Sweet Baby J’ai is one of the most respected and multi-faceted performers today. She is an award winning, critically acclaimed singer, songwriter, producer, arranger, actress and the Artistic Director for the Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival.
We got to ask her some questions and get some insight into her career and the Palm Springs Women's Jazz Festival.
You have a career that has spanned decades. Where did you get your start in music?
I always love answering that question because it's always different. Was it when I traded my red starter bass for a 12-string guitar that I couldn't play, so I switched to the vocals in our jam band? Or was it when I took my first gig overseas that made me fall in love with music? I'll go with the first overseas gig in a small jazz club in Paris. That's when I realized this was a career move for me. Music and travel, what more in life could you want as a young musician?
I’m sure you have seen the evolutions in the music industry over the years, especially when it comes to equality and women. What are positive changes that really stick out to you?
There is still a long way to go for women's equality in the music industry. Many studies paint a picture of men making the big money, winning the big awards, and getting producer gigs. Although women make up a little over 20% of the artists, we're about 2% of producers. But we have divas like Beyonce, Rihanna, Lizzo, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Diane Warren, and Carol King keeping it front and center for the grrrls. And I do my part as an exec. producer to put female musicians and songwriters on stage at our Festival.
What calls you to advocacy?
Seeing that disparity: If I don't do it, who will? I learned long ago that you must advocate for yourself and others, and I advocate for women in jazz who work like divas in the coal mines to keep the music swinging. LOL!
What is it about Jazz music that draws you in?
I love the creativity and freedom in jazz. Jazz is America's original art form that started in New Orleans and continues to be exported worldwide. It represents freedom of expression. Because of its musical language and the aspect of improvisation with many voicing and chord progression choices, you never know where a song will lead you. It's fresh every time you play it because every player plays it differently, and each time we play or sing it, it's imaginative.
Why do you think music draws people together?
Music can connect us in ways that cross barriers; gender, race, age, and nationalities. It builds community and healing, providing comfort, validation, and catharsis. Some studies suggest that your genealogy determines traits like musical aptitude and enjoyment. Have you had your ancestry DNA done yet to determine your family connections - the lines that link you to things you may have in common with people as far back as the Middle Ages or present-day here and now? Our relationship with music molecularly connects our lineage, like the air we breathe. Music can also reduce pain and even positively affect symptoms of stroke and dementia, and it has healed my soul more times than I can count. How many people remember the song playing during their first kiss, first dance, or concert, and so many firsts? And how many of us share the same song during those firsts?
Can you describe what the jazz festival looks like for those who have never heard of it?
The Palm Springs Women's Jazz Festival is a celebration! It is critically acclaimed and noted as one of the best festivals in the country. The Festival is a collection of extraordinary musicians descending on sunny Palm Springs for a compelling musical tapestry with delightful surprises. Female artists, singers, instrumentalists, composers, and arrangers come from near and far to celebrate their contributions to jazz in all its forms —straight ahead, contemporary, funk, blues, and Latin. The Festival offers concerts for audiences who don't often see this unique and special coming together - from Grammy award-winning performers to rising stars.
I see you like to throw musicians together at the last moment. I love this idea. Do you have any stand out stories from making this happen?
Each year I put together Women in Jazz All-Star ensembles that perform with our headliners. The musicians and artists don't usually meet until we go into the rehearsal hours before the show - this is a master class on music and musicianship. Sometimes it's as simple as, "Hi, my name is...," then the count-in of the song! It creates one-of-a-kind, fabulous performances with combinations of artists that audiences only see at our Festival.
Legendary jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater described the Festival as "A jewel of festivals...one of the best times I've had." Grammy Award-winning vocalist/pianist Diane Schuur described it as "One of the greatest moments in music. It was very magical. There is an intuitive quality that happens when women get together." We all agree, musicians and audiences alike, that it's an extraordinary event.
What was the inspiration behind the Jazz festival?
I was inspired to create the Festival because of the lack of female instrumental representation at jazz festivals. I had season tickets to the Wednesday night jazz series at the Hollywood Bowl in Hollywood. And though you can always find a fabulous jazz singer heading a band, you are hard-pressed to find a female instrumentalist on the stage. That's just wrong in my book. So borrowing Kevin Costner's line, "Build it, and they will come," sent me on a quest. I partnered with Palm Springs Dinah in Color promoters Lucy and Gail to co-found the Festival and convinced them that a jazz festival in the desert is just what the world needs!
Each year the festival grows and reaches a broader audience. Why do you think that is?
Each year brings new surprises. You never know what you'll get with these pairings, but you always know it will be extraordinary, and I give my personal guarantee on that.
What do you hope people get out of the experience of attending the festival?
Pure joy! And the knowledge that women can play themselves some of dat; they can wail like they have been laid hands on; can make a piano walk across the stage; can make you pee your pants 'cause you don't want to go to the restroom and miss anything; can make you cry and smile simultaneously; can make you want to come back for more. True dat!
Why do you think it is so important to educate young people about music?
You must know where you come from to understand better where you're going. As a music teacher, I'm constantly teaching anyone who'll listen, kids, adults, and audiences, about music history. We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. There is a lot to learn. Plato said, "music is a more potent instrument than any other for education ." Music affects the growth of your brain academically, emotionally, and physically and helps develop imagination and creative thinking.
What are you hoping to achieve through your advocacy and education work?
Bringing fabulous shows, phenomenal players, and incredible audiences together!
Outside of teaching and the festival, what else are you currently working on?
I'm a singer, composer, producer, director, educator, and artistic director. Sometimes I have too many irons in the fire, but I can't help it; something always needs doing. Currently I'm working on the finishing touches of my novel, A Recipe for Hot Biscuits and Blues; my show, The History of Women in Jazz Blues; composing songs for a new album; and fundraising for our non-profit Festival. Give me a minute to find my to-do list, and I'll come up with a long list of other things. But in the front of my brain now is the upcoming International Jazz Day fundraiser on April 30th. We have a Latin Jazz Extravaganza scheduled at Vicky's of Santa Fe in Indian Wells from 2-4 pm. I have assembled another Women in Jazz All-Stars band guaranteed to keep you on your feet! From Salsa, Merengue, Samba, and Afro-Cuban to Soul, this group of dynamic women includes musical director Sunnie Paxson, bassist Jennifer Jo Oberle, drummer Dee Thompson, saxophonist Carol Chaikin, conga player Nikki Campbell, Cuban singer Whitney Hernandez, with singer/composer, recording artist, Latin sensation, Margo Rey
Visit palmspringswomensjazzfestival.org for tickets and info. I'll see you there and throw some history in on top like a cherry!