Orbert Davis is a history buff. When this Chicago trumpeter, bandleader, and composer funnels his prodigious creative energy towards a new project, he’s usually tackling — or, really, bear-hugging — real-life subjects.
Davis’s latest composition, Women Out of Time, embraces three: Lil Hardin Armstrong, a Chicagoan who became a member of King Oliver’s legendary band and met onetime husband Louis Armstrong through it; Mary Lou Williams, whom Davis cites as “one of the bridges between swing and bebop”; and Nina Simone, who pursued a career as a classical pianist before becoming one of the most versatile singer-songwriters in jazz and beyond.
Davis, 63, can more than relate to Simone’s twin loves of classical and jazz. Like most of his large-scale works, he wrote Women Out of Time for musicians from the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, the 60-piece classical–jazz crossover ensemble Davis co-founded. The Philharmonic turns 20 this year.
“We could have called it ‘women ahead of their time,’” Davis said recently, calling from his home in Beverly.
More than a tribute piece, Women Out of Time confronts a long-vexing inequity in jazz. Divas like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington are highly visible — worshiped, even. But women in jazz are rarely showered with such praise for their compositional prowess, and it’s still woefully rare to see women on bandstands as instrumentalists. Even then, they might be pressured to pivot to singing instead, as Simone was.
“In order to make ends meet, she took a little job in a club in Atlantic City. After playing there for several weeks, the club owner said, ‘Hey, if you want to keep this job, you’re gonna have to start singing, lady,’” said Dee Alexander, a prolific Chicago-based singer who both performs in, and curated the Simone selections for, Women Out of Time. “The rest is history.”For Women Out of Time, Davis crafted his own tune arrangements for a singer — that’s Alexander — and 14 strings, led by concertmaster Zara Zaharieva. They will be joined by winds, a rhythm section featuring local pianist and pedagogue Bethany Pickens and Davis himself on trumpet. The music is not mere covers: Davis’s takes on the compositions range from faithful — he’s borrowing Louis Armstrong’s solo in Hardin’s “Struttin’ with some Barbecue” — to fanciful. Minus improvisations, Davis estimates Women Out of Time runs “40 to 50 minutes.” With improvisations? That’s up to the performers.
“Chicago Jazz Philharmonic is not a repertory ensemble, meaning we [don’t] play the music as it was created. We want to take the music into the future,” said Davis, also a television and film composer. He won an Emmy for his original score to the WTTW documentary DuSable to Obama: Chicago’s Black Metropolis (2010) and recently wrapped scores to two more: When the West Side Burned and a history of house music.Women Out of Time joins a long list of live, evening-length pieces Davis has penned for the Philharmonic — so many, in fact, he’s lost track. A small sampler: Through Ella’s Eyes, in 2012, paid homage to Ella Fitzgerald on what would have been her 95th birthday; Legends and Lions invited Davis’s own jazz heroes to share the stage with young up-and-comers. A more recent series, Chicago Immigrant Stories, paired musicians from the city’s various immigrant communities with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic.
“We’re not only one of the most diverse orchestras, but also one of the most diverse audiences,” Davis said.
It’s fitting that the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic is the one bringing Women Out of Time to life for another reason: the orchestra is remarkably gender equitable, especially in the über-masculine world of jazz. Davis admits even he was shocked when he looked over a photo of the ensemble a few years ago and realized it was three-fourths women.
“I hadn’t thought about that. I just try to think like Duke Ellington and write for specific performers,” Davis says. “These are my friends; these are my family.”
Alexander and Pickens, both taking a semi-starring role in Women Out of Time, are especially snug fits. Each artist has spearheaded tribute projects for Simone and Williams, respectively: Alexander’s 2007 Sirens of Song and Pickens’ 2010 centenary celebration for Williams with fellow keyboardist Amina Claudine Myers, both at Millennium Park.Pickens said she learned a great deal about Williams in preparation for that program — including that she met her first husband, John Overton Williams, here in Chicago. Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, she continued to use his last name professionally.
“We saw how much of a force she was behind the scenes. She was writing arrangements for [gospel arranger] Tommy Dorsey and [big band leader] Fletcher Henderson. Her home was where Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Max Roach would get together. That little think-tank left a significant footprint in this era we now call the bebop era,” Pickens said.
Women Out of Time premieres at the Kehrein Center for the Arts, an Austin venue whose live music programming has skyrocketed since the pandemic interruption. Kehrein is a newer space for the Philharmonic, but a keeper: It’s large enough to host the ensemble’s massive forces, when needed, but remains, at its heart, a neighborhood venue — true to what Davis calls the “community-minded” ethos of the Philharmonic.
That also guided the Philharmonic’s decision, with support from key funders, to sell tickets to its concerts starting at $1 — yes, a dollar — coming out of the pandemic.
“I felt that we need to be intentional with that aspect of change,” Davis says. “It wouldn’t make sense to go in [the Kehrein] and charge $30 or $50, like we did at the Auditorium Theatre.”
According to Davis, the average ticket price sold still floats around $10 to $15. It’s a sign, he hopes, that appreciation for third stream music — the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic’s in-between niche between classical and jazz — is here to stay.
“I have to believe there’s an audience for it. We’ve proved it,” Davis said. “We have a huge classical following, and a huge jazz following.”
If you go: The Chicago Jazz Philharmonic performs Women Out of Time on Saturday, Feb. 10 at the Kehrein Center for the Arts, 5628. W. Washington Blvd. Tickets start at $1.
Hannah Edgar is a Chicago-based culture writer. Their work appears regularly in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Musical America and Downbeat.