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Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Saxophonist Olivia Hughart

Manasa Gudavalli
Olivia Hughart is the founder of Key of She Jazz.

Jazz is many things to many people. To 19-year-old, Lower Merion, PA native saxophonist-composer Olivia Hughart—renowned for starting the female-focused Key of She Jazz organization and conference— jazz means pancakes. Jazz means family.Jazz means something loved and in close proximity.

 “My parents weren’t professional players—dad’s a drummer in a trio, mom plays piano and is taking lessons—but they were always jazz lovers,” said Hughart, quick to include her saxophone-playing brother in the mix. “Ever since we were little kids, my parents would wake us every morning, loudly playing jazz through the house. Then they immediately started making pancakes and stuff. That’s a great vibe to start your day.”

I was 12, starting in jazz big band and noticed I was one of few girls, so I decided to put together the girls in the school district as a community, an ensemble where we could play without boundaries.-Olivia Hughart.

The Yellowjackets was a regular part of the Hughart’s breakfast soundtrack. So was Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Larry McKenna, Tony Miceli, Chris Oatts, and Bob Mintzer—all influences on Olivia’s burgeoning aesthetic. Vibraphonist Miceli and saxophonist Oatts taught her the art of improvisation, strictly by ear. Mintzer was the tenor man that inspired Olivia to pick up the sax. “First Mintzer, then my brother—sax was awesome.”
Breakfast turned to dinner, then to after-dinner dates at Philadelphia venues such as Chris’ Jazz Café where Olivia was introduced to the environment of jazz as well as its home players. The Philly jazz scene, intergenerational and close-knit as it is, furthered family values for Olivia.
It was as if Hughart would learn and live jazz by osmosis, and portray it through sheer instinct and intuition.
“Jazz always had a positive connotation for me… it’s a language, a way to convey information without speaking words,” she said, not just of jazz’s unique sound, jargon, and muscle memory in regard to improvisation, but of its principles; principles which pushed her to continue her valued musical education (Lower Merion High, Settlement Music School, and NYU, where she currently resides) and those that shaped her theories of organization and community into something dynamic and inclusive, such as Key of She Jazz. (Hughart postponed Spring 2020’s Key of She Jazz Conference due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

“I was 12, starting in jazz big band and noticed I was one of few girls, so I decided to put together the girls in the school district as a community, an ensemble where we could play without boundaries,” said Hughart. That ensemble moved through high school, eventually involved girls and not within her immediate community, and blossomed into a 200-attendee conference—when Hughart was 17—that supported jazz and shattered gender barriers. “Girls need to see other girls learning jazz and playing jazz,” she said. “We need to hear about women in jazz history so that girls know they can be as awesome as Melba Liston and Mary Lou Williams.”
Hughart’s future includes forming a big band and writing new compositions for her first album. “I hope to include some up-and-coming ladies on that record, too,” said Hughart. “I have a lot of aspirations.”

More about Jazz Philadelphia.