Why are there still few women in jazz?
It feels like we have been trying to address the shortage of women in music for decades, and this is nowhere more apparent than in jazz. Progress has been made in classical music, with initiatives such as blind auditions ( auditions where the musicians are behind a screen) increasing the number of females in orchestras. However, in jazz, progress is incremental. Perhaps we need to look a little deeper and consider some of the reasons behind this.
Historically in jazz, women were seen as the supportive sex, and maybe this is because of jazz's origins in the streets of New Orleans, marching bands, and large social gatherings. Women supported men, repaired their jackets, made their meals, and provided bodily comfort. They were discouraged from attending clubs as they were late-night gatherings, often on the edgier side of town. Many famous jazz women had male champions. Ella Fitzgerald had Chick Webb, Billie Holiday had Count Basie, John Hammond and Teddy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan had Billy Eckstine and Earl Hines. Women sheltered under the protective wings of male band leaders. When Dizzy Gillespie took his band to Egypt in the early 1960s as part of the 'Jazz Ambassador' programme, audiences were shocked not due to the mix of cultures of the musicians, as expected, but because the orchestra had not one but three female musicians. Early female musicians found it even harder than the vocalists. They often had to sing with the vocalists before moving to their orchestra section to secure their place. The few all-female bands wore skimpy costumes and were expected to dress impeccably. Yet, even when jazz was still emerging and evolving, powerful women fought against not only misogyny but also racism, low expectation, and limited opportunities for women. As examples, read about 'Sweet' Emma Barrett, Hazel Scott, and Melba Liston.
As we know, society has moved on, and women of today are more than capable of challenging misogyny and calling out behaviour that does not respect everyone as equal. We have many great organisations working to support women and create workshops, spaces, platforms, and forums where their views are heard, including Women In Jazz UK, International Women in Jazz, Women in Jazz South Florida, Women in Jazz, Ireland, and many other groups. We have prestigious colleges like Berklee with programs designed to encourage female musicians, headed up by strong positive role models like Terri Lyne Carrington. There have been studies into the reasons behind the lack of females studying jazz or teaching it and programmes designed to help women fight cases where they feel discrimination has occurred. Some supportive social media groups and writers advocate for women in books, articles, and other areas. We have the F-list – a fantastic resource listing over 5000 female musicians, their genre, availability, and contact details. There is no excuse for not finding female musicians to play any genre. Yet, despite all these commendable things, women remain a minority in jazz.
I recently counted up female performers at music festivals (I need to get out more), and in most cases, men outnumbered women by approximately three to one. A few festivals acknowledge the imbalance and are actively seeking to increase the number of female performers, along with that of other minorities. They have found that as their performers become more diverse, the audience size increases too, so it is proving a worthwhile objective.
Change needs to happen on two significant levels. Institutional and internal. Institutional attitudes are, in essence, easier to tackle. We can enable change by upholding laws and the rights of individuals. We have seen progress in the number of colleges offering jazz as part of music study - or degrees entirely based on jazz. The law protects from discrimination where proven, and women's rights in the workplace and terms of employment, pay, and maternity leave are also protected. There is a lot to support women legally and practically through supportive groups, lists of female musicians, etc. Many past excuses for not using female musicians, such as them not being available and not coming forward for auditions, festivals, or performance opportunities, are defunct. It matters what you bring to the table, not how you identify.
Internal change is more complex. Women need to view themselves differently. They need to see themselves as leaders: to believe and expect to be on stage, in that spot they want, and to know their talent got them there – not tokenism, fulfilling quotas, or anything else. If they had done a blind audition, they would expect to be in the same place, whether as part of a band or leader.
But women do not seem to have this belief. They still pander to the male gaze by posing provocatively, dressed in skimpy outfits and in settings they would never be in while playing or singing – laying over a piano, astride a bench with their stocking tops showing, or wearing revealing outfits. Some look great, and if you got it, flaunt it, use it for artistry, but it shows women still feel pressured to pander to the male gaze. A music agency recently contacted me, and the proprietor directed me to her website. The first picture I saw was of her lying on the floor in skimpy clothes. Not what I expected, nothing to do with music, and I wondered why.
