A First for Broadway: The Trombonists of KING KONG

by JENNIFER WHARTON

Sara Jacovino and Jennifer Wharton. Photo by Sarah Boxmeyer. 

Female musicians are still facing old-fashioned ideas, even in 2019. The great jazz trumpeter Ingrid Jensen had an audience member wonder if her performance was prerecorded because he didn’t know women could play that well. A trombonist wondered aloud how many male trombonists Sara Jacovino “jumped over” to get her chair on King Kong. Trombonist Natalie Cressman shared on social media that people were claiming she only got the gig in Trey Anastasio’s band because of how she looked. Then there is the old chestnut – implying some women give sexual favors in return for gigs. These stories are not unique. Every woman I know has them, but we learn to sweep them under the rug as if this (sometimes) unintentional needling was the price to pay for being female. 

Though these outdated ideas are still present in the music business, things have changed for the better. Just within the last few years, four female trombonists held six different chairs in Broadway pits (in addition to several substitutes). This is thanks to a great number of allies, both male and female, who have helped women get their shot. Several organizations have recently been formed specifically to help women in the music business. Maestra is an organization of female composers, music directors, and theater musicians aiming to give support, visibility, and community to the women who make the music in the musical theater industry. Georgia Stitt, its founder, contacted me a few months ago and asked if I’d like to write about the experience of being part of the first female trombone section on Broadway. I’d been performing on Broadway for 15 years so my first question was, why does this matter now? Why do we have to bring up gender at all? Most women I speak with wish their gender wasn’t a big deal. We just want to be considered for the gig and, if we get it, we want to be able to perform our job in peace. 

My name is Jennifer Wharton. I arrived on the New York scene from Northern California in 2005 with several touring shows under my belt and was fortunate enough to begin working in the Broadway world. I began my career on Curtains in 2007 and am currently holding down the bass trombone/tuba chair in King Kong, Alive on Broadway. This past March, the King Kong orchestra welcomed Sara Jacovino on the tenor trombone chair, and she and I became the first female trombone section on Broadway. We followed the trail blazed by trombonist Janice Robinson in the 1970s, and by the time I came along, a handful of trombone subs were women. In the 12 years since my first show, there have been 4 women to hold trombone chairs on Broadway. Until our shows close in August, there are three of us: Sara and I at King Kong and Natalie Cressman at The Cher Show

When Michael Gacetta (conductor) and David Lai (contractor) at King Kong were considering successors for the vacated tenor trombone chair, it seemed things were going Sara’s way. Michael and David asked me about her playing and personality. Occasionally, conductors/contractors may do this as a courtesy to the already present section not only to get a reference but also to ensure the player is a good fit. I considered this to be a huge responsibility. The worst fear most of us ladies have is being hired just because we are “checking off a box.” I had only played with Sara outside of Broadway so I couldn’t speak to her playing our show, only to her general playing and overall musicianship. By the time I heard her play King Kong, it was obvious why she was being hired. What made it so very personal to me was that I was a woman actually able to vouch for another woman. It’s the first time I ever had that opportunity, and it wasn’t something I took lightly. 

I recently sat down with my section-mate to chat about how our paths led us to Broadway. Sara was born in Connecticut. Her father served as church organist/music director and her mother was principal of an arts magnet school. She went to a boarding school as a day student and recalls that she was “smart and socially awkward.” Even at a young age, she was a multi-instrumentalist and played piano, cello, organ, trombone, violin and saxophone. Her first job was as an organist at a Catholic church when she was in the 12th grade. Sara went to college on a saxophone scholarship but immediately switched to trombone and earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees before moving to NYC in 2008. I actually met her on her first gig in town when we were both subbing on a DIVA Jazz Orchestra gig. She is a graduate of the University of North Texas, where she received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees, and she has won numerous prizes for composition and performance. Sara and her partner Candace run a successful club-date band while keeping an apartment in Brooklyn and a house in Connecticut. When she began working on Broadway a couple years ago, she quickly became a favorite substitute on every show she’s played. Pretty soon, she was being contacted by all of the various contractors in town for one-off gigs, recordings, and Broadway shows as well as subbing regularly in groups like the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Currently she plays piano, trombone, bass trombone, and recently she took up the tuba. Every once in a while, she’ll break out the saxophone. 

