Before she set out to make her mark in the world of music, jazz vocalist Joan Bender had set out to study at Harvard. That dream came to a screeching halt when the possibility of an athletic scholarship for track was dashed, thanks to an injured hip. Instead she headed off to the University of Iowa with several scholarships for drama and academic achievement. A theater major, she made time for the choir. On campus she listened to professors' and schoolmates' record collections, much of it spanning great jazz from Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, and Carmen McRae. She was also exposed to Brazilian artist Astrud Gilberto, from The Girl From Ipanema fame. Turned onto singing, but with no jazz vocal program at the school, Bender took up classical singing. She took her dream of performing in the musical theater to New York. Once there, however, she switched gears, wanting instead to become a jazz artist. She set out to view a performance by Blossom Dearie, a singer whose recordings she had heard back at the University of Iowa. The two vocalists went on to forge a friendship, and it wasn't long before Bender was getting gigs of her own. She has graced the stages of such New York City venues as the Café Carlyle, Blue Note, the Rainbow Room, Cleopatra's Needle, C-Note, and Sweet Basil's, among others. In Paris she appeared at the Le Balle au Bond and Le Petit Journal. The singer also led a protest that brought attention to the fact that women rarely are hired by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
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