Breaking down barriers in jazz

by Beth Wood


Holly Hofmann is an acclaimed jazz musician who tours internationally. Her success has not been without challenges, however. Hofmann has had to overcome misconceptions and biases about her gender and her instrument. Often told a woman couldn’t make a living in jazz, she also has had to convince many that the flute belongs in a jazz band as much as a saxophone or trumpet.

“I have been fighting discrimination since I was a young student,” Hofmann said. “The flute was a problem, but it’s also related to the question about women. Other women who played the so-called jazz instruments were not welcome either. A lot of the men didn’t want women on the bus.”

Hofmann fully supports the goal of the UC San Diego Jazz Camp to increase its number of female students. She has been an instructor at the weeklong summer camp almost every year since its inception in 2003. The camp is designed to help student musicians of varying skill levels, from 14-year-olds to senior citizens.

Instructors at the jazz camp include bassist Mark Dresser, trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, saxophonist Charles McPherson, and pianist Mike Wofford, Hofmann’s husband. All are renowned San Diego musicians who tour world-wide. Other instructors hail from Los Angeles and the East Coast. A unique quality of the camp, Hofmann points out, is that two distinct sides of jazz, traditional and modern, are represented by the faculty.

The upcoming camp will welcome saxophonist Grace Kelly as a first-time instructor. Kelly, 23, is a Berklee College of Music graduate and a six-time DownBeat Critics Poll winner as a rising star in the alto sax category. She also has served as a jazz educator on U.S. State Department-sponsored tours.

This year’s camp runs June 19–25 on the La Jolla campus, with fifty to sixty students and eighteen instructors. Each student is assigned to one of at least eight teacher-led ensembles and receives individual instruction. Auditions are held after acceptance to the camp to determine student placement in the ensembles.

“The very first day, everyone knows they have to put together a performance and have it ready by the end of the week,” Hofmann said. “They have to be friendly and supportive, and become a band. Many students tell me that their favorite part of camp is the ensemble. Seeing them at the end of the week, you can tell why. Everybody’s nervous about performing, but they’re laughing and having a good time. They’ve become a band; they are on each other’s team.”

Daniel Atkinson, director of the Department of Arts, Humanities, Languages, and Digital Arts for UC San Diego Extension, is the founder and director of Jazz Camp. Responsible, along with a panel of faculty members, for placing students in the ensembles and pairing them with instructors, he strives for each group to have a rhythm section of bass, piano, and drums.

Atkinson hopes the percentage of women students at the camp will increase this year.
“I’ve never been happy about the low number of girls and women in Jazz Camp,” he said. “I’ve questioned directors of other similar programs, and, unfortunately, there are a lot fewer women than men at the camps. Maybe part of it is the old image of jazz as a ‘guy thing.’ I’d love to end that perception.”

“Each year, I go to a number of high school band competitions and see plenty of girls in the bands. Most are large ensembles, with as many as six saxophones and six trumpets. Fewer schools have smaller groups, though, and within those, fewer girls participate.”


Building confidence

Bass player Angelica Pruitt, 16, has attended the last two UC San Diego Jazz Camps. A member of Mission Bay High School’s Preservationists, a well-respected Dixieland jazz band, she also plays classical music with the San Diego Youth Symphony.

“Jazz Camp was really amazing,” Pruitt said. “Last year, my teacher, (pianist) Anthony Davis, gave me music that would challenge me. He believed I could do it. At first, I didn’t think I could, but by the end of the week, I was playing it.”

Pruitt also would like to see more females at the camp.

“In 2015, of the fifty-five students, only five or six were girls, including myself,” she said. “Friends from my school were there, both boys and girls, so that helped. But each ensemble had just one or two girls, so it was a little intimidating. I knew I could talk with Holly about things that I couldn’t with a male instructor. I could talk to her about having more confidence.”

Hofmann agrees having more females in the camp would increase their self-confidence. Although she has had many male mentors — including trombonist Slide Hampton and bassist Ray Brown — she was usually the lone woman in the band.

“It’s good for female students to have a woman’s perspective and comfortability,” Hofmann said. “It comes down to believing in oneself. Whether they are in high school, college, or graduate school, women ask me, ‘Can I really do this for a living?’  They need to hear that they can.”

Joyce Caci, a Carlsbad-based family therapist and flutist, attended the 2014 Jazz Camp. She was delighted to be in Hofmann’s ensemble.

“Holly gave me some techniques that quickly improved my tone,” Caci, 62, said. “She was a source of inspiration and encouragement. I found the jazz camp to be a nonjudgmental and safe environment, where I felt free to learn and enjoy the full immersion of being surrounded by faculty. They are accomplished professionals, as well as gifted instructors.”

Caci believes it is important to have positive role models like Hofmann, who — with her husband, Wofford — teaches many clinics at colleges and high schools while on tour.

“All artists, especially those who make their living touring and recording, need to broaden the audience as much as we can,” Hofmann said. “We need young people to play this music. A lot of times, we can encourage people, especially young women, to enter jazz programs. If I can inspire a young woman to pursue jazz, I’ve made a contribution to the music.”



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