

Birds in Flight

Azucar De Amor

Venissa Santí
If each of the previous artists on this list represent established female artists in the Latin Jazz world, vocalist Venissa Santí gives us a good indication that the future of the style rests in good hands. A young artist with a strong conception, Santí views the music through both an informed perspective and a highly personal connection. Raised in a Cuban family, Santí’s culture rests firmly in her artistic approach – while in Cuba, her grandfather spent many years working as a composer, infusing his family with a deep love for music. Inspired by her grandfather’s musical passion and her family’s cultural connection, Santí found an inner artistic connection to Cuban music and felt a responsibility to pursue that realization. Santí studied jazz in college and traveled to Cuba on four occasions to broaden her knowledge; she arrived from those experiences with a strong sense of jazz performance and a knowledge of Cuban folkloric forms. These experiences existed on more than a simple academic level though; Santí took time to formulate a personal conception of these influences that can be heard in each performance. Her dedication and cultural connection to the music leaps out of each track on her debut release Beinvenida – from the deeply personal performance of her grandfather’s composition “Lucerito de mi Amor” to aggressive folkloric sound of “Columbia pa’ Miguel Angel” or the swinging interpretation of the Cuban standard “Tu Mi Delirio,” there’s a constant sense that Santí looked deep inside herself to find her approach. At the same time, Santí maintains a modern edge with touches of rocking blues and English language compositions over Cuban rhythms, paying tribute to her current generation. Santí’s work resonates with an authentic connection to the music, a deeply personal dedication, and an informed performance approach that should guarantee high quality Latin Jazz long into the future.

Required Listening:


But wait, there’s more! It would be silly to think that the Latin Jazz world only has 6 female artists. Check back tomorrow for a more extensive list of female performers that make the Latin Jazz world move – see you then!

Check Out These Related Posts:
4 Latin Jazz Vocalists Forging Their Own Identities
Creating Authentic Buzz: Gabriel Alegria and Sofia Koutsovitis On Video
Making Connections Through Essential Outreach: Latin Jazz Vocalists On Video
3 Latin Jazz Artists That I’m Thankful For

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