The trope of a female jazz singer is often defined under one term: canary. The canary comes out in a flowing dress, belting out songs of love and loss with a band of musicians behind her. While that's traditionally been the role of women in the genre, that idea no longer dominates the conversation regarding women in jazz today.
Take, for instance, Rachel Eckroth, who will be performing at the Tucson Jazz Festival at the Screening Room on Tuesday, Jan. 27, at 7:30 p.m. The New York City by way of Phoenix singer-songwriter says more and more she sees women as instrumentalists and not just vocalists.
"It's a different path that's just generally what men have done for a number of years," she says. "Out here there are so many great women instrumentalists though."
Starting out, Eckroth took an opposite approach to jazz than one might assume. Beginning as a pianist, it wasn't until later in her performing career that she began singing. As a singer and instrumentalist, Eckroth says she has a sort of freedom and self-sufficiency that lends to her music.
"I think there's more opportunity in that," she says. "For me, being able to accompany myself is cool because I already know what I want to hear. It just eliminates one step."
For her Tucson Jazz Festival set Eckroth will be performing with two other musicians as a trio, including Jerome Jennings on drums and David Cutler on bass. Her modern take on jazz is founded on improvisation, whether she's playing on her own or interacting with other musicians.
"When we do the show live, it's a completely different animal because we open the songs up for a lot of improvisation," Eckroth says. "That's important for me because I don't think I could perform something the same way over and over again—I would get really bored."
Whether she is performing classics, writing her own music, or covering modern pop hits as Eckroth did on her new EP "Makeover," which features covers of the Black Keys' "Tighten Up" and Sam Smith's "Latch," she sees improvisation as the cornerstone of creativity in music and the reason jazz traditions need to be upheld for future generations.
"I think [jazz] is important because it's an improvisational art," she says. "To keep creativity in music you need the music that is in itself creative all of the time."
Similarly, jazz legend Dianne Reeves sees the genre as important because of its openness to everyone, which has only increased since she started her career in the '80s.
"There's a stronger feminine voice out there on all the instruments. It's exciting to see because you always knew they were there but now you really get to see it," she says.
"Each generation brings a viewpoint that is unique. These women are very independent in terms of how they perform and write music," she says. "It's all coming from them and it's a voice you haven't really heard before."
Reeves says that while the greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn inspired her when she started, she sees modern performers like Esperanza Spalding and Lalah Hathaway leading the way today.
"You love them for all different reasons," Reeves says. "You can say you love fruit but I don't know if I'd say I love apples more than bananas. These musicians are all bringing something so unique."
Although there are really only three women headlining the festival, with her performance at Fox Theatre on Sunday, Jan. 18 being one of the bigger events, Reeves says she doesn't tend to look at it that way.
"We have to all come together because what makes me better is inevitably going to make you better," she says. "It's important now to inspire young women to lead the way which in turn inspires men to view them as equals—it's not a conversation just one side needs to be having."
However, for Miz Elizabeth of the Hot Sardines, the conversation was very natural. When her band formed, it started as her and bandleader Evan Palazzo. Unlike Reeves and Eckroth, the two were simply jazz enthusiasts and began playing professionally as a result of their music obsession.
"I wasn't a musician at all," Miz Elizabeth says. "I was someone who sang in the shower."
Since then, the Hot Sardines have grown to include five other performers, including a tap dancer. When performing live, the full band has an explosive sound that's heavy on improvisation and high in energy. Miz Elizabeth says combining that creativity with the audience's energy is where the "joy button goes into overdrive."
"There are jazz acts that really appeal to your brain and want you to sit and think about it," she says. "That's not our approach primarily—we're primarily trying to get your heart and your soul—and your booty."
Though she is the only female in the large group, she says she doesn't really ever feel singled out.
"One of the great things about jazz is that I don't know that it has those same gender parameters as pop or rock," she says. "I feel like it can be kind of democratic—everyone gets on the bandstand and everything else melts away."
You can watch it all melt away when the Hot Sardines perform during the Tucson Jazz Festival on Friday, Jan. 23 at 8 p.m. at the Fox Theatre. For tickets and more information on the Hot Sardines', Dianne Reeves', and Rachel Eckroth's performances, visit www.tucsonjazzfestival.org.