Taking Back the Night

by Maria Navedo

Take Back the Night is an annual event to raise awareness about sexual violence, relationship violence, and domestic violence. Usually when it comes up in conversation (So what’s this gig for?), just having the words “sexual” and “violence” next to each other is enough to end the conversation immediately (Oh okay.). That squirming is what Take Back the Night (TBTN) is trying to work through by inviting the public to explore these issues through workshops, panels, and group discussions. Other TBTN events are designed to give survivors a safe place to express themselves and their story, if they wish to, by decorating a T-shirt to hang on the anonymous Clothes Line Project, marching through the community, or the Speak Out event, where survivors can share their stories.

This year, Lansing’s Take Back the Night event also included an open-mic night. The goal of the event was to provide a break from workshops, which can often be very emotionally charged, to remind all of those who are survivors that there is more than just ‘surviving’ after an abuse. The event was called A Celebration of Life: Thriving Past Surviving. As a musician and a member of the coordinating committee, I decided to help set up and orchestrate this event along with Kari Edington – one of the co-coordinators of the entire event. I approached my good friend and talented bassist, Hannah Dexter, about putting together a group.

Ms. Dexter wanted to put together an all-girl funk/soul group for a while, but with the busy schedule that kept most of us working on other things, it had fallen through the cracks. Now, with a gig lined up and for a cause that perhaps made an all-girl group seem even more appropriate, the gears started turning. Eventually the final line-up of players was figured out featuring the swinging Len’I Glenn (surprising us all with her chops on drums as she is an accomplished bari saxophonist), the highly knowledgeable Cori Matsui on guitar, the fearless Mariela Alessandra Versola jumping head first into the land of the melodica (a usual alto saxophonist), of course, the fro-flow force of nature that is Hannah Dexter on electric bass, and myself on alto saxophone. We are Clean the Flo’

It was a powerful night that Friday. The little coffee shop was quiet and calm save for the individual efforts of those bent over notes and laptops.  We five women came in and unloaded our equipment bags. We set up in the corner, leaving just enough room for the audience which began to trickle in in small groups. Most of them would later perform music or spoken word later on. A buzz began to fill the cafe, which suddenly felt much larger, as they waited for the music – some happily, some nervously, others almost defiant in their strength.

It was time to hit and we took to our places. We played songs like Ain’t No Mountain High Enough by by Marvin Gaye, Watermelon Man by Herbie Hancock (a la Head Hunters), I Want You Back by Jackson 5, and F*** you by Cee-Lo Green. Playing in an all-female group creates a very special feeling for me. It’s the same feeling as realizing for the first time that a blindfold test turned out to be the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. For me, its a feeling that is at the core of Take Back the Night. Yes, there is a squirming and discomfort when the subject of sexual violence, relationship violence and domestic violence are brought up, but why? Because it’s taboo. Take Back the Night is an event to support and encourage people to break the silence – through the efforts of women and men survivors and co-survivors (their immediate friends and family who support them through the healing process) who are helping to slowly change the public conversation on sexual violence.

Being a female jazz musician used to be taboo too. Many women experienced sexual assault or sexual abuse as a result of being in the business of late nights, constant traveling, and often being a minority of the band. It was a virtually unheard of save for some of the strong, brave, beautiful women who paved the path and continue to lead the way. It is a slow process, but it is jazz artists like Mary Lou Williams, Billie Holiday, Tanya Darby, Anita O’Day, Tia Fuller, Terri Lyne Carrington and so many others who have done so much for the music that inspired Clean the Flo and many others that night to break the mold and break the silence.

Until next time,
Swing sisters, swing!
The JazzGirls


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