I grew up in Pittsburg, California, a small town in San Francisco’s East Bay. My father was an auto shop teacher and my mother had various jobs from styling hair to catching bank fraud. Though I started playing trombone in junior high, my parents actively pushed me to quit playing in high school. They grew up in the 50s-60s when only “nerds” were in band. I couldn’t let it go that easily and started playing again my senior year, even picking up the tuba and euphonium. I was accepted into a few colleges for Marine Biology but couldn’t afford tuition. I found myself at the local junior college where my newfound musical “family” pushed me to dream bigger while my real family continued to discourage me from pursuing music professionally. I didn’t even own an instrument until my third year of college. I was awarded a hefty scholarship to the New England Conservatory as a transfer student. I’d never played in an orchestra before NEC so to say I got my butt kicked would be an understatement. Two years after graduation, I started working towards my Masters degree in Orchestral Performance at the Manhattan School of Music, but a hideous experience convinced me that I would NEVER pay money to play again. I returned to San Francisco to do the pre-Broadway run of Wicked and a year-long run of The Lion King before giving The Big Apple another try. Since I moved back to NYC, I’ve held chairs on eight shows and subbed on over a dozen. I am a member of several big bands, including two Grammy-nominated ensembles: Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society and The Alan Ferber Big Band. 

Sara and I really got to know each other when I was playing for the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop. She participated in the program as a composer for a few years and won the BMI Foundation’s Charlie Parker Composition Award/Manny Album Commission after just one season. I asked her if there might be a Sara Jacovino Big Band in her future, mostly because I would love to hear more of her music. I have even commissioned Sara to write for my trombone band’s recording project. She admitted, “I have a large big band library that isn’t getting played.” She is concentrating on getting back to playing in a jazz quartet, though she says, “I have a complex about playing. My writing is so much better.” After I pressed further, Sara repeated something her mentor said to her in college: “Why don’t you play like you write?” Is it possible she is carrying this idea around with her today? “Probably.” This teacher did hold Sara’s writing and musicianship in high esteem, even trusting her opinion on his own writing. Conversely, the legendary David Baker encouraged her playing. He said, “You sound like you. Many people sound like copy cats. Keep doing it.” Thankfully, Sara listened to him, and soon she was winning or placing in every competition she entered. She played in the prestigious One O’Clock Lab Band for three years at North Texas and even played in Snarky Puppy. Sara remembers, “I wasn’t really trying, I was just putting myself out there.” 

The move to New York helped Sara make peace with who she is as a player. “In New York, there are always people better than you so it makes you hone in on what you’re good at. Your niche.” She focuses on things she can control – like subbing. Once you get the call to sub on a Broadway show, you have control over how much you prepare and what you will sound like;  ultimately, you control your worth as a substitute. “I think I make a really good sub.” Still, her life’s goal is not to be a Broadway musician and there is no hint of superiority in her voice. Any pit musician will tell you that playing the 5000th performance of Ghostbusters The Musical may not feel as satisfying as the first 500. When speaking to younger musicians, I always stress the importance of having a musical outlet of their own. A rich musical life outside of the pit will make them more valuable as a musician. 

The fact that Sara and I are now professional musicians who travel around to schools and speak to younger generations of both men and women is HUGE because neither of us had any female mentors. I am frequently asked why there aren’t more women playing after high school and I think this lack of female mentors is a big factor. Just seeing someone like you doing the thing you most want to do in life can plant the seed of possibility. There are many supportive mentors and allies out there, both male and female. Even so, there are still numerous young women who have to deal with misogyny from other students and educators. I hear their stories and think if I can help just one of them get through a difficult situation, the pain I still carry around with me is eased a bit. Furthermore, I hand out my email address to everyone at clinics/masterclasses and invite students to sit in on shows with me when I’m able. Bravo to educational institutions and instrument companies for recognizing their role in changing perceptions of what is possible for these young people. 

