“Jazz calls us to engage with our national identity. It gives expression to the beauty of democracy and of personal freedom and of choosing to embrace the humanity of all types of people. It really is what American democracy is supposed to be.” —Wynton Marsalis 1
So, why don’t more women and girls play instrumental jazz? It’s not an obvious kind of discrimination stopping them. After all we have laws against discrimination in school bands and institutions of higher learning. The pattern instead seems to be cultural discouragement—subtle or not-so-subtle bias, old boy networks. It has everything to do with how girls see themselves and how their male peers and society generally see a girl who attempts to enter this very male domain.
For most musicians, jazz (if discovered) is discovered during adolescence, somewhere between age 9-16. This is developmentally when the average young person is ready to take on concepts and theories involved in the music. It is also when girls and boys are defining their gender specific identities and thinking about their social life 24/7. Most girls at this age are keenly picking up social cues from their female peers, teachers, parents and those all-important boys. It can be almost impossible to hide an aversion, prejudice or negative judgement from a girl at this stage.
“…as the founder of the Jazzschool Girls’ Jazz Camp, I can tell you there are many girls hungry for role models. The Jazzschool has historically only enrolled 3-4 girls out of 40+ campers to their summer youth camp. I was advised that girls weren’t interested. But we enrolled over 30 girls in our first year of girls’ camp, and plan to expand the camp this summer. Hmm…..I wonder what the problem was with the youth camp? No women faculty?” —Trumpeter, band leader Ellen Seeling
So girls who somehow find jazz are made aware that this is an odd interest for a girl. Teachers can be unsupportive, friends unenthused and boys turned off (and I am not even addressing uglier kinds of harassment that occur). Just to dare embark on the path to instrumental jazz, a girl must be the kind of young person who is willing to forego approval of others and press onward despite the odds. This is further complicated by the fact that jazz is a collaborative art form and cannot be practiced alone. Unless one is a solo pianist, it is not possible to become a jazz musician without the willingness of others to practice with you. A real jazz education begins when school is out and players get together to jam. This is where things get really tough for girls and they are likely to fall behind their male peers regardless of their abilities.
“It happens all the time that a young woman is at a certain level and she’ll go to four or five different places and see four or five guys on her instrument that are not as good as she is. They’re all workin’ and her phone isn’t ringing” —Saxophonist Virginia Mayhew 2
Jazz musicians are not the product of a course of study alone, they also require mentoring, camaraderie and support from older more experienced musicians. In a culture where the masculine is revered and the feminine is dismissed can a woman be authentic and still be supported in her endeavor to create?
“I think certain musicians don’t get the experience or mentorship that they deserve because of the politics . . . Because as a white woman there are many gigs I would never, ever even be called to audition for.” —Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen 2
Here we are at the beginning of the 21st century and jazz, America’s original music, is not the healthy robust art-form it should be. In fact it is being largely ignored and forgotten in the wider American culture. There is currently only one 24-hour jazz radio station left in the US. Does gender bias in jazz drive away not only potential musicians but also potential listeners of both genders? Has the music itself suffered? If 50% of the population feels excluded and unwelcome, can jazz survive?
“Hal Galper said something that was interesting . . . somebody said, ‘So, Hal, you know jazz has pretty gone as far as it can go, right? I mean what’s left to change?’ . . . he goes, ‘I guess the only thing left to change is women. More women.’. . . I kind of feel the same way.” — Ingrid Jensen 2
When I imagine what it would be like to change patterns of gender stereotyping right down to the rituals of male bonding that dominate the jazz world, I can picture a richer music and vital community which could be a force for progress musically, socially and spiritually. But how can we get there? Boys need their bonding and it shouldn’t be dismissed. Girls need a place for bonding too. But perhaps we can elevate the goals of jazz students to transcend these youthful rites of passage and find strength in the balance between male and female contributions.
“Dizzy Gillespie told me, ‘Bebop was about integration’” — Wynton Marsalis 1
These are complex problems and I don’t have all the answers, but I do have a few humble suggestions:
- Educators must recognize that the competitive side of jazz, with its put-downs, play-offs and quests for dominance, is a turn-off to many girls who might otherwise love the music and make great contributions to it. Jazz education should stress the cooperative and collaborative nature of the form, thus making it more welcoming to girls and frankly everyone. Jazz is the music of inclusion, openness and enlightenment and should be taught that way.
- Create more opportunities to take jazz out of the bars where young women traditionally are pursued and not always treated with respect. The NEA (National Education Association) and local arts organizations in their funding mandates should encourage creation of more working opportunities in a variety of settings friendly to women and families. An arts group that receives a grant must be an equal opp employer and funding may help jazz groups realize the necessity for having unbiased auditions, as do symphony orchestras.
- Create an International Jazz Ambassadors program, which employs skills of men and women musicians of all ethnicities, to create cultural exchanges, open the eyes (and ears) of Americans to this great unused natural resource for inclusion and peace that we have been blessed with, and provide a broad range of role models for aspiring musicians. Such an organization, by inviting the world to jam with them, would ensure that we pass on an ever-evolving, living, breathing art-form, rather than a static collection of old recordings.
- Individual musicians can lend a helping hand to young women instrumentalists by including them in jam sessions and networking opportunities. Only through a change in consciousness within the jazz community can real progress be made.
Real innovation in jazz will require the yin and the yang to work together in balance. The potential for growth and change exists. What will that sound like? Where can it lead? No one knows— it hasn’t happened yet on a large scale—but I sure hope I’m around to hear it when it does. Who knows, this new collaboration between the genders might just save the music.
1 Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life. Wynton Marsalis. Random House 2008.
2 Jazzwomen: Conversations with Twenty-one Musicians. Wayne Enstice and Janis Stockhouse. Indiana University Press 2004
Photo credit: Mary Lou’s Apartment at Freight and Salvage, Berkeley, CA. Tim Burgess, photographer