The Queenta Woman Jazz Festival will kick off in Jerusalem on May 31 at the Yellow Submarine, heralding a week of celebration of women’s contribution to jazz and to female jazz musicians themselves.
The Queenta Ensemble will be headlining, and there will be dozens of other talented female jazz artists taking the stage.
What exactly do women bring to jazz? What specifically is special about jazz created or performed by women?
“That question really bothers me. You would never in your life think to ask a man that,” said festival organizer Queenta jazz quintet singer Chen Levy.
And she was completely right.
“Who cares? It’s music,” she said. She also pointed out that ‘women’s literature,’ or feminist literature, was certainly an entity unto itself with a voice and a face, but women’s jazz is such an underdeveloped concept that its features are yet undefined.
“I don’t know that I even agree with the term. I don’t even know if we need to establish such a term.”
“I don’t know that I even agree with the term. I don’t even know if we need to establish such a term.”Chen Levy
Levy is originally from Eilat, and her background is in dance rather than music. The course of her life and the influence of her family eventually brought her to study music at the university level.
“It was either classical or jazz,” she explained, “so I chose jazz. That’s just what there was.
“When I began to study and really discovered the world of jazz, I fell in love with it. Especially with improvisation,” she said. “The melody I always found very beautiful, and the harmony was very intriguing. But that part, that moment where they do what they want, seemed miraculous.”
She moved to Tel Aviv after completing her studies and eventually began teaching at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music.
“One day [in 2021] I was scrolling on Facebook, and I see another jazz series that, once again, has no women; the same names over and over. And I just thought, ‘Ugh. It isn’t even annoying anymore; it’s just lame.’”
Levy wrote a post about it, and it went viral. It got between 800,000 and one million shares.
“The post provoked a lot of people’s emotions. Some people even called me and were very angry.”
Bringing a women's jazz fest to Jerusalem
Six months later, she was given the opportunity to organize the first of the women’s jazz festivals hosted by Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine.
When Yellow Submarine executive director Atcha Bar approached Levy with the idea, she didn’t agree to it immediately. “I wasn’t sure that this was a move I agreed with. This separation [of men and women] is also problematic.”
But she realized after much internal debate that “there is no other way to change things.”
“In the end,” she said, “I want to be on the side that is doing” and not just talking about doing.
And she rode that inertia as far as it would go for the first festival last year. Levy had a very clear idea of whom she wanted to perform and what she wanted the events to look like, and her hard work paid off.
“It was extremely successful. We were nearly sold out pretty much every day.”
It was so successful, in fact, that they received funding to continue the festival annually for four more years.
Soon after that first festival, Queenta was born.
“Atcha and I talked about it, and he said let’s go for it, let’s get a band together which is all women and, we’ll see how that goes,” she told The Jerusalem Post’s Barry Davis in February. “There is a different energy to an all-female band. I like it.”
It became very clear very quickly why Levy in particular was approached to be the creative director of the jazz festival – she has a knack for pulling things together in such a way that the overall artistic vision shines through.
“All year I worked on finding [people]. And I’ll say what needs to be said: There aren’t enough [women jazz performers].”
One of the big obstacles Levy ran into was that many of the up-and-coming female jazz artists she encountered were not quite finished cooking. That is to say, they weren’t quite up to snuff professionally or they didn’t have enough material to put on a full-length show.
“Suddenly, I realized that part of my responsibility was to find the younger artists, and if I need to be harsh, then I’ll be harsh. What I mean is, I’ll say ‘I really like what you’re doing – I want you to perform with this material for another year so that I can put you on the main stage next year.’ I think I said that five times this year so far.... It was hard.”
But Levy is not just pulling together artists randomly.
“It isn’t enough that it’s jazz and it’s feminine – I want it to say something,” she stressed.
So we return to the original question: What exactly do women bring to jazz?
Possibly nothing, probably something.
But the real question is: What might you find if you scratch beneath the surface of the Israeli jazz music scene and give some up-and-coming women artists a chance? ❖
The festival runs May 31 through June 3.
For more information: yellowsubmarine.org.il/en/queenta-woman-jazz-festival