Sara and I have succeeded in this business in great part because of the continued support of our male colleagues. When I was being considered for my first show, several of my coworkers from New York and San Francisco were contacted. They vouched for me when they didn’t have to; they got me in the door. Sara was recommended to a Broadway contractor by a man she was subbing for. I think it is important to highlight all the guys that stick up and vouch for their female coworkers. We see you and you are AWESOME! The good news is that it’s not just Broadway. I’ve been contacted several times by bandleaders who realize their hiring pool is small and homogenous. They want to know who they should know. Organizations like Maestra (Broadway) and WIJO/Women In Jazz Organization (Jazz) are aiming to make it easier to diversify and give a shot to people of all backgrounds. 

Every marginalized group has horror stories, and bringing light to these dark stories is a powerful way to prevent them from happening again. While Sara and I both definitely have these stories, our paths diverge when we talk about sexual harassment. Sara has been “out” since she was 20, so she never had to tiptoe around her male colleagues. It was difficult for her to move to New York and essentially have to come out again, but overall Sara feels like it was easier because she is gay. As a straight woman, my experience was a bit different. My defense against any harassment was to have a good offense. If I could demonstrate that I was funny and nothing could offend me, I hoped I’d be accepted and never have to deal with harassment of any kind. On the whole, it worked well for me, though this method does have its problems. I was once followed home by a bandmate who mistook my friendliness for flirting. And I have certainly observed that in an effort to be considered “one of the guys,” a woman can be judged unfavorably for language that might be considered status quo among an all-male environment. In this post #metoo world, everyone needs to be more careful walking that fine line.

I asked Sara a question, one that I often ask myself: What would you say to your younger self? Our answers were eerily similar. Trust your abilities. Don’t worry about what other people think. Be somebody people want to work with. And most of all, be humble. Playing with Sara at King Kong might be a first for Broadway, but, to be honest, it felt no different to me than playing with any other great trombonist. It was exactly what it should have been – a great playing experience with someone I respect. We should all be so lucky. Sara and I now have an opportunity to be something that neither of us had: role models. Seeing any one of the growing numbers of lady brass players in New York will mean a lot to young, aspiring musicians dreaming of making it in the big city. I know it would have meant a lot to me. 


7 thoughts on “A First for Broadway: The Trombonists of KING KONG

  1. Great Story but, I’ve had a few Female Trombone students one from 4 grade on and the others mostly High School players. All very smart and excellent players. I beg to differ on that Band Geeks story of kids in the 50/60’s. I was in High School in the late 40’s, graduated in 1950 and we had a “Girl” on Trombone who played great and one on Euphonium who blew the charts off the page. Sooo~~~~~~ we didn’t allow the “Band Geeks” crap to happen. I’ve been around for a long time and have played with a lot of Low Brass Female players who were a joy to GIG with. More power to you two and all the other Low Brass “Chicks”.

  2. I hope this article can be seen far and wide. These extravagantly gifted and incredibly diligent musicians aren’t an anomaly and their success is a powerful example for any creative person. Ms Wharton writes her ass off, too. Brava, indeed.

  3. A very inspiring article! After hearing Sarah play an amazing solo with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, I’m happy to learn more about her and hopeful that your article will inspire more women jazz musicians.

  4. Excellent article!! A great player is a great player and you are wise to point out that ‘fitting in’ as a Broadway pit musician as well as having the right personality to play 8 shows a week OF THE EXACT SAME MUSIC is important. Nice job!

  5. This was a fun read. Your voice is exactly what it is in real life. You may not already know this but I would hope that you know that I look up to you, and Sara as well. I have really enjoyed spending time with both of you, being on the road with you specifically, I feel like I can say we are friends and I appreciate you. Thanks Jen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *