Lulu Fest Celebrates Female Bandleaders

May 13, 2019

“This was started in 2004 in Kingston, New York, as the Wall Street Jazz Festival,” says Lulu Fest founder Peggy Stern. “Because a partner and I had noticed that there were very few women bandleaders playing in these festivals. Sometimes there were band members that were women, but still very few. And it was just a glaring oversight of the jazz business, which is supposed to be forward-thinking. And so we thought we’d help it along by creating this festival.”

The Wall Street Jazz Festival was a resounding success and ran for twelve years before Stern relocated to Austin.  Once here, she decided to continue the tradition of celebrating female bandleaders, but with a slight change to better fit her new home. “When I moved here, I saw kind of the same thing happening,” Stern says. “But I also noticed that maybe Austin wasn’t the place to do a just jazz festival.”

When Lulu Fest was born, it kept the spirit of the Wall Street Jazz Festival alive by once again focusing on female bandleaders, but opened up its musical heart a bit by incorporating not just jazz but other sorts of music as well. This year’s fest features jazz acts such as Jay Clayton and Dawn Clement along with Cuba’s Jane Bunnett & Maqueque and Austin’s own Carrie Rodriguez.

Stern likes to point out that Lulu Fest celebrates female bandleaders but that it’s not a women-only event. “It isn’t a women’s festival anyway – all the bands have men in them,” she says. “We love men, as I’ve said before. But the women are in charge of what gets presented onstage, and it makes for a really different kind of festival. It’s a very different read of what music can be in female hands. Plus it’s timely. We need our voices heard.”

Now in its third year, Lulu Fest has expanded from one night to two. It’ll kick off on Friday night at the Parker Jazz Club with a freewheeling show. “The first set is really fun, it’s a mix-and-match duo set,” says Stern. “So you’ll have two saxophones together, and then you might have two basses together and then you’ll have piano and voice and then you might have vocals together. Just short vignettes.”

Friday night will also feature sets from Claire Daly, Carrie Rodriguez, Pamela York, and then a set that Stern calls a “free-for-all” that’s scheduled to go well into the night.

On Saturday, things move to Jones Auditorium at St. Edward’s University, with sets from Jay Clayton (performing with Stern herself), Dawn Clement, and Jane Bunnett’s Maqueque.

While Lulu Fest isn’t a jazz festival per se, Stern sees the jazz spirit in all improvised music. “Every band that we present does some improvisation,” she says. “I’m not in charge of what the women present… Dawn called me this morning and said ‘Do you mind if I do such-and-such?’ and I said, ‘Hey, it’s your set. You can do whatever you want.’ So I think that people will present the music that’s in their hearts that they want to share the most and that’s what we’re aiming for.”  

Lulu Fest is this Friday May 17 and Saturday May 18 at Parker Jazz Club and St. Ed's Jones Auditorium.