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Jazzing It Up

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

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With a sizzling snap of her fingers, Kay Kostopoulos turned up the heat in the Serra House conference room turned intimate lounge. “I’d like to do at least one politically incorrect tune,” she suggested, swaying to the thump Sam Bevan was laying down on his bass.

“It’s about women behaving badly for all the right reasons.” Wink.

As her combo took flight—guitar, congas and viola catching air with The Lady Is a Tramp—Kostopoulos was having way too much fun. Like every jazz stylist who tinkers with the 1937 Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart standard, she fine-tuned the lyrics, to suggest in one refrain, “that’s why the lady is a champ.”

“I was an actress before I became a singer,” Kostopoulos later told her audience, “so I think about the lyrics a lot. They set off in one direction, but if you really listen, they take you somewhere else. Why is the lady a tramp? Because she defies every rule.”

Women in Jazz and World Music: Taking a Leadership Role was the theme of the latest artists’ salon hosted by the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Previous salons featured lecturer in drama Aleta Hayes and novelist Valerie Miner, an artist in residence at the institute and consulting professor in the English department. Miner organizes the salons, which bring together practicing artists from the faculty and staff. “We talk across our disciplines about issues related to our art, to our lives in the academy and to our relationships with students.”

Kostopoulos, a lecturer in drama, fit the salon gig in between rehearsals for The Mineola Twins, the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy she was directing in Pigott Theater in November. Off campus, she is artistic director of Black Olive Jazz and appears at leading festivals, club venues, educational institutions and benefits in the Bay Area.

Sharing the stage with violist and composer Mimi Dye, Kostopolous brought exotic energy to Duke Ellington’s Caravan and Johnny Mercer’s Out of This World. But mostly, she was there to share her own insights on the contemporary jazz scene. Responding to a student’s question about whether opportunities have improved for women, Kostopoulos said that when she started her career, “I was always the chick singer in front of a bunch of men, and often male musicians assume the girl singer doesn’t know anything.” But years of jazz classes taught her how to improvise and when to come into a song, she added. “When you really have an understanding of the form, that gains more respect. And that’s what has really changed.”

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