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Arts Eclectic turns the spotlight on happenings in the arts and culture scene in and around the Austin area. Through interviews with local musicians, dancers, singers, and artists, Arts Eclectic aims to bring locals to the forefront and highlight community cultural events.Support for Arts Eclectic comes from Broadway Bank.

'All the music kind of cross-pollinates': LuluFest celebrates The Art of the Duo

“The mission behind this is came out of a festival that I attended in… jeez, a long time ago,” says Peggy Stern, the founder of LuluFest. That annual music event started out as the Wall Street Jazz Festival, which Stern ran in New York State for several years before moving herself and the fest down to Austin.

“Well, in the early aughts, we'll say,” Stern continues. “It would have been 2002, maybe. Up in upstate New York where there was an entire jazz festival without one woman performing, not on the stage, not leading a band. And I bumped into a friend of mine, John Bilotti, and he said, ‘What's wrong with this picture?’ And we said, ‘no women.’ And so we decided to do something about it. And that was the genesis of the Wall Street Jazz Festival and [later] the Lulu Fest. And it's still the same conceit — that the women are completely in charge of what gets presented on the bandstand.”

For twenty years, the Wall Street Jazz Festival and LuluFest have followed that simple rule: everyone’s welcome to play and enjoy the music but all the bands are all headed up by female bandleaders. “It can be original music, it can be standards, it's completely up to them, what they wanna perform,” Stern explains. “They hire their own band. And most people, including me, hire men in their band as well as women because we hire who we want to play with.”

A few things have changed since 2004: the location and name changes were fairly dramatic and hard to miss, but there’s also been a more gradual change: Stern’s definition of jazz.

“See, jazz has gotten a bad rap,” Stern says, “because it automatically throws people into thinking about bebop or Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie, all of whom were fabulous musicians and made huge contributions. But at this point in history that's, to me, a narrow view. And especially living here where all the music kind of cross-pollinates – from western swing into Americana and jazz and bossa nova and samba and salsa and folk music and classical – it all kind of cross-pollinates in a really healthy way here in Austin. So since reinventing the festival here as LuluFest, I've loosened the strictures so that ‘jazz’ can mean music that contains improvisation. It doesn't matter what the roots of that music are… as long as there's improvisation, to me that's jazz.”

This year’s LuluFest is subtitled The Art of the Duo. “This year… we're honoring a pet project of mine, that's always been in my heart ever since I played with Lee Konitz back in the day. So all of the bands this year are duos,” Stern says. “Turns out almost all of them are couples. And the only people that aren't couples are me and Pamela Hart, who are a duo this year. But I like duos. I often perform in duo because it's really a conversation between me and whatever instrument I'm playing with [maybe] a guitar or saxophone or flute or harp or whatever we come across. And I like the intimacy of the duo. It can't be anything but honest. Nobody's really playing a role. They're just playing their instruments.”

Twenty years into her mission, Stern says the job isn’t done yet. “It's still necessary because the balance is still way out… especially in jazz,” she says. “In terms of women being able to express their point of view and be bandleaders, it's gotten way better. There's more women every year – more wonderful, amazing musicians playing all over the world. So it has gotten better in the twenty years that I've been doing it. But, you know, it's gonna take another twenty at least.”

LuluFest takes place Saturday, May 11, at the First Presbyterian Church.

Mike is the production director at KUT, where he’s been working since his days as an English major at the University of Texas. He produces Arts Eclectic, Get Involved, and the Sonic ID project, and also produces videos and cartoons for KUT.org. When pressed to do so, he’ll write short paragraphs about himself in the third person, but usually prefers not to.