When the DIVA Jazz Orchestra was formed in 1993, many female jazz musicians might not have trusted the motivations behind an all-women big band. That includes drummer Sherrie Maricle, who has now led the intensely swinging ensemble for a quarter century.
“Normally, I would have shied away,” Maricle admits. “Most women in my generation would refuse to do something like that, because traditionally women weren’t taken seriously. The people who might employ them didn’t care about their musicianship; they’d just say, ‘Put on a ton of lipstick and wear a short skirt,’ and that became the only criteria for hiring women.”
What persuaded Maricle to participate in DIVA was the fact that the band was the brainchild of Stanley Kay, the former longtime manager of Maricle’s idol, the legendary drummer Buddy Rich. “Stanley wasn’t going to get involved with a bunch of nonsense,” she says. “He would say, ‘I don’t care if you weigh 300 pounds or if you have a mustache — if you can play, you can play.’ That’s all that he cared about, and obviously I feel the exact same way.”
DIVA’s career-spanning performance at the Kimmel Center on Saturday comes at the end of a long year’s worth of anniversary celebrations (so long, in fact, that the band recently celebrated its 26th birthday at Jazz at Lincoln Center), but it is the first time Maricle has commemorated the occasion in her newly adopted hometown. A longtime New Yorker, the drummer moved to Philadelphia nearly five years ago and now calls Kensington home.
It was partly that usual culprit, love, that drew Maricle to Philly; her partner, Susan Campbell, is CEO of the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House. But the move also presented the bandleader with an opportunity that NYC’s crowded spaces and astronomical real estate market never would have. She’s completely renovated the ground floor of the former stationery factory that the couple call home, converting it into the inviting performance space called Drummers.
“No matter who you are or where you’ve been,” Maricle says, “when you move to a new city you have to work your way into the good graces of the local arts community. So when Cupid’s arrow struck, I thought it would be a really cool use of this space to support the artists in Philadelphia who are trying to create great music. I know there are only a few clubs; it’s not like every great jazz player in Philadelphia can get a gig every night of the week. So if I can create a space in my house, that’s fantastic.”
Earlier this month, trombonist and singer Hailey Brinnel hosted a jam session at Drummers. Maricle orbited the fringes of the wood-and-brick room, filming on her smartphone as Brinnel mixed and match a host of student musicians and scene veterans like drummer Dan Monaghan. “I want it to be warm and cozy,” Maricle says. “I turn on my popcorn machine and off we go. It’s not a sterile space. I want people to be themselves, just like in jazz.”
That’s a standard to which Maricle has long held herself as well as the gifted musicians who have passed through DIVA. In addition to the big band, she also leads a pair of trios as well as the quintet Five Play, all joyously adhering to her passion for music from the swing and hard bop traditions, instilled by drum icons like Gene Krupa and Art Blakey. One name looms above all, however; when a teacher brought an 11-year old Maricle to see Buddy Rich, her fate was sealed.
“That’s the end of the story,” she says. “I raced home and told my mom, ‘I don’t know what that was’ – because I’d never heard jazz before — ‘but I’m doing that.’ When I tell the story I can still feel what that felt like for me when I was a kid a million years ago.”
The membership of DIVA now spans generations, from cofounding members like trumpeter Liesl Whitaker and others who have been with the group for a decade or two, to young, up-and-coming musicians for whom seeing DIVA provided the kind of revelatory inspiration that Maricle found in Rich.
“Janelle Reichman, our first tenor player, said her mom took her to see us when she 12 years old,” Maricle says, marveling at the thought. “It was her dream to play with us. Those are really fun stories. Definitely was never meant to be just a feminist statement — it is one, but that was never my purpose. It’s a bunch of great players who sound great together. Women are now empowered to say, ‘I/we are strong enough, good enough, badass musicians, and if we want to play together because it’s fun and it feels great, that’s OK.’ I think DIVA has helped with that over the last 26 years.”