'Let's see what happens': Lulu Fest celebrates female bandleaders and the art of improvised music
This April 1, jazz pianist Peggy Stern will present the 2023 itineration of Lulu Fest, continuing a musical mission she’s been on for nearly 20 years. “Lulu Fest is a continuation of the Wall Street Jazz Festival, which was commenced in New York in 2004,” Stern says. “It was an outdoor festival on Wall Street [in] Kingston, New York. So that's the joke – it wasn't really Wall Street, but it was Wall Street. And the whole purpose of it was to have women band leaders and their concepts of the music. So they could have anybody they wanted in their bands, but they were in charge of the music that was being presented. And that festival lasted 12 years.”
After moving from New York to Texas, Stern continued the festival in Austin as Lulu Fest. The mission remains unchanged, though – it’s not a festival that only features female musicians, but rather one where all the bandleaders and decision-makers are women.
“It's a chance for the women to showcase what is the most meaningful music to them without having to worry about what somebody else thinks they should play,” Stern says.
This year’s festival will include performances from Emily Gimble, Margaret Slovak, Sue Terry, Suzi Stern and Peggy Stern herself – all women with their own unique sounds, which is in fitting with Lulu Fest’s ideals. “I consider all music that contains improvisation as jazz – that's, to me, the definition of jazz. It doesn't have to be bebop, it doesn't have to be western swing,” Stern says. “It encompasses all of those things – it can even be improvised classical music. As long as there's some improvisation [and] on-the-spot kind of creativity.”
When she began the original Wall Street Jazz Festival, Stern was trying to satisfy a need that she saw in the music world, and she says that nineteen years later, she thinks that need still exists. “I do,” she says. “I wish I didn't. I mean, there's more acceptance of women in the field of jazz and improvised music [than in 2004, but] yeah, there's still a need for it. It's still way over-balanced, men to women. Although most of us that have been women musicians for all this time do have the respect of our peers and the acceptance of our peers without question. That's never a thing. But sometimes the general audiences are slow to catch up and also the music is different. That's what it was created for is, let's see what the women do if left to their own devices.”
After a couple of years of altered plans and/or streaming festivals, Stern is happy and excited to be getting back to a more traditional version of her beloved music fest, and says she plans to keep producing the show for years to come. “I'm most excited that it just keeps coming and people love it,” she says. “So does it bother me that there's still a need? I expected it. Someone, when we first came up with the festival all those years ago… a male musician in the Hudson Valley said to me, ‘Well, how long are you gonna do this female thing?’ And I said ‘40 years, probably, maybe more, maybe less.’ So, we're coming up on 20. Maybe it is going to be 40 years. Well, you know, it takes a long time to do [away with] the chauvinism that's built into not just my field, but lots of fields. Personally, I think female leadership should be the wave of the future in all kinds of things. You know, the men have had a long, long ride on this. Let's see what happens if we equal things up.”