Whether they like it or not, the Blazing Redheads are one of the more confrontational groups on today's music scene. But it's not the San Francisco band's "rhythmo-fusion" sound--a percussive concoction of danceable rhythms reaching from Africa to Brazil by way of jazz and R&B--that gives its audiences pause.
Simply, the Redheads' all-woman line-up isn't something the jazz world has rushed to embrace. Where the industry has welcomed female vocalists with open arms, it continues to be suspicious of women out to make it with their instruments. Imagine, then, the problems of an all-female jazz band with no vocalist, as is the case with the Blazing Redheads.
Donna Viscuso, Redheads saxophonist and flutist, doesn't have to wonder what it's like. She and the others in the group regularly wrestle with doubting audiences when introducing their mixture of funk and Latin jazz. Viscuso and her bandmates view the prejudice so matter-of-factly that they consider demeaning jabs to be part of the job.
"It happens all the time," says Viscuso. "In Kansas City, we were unloading our equipment at a bar while a lot of guys were sitting around watching us. We could hear the comments they were making, wondering whether or not we could play our instruments. If an all-male band had been in that situation, it wouldn't have happened. We run into sound men who assume we don't know what we're doing and that we're not professionals. They've asked us stupid questions like, `Do you need monitors?' Of course we need monitors. We have to prove more than other bands simply because we're women. But then, after we play and show them what we can do, they treat us with a lot of respect."
Early on, the Redheads shopped a demo tape that today sounds overly ambitious in its attempt to advertise the group's range of abilities. But the end result was a 1988 debut album on Reference Records with Airto Moreira, Brazil's most famous percussionist, acting as musical consultant.
It was a perfect match for a band that draws its power from international rhythms. To date, the album has sold over 20,000 copies. This December, they will record their second release for Reference, to be produced by Frank Dooritie, whose MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 production of late drummer Art Blakey resulted in a Grammy-winning album. The new Redheads collection will lean more toward the band's funkier live sound than the Latin flavoring of their first release. The gut-level funk these women set in motion until now has been testosterone terrain. But there's nothing sweet or cute about the nasty bass groove Lillie Robinson developed over her ten years in the Detroit club scene prior to joining the Redheads. Her style shows both the intelligence of jazz bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and the sex-driven playfulness of George Clinton's groups, the latter an admitted influence on a number of the Blazing Redheads.
Ironically, the group doesn't count women among its major influences--if only because the pickings are slim in jazz. "Every field except classical is heavy-duty male," says Viscuso. "At one low point, all of us in the band sat around trying to decide what we could play that would be considered acceptable, but we couldn't come up with anything. Unfortunately, the problem doesn't stop with the band itself. Susan, who is half of our management team, sometimes has to put Rick, who is the other half, on the phone to deal with club managers who won't take her seriously."
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The band's members didn't first encounter discrimination upon the Redheads' formation, though. Klaudia Promessi, the group's other saxophonist, applied for a music scholarship while in high school. Although she was playing first chair in the jazz band, the boy in second chair received the scholarship. The teacher explained that it went to him because Promessi would most likely end up marrying and forgetting about music.
But as far back as the group's demo tape, Promessi's manner flaunts a startling aggressiveness that most saxophonists never attempt. Promessi may be musically progressive, but five years into the band, she and her companions continue to experience the same musical prejudice accepted by their parents' generation.
"People are not used to seeing all women up there," says Viscuso. "It seems threatening--there's no man up there leading the band. Even the female big bands in the Forties and Fifties had a male bandleader. So we're still a novelty. It can get tiring. We're musicians.