Marguerite Horberg had spent years on the jazz scene–producing shows, supporting the music in a variety of ways–when she finally realized, last fall, that something was missing. She’d just finished hosting a 25th- anniversary tribute to Chicago’s AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) at Hothouse, her gallery. “Where,” she asked herself, “are the faces of women?”

Women have played an important role in jazz virtually from the beginning. But with a few exceptions, women jazz musicians have historically had to be geniuses, like Mary Lou Williams, associated with a famous male artist, as Marian McPartland was, or both–consider Toshiko Akiyoshi–to be properly recognized.

Horberg, who’s also cochairman of the not-for-profit Center for International Performance and Exhibition, and some fellow enthusiasts, with a grant from the Washington-based National Jazz Service Organization, began putting together a showcase for women jazz artists. The committee has gone through several incarnations, but these days the major participants include photographer Lauren Deutsch, jazz aficionado Arlee Frantz, and jazz flutist and vocalist Julie Smith.

The organizers decided to emphasize forward-looking improvisers who have expanded traditional structural and harmonic limitations. “We’re trying to move toward the 90s,” Horberg says pointedly. This weekend her vision will come to fruition in a two-day festival at Hothouse, “Women of the New Jazz.”

The idea seems to have touched a nerve in the jazz community. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz has enlisted Horberg’s help in recruiting women saxophonists for its scholarship contest this year. “It shows what a vacuum there is,” Horberg says, “that this woman would call us from D.C. and say, ‘Would you take up this work to find local Chicago musicians to apply for this money?'”

Legendary vocalist Sheila Jordan headlines the Friday-night show; Saturday night culminates in a performance by Geri Allen, a young pianist being hailed as one of the most exciting new presences on the jazz scene since the Marsalis family. Toronto woodwind multi- instrumentalist Jane Bunnett will kick off Friday with a local rhythm section that includes bassist/vocalist Cecile Savage. Myra Melford, a Chicago native who claims influences as diverse as boogie-woogie pianist Erwin Helfer and the AACM, will weigh in on Saturday. Perhaps the most tantalizing prospect is the pairing of veteran bassist Fred Hopkins with cellist Diedre Murray, known for her visionary explorations with AACM stalwart Muhal Richard Abrams, among others.

Both shows, May 17 and 18, start at 8 at Hothouse, 1569 N. Milwaukee. Tickets are $15, or $25 for both nights. Call 235-2334 for details.