Women need to get over the fear of being judged on their appearance and sex appeal rather than their playing and believe their talent is just as valuable as their looks. And audiences need to take the same attitude toward women as they do toward men - which most do now, but there is still the expectation of women – of themselves – that they need to look gorgeous. Many musicians and writers I know avoid posting pictures of themselves because they fear the reaction of others.
There are some areas we need to be careful in too. There is a need to increase the presence of female journalists, writers, and musicians in jazz, but it is easy for an editor or publisher to say, "OK, we hear what people need. We will endeavour to include more women on our pages." or for a venue manager to think "Yes, more women, I must give more women a platform." They need to really consider what that means. It is not enough to include more women; they need a validated place and reason for inclusion. So editors, where will you use female writers? How can a female writer be best placed to use their different take on things? Can you make space – a particular space – for them? Venue managers, is the green room suitable for men and women? And the toilets? Would you consider afternoon performances to allow for child care and female safety to be considered? Afternoon gigs work. Last year, I went to an afternoon gig with male and female performers. It was packed. So was the next afternoon's performance. The audience was a little different from the night crowd - families, teenagers, and many women – far more than at most gigs. Can we do more of these?
At the same time, women should not expect, or get, roles because of their gender, and pressurising columns and magazines to take more work from female writers if the work is not of a suitable journalistic standard, for example, is not good for the industry. So writers need to encourage, advise, help edit if necessary, instil confidence, then allow people to soar.
There has been progress across the music industry, with more female label bosses, radio hosts, writers, editors, and musicians. However, there is still a heavily weighted male bias across jazz. The changes needed are relatively simple – self-belief by women and more profound thoughts from people who show a willingness to improve the situation.
The signs of progress in music as a whole are tangible. Female performers won the majority of the Brit. Awards this year. Many performers like Adele, Lady Ga-Ga, and others are established forces in the industry. In jazz, we have many women making clear inroads - including Emma Jean Thackray, Nubya Garcia, Laura Jurd, Melissa Aldana, Jane Ira Bloom, Jane Bunnett, and many more, providing exemplar images of women who have succeeded in jazz music by their talent and knowledge of the industry and their support for others - Emily Saunders, for example, has been the force behind some significant initiatives, not just for female musicians but for music as a whole and women are a large part of that.
Some things take time. Entrenched behaviour will take years yet to change. Still, you hear of misogynistic behaviour. A male tutor singled out the only female student for criticism time and time again over many months, the male agent who introduced himself by sticking his card into the cleavage of a female sax player, and the ignoring of females at jam sessions. The male festival manager who asked a trumpet player who answered a call-out for instrumentalists if she knew a male musician who could play as he had fulfilled his 'quota' of female musicians, or the venue manager who refused to speak to the female member of a duo about future bookings, asking when the male of the duo was available.
Women are different from men. They have different life experiences, reactions, hormones; their bars may be set differently, and we need to consider this. We should be able to use all these characteristics to benefit jazz music. Women should not be denied opportunities due to entrenched attitudes and a lack of thought for practicalities. Sometimes, it isn't easy to get it right, but we should keep trying.
While the adjustment for needful equality is being made, things might get a little sticky. If editors get called out for misogyny, homophobia, or anything else - behaviour entrenched in many publications - they need to look closely at their behaviour, accept the criticism if proven, and act. Nothing promotes a good feeling like an editor putting things right with their readers. When I called out a UK jazz journal because of a homophobic article and then a misogynistic review - both because the artists in question came to me seeking advice and comfort - they published a scathing review of one of my books. Maybe coincidence? It meant little as it came out the same day the book won a prestigious award but had they reacted differently by apologising to the artists they had upset, their reputation might have benefitted (they eventually changed the offensive text in the homophobic article but never apologised).
The aim is so simple – we are all equal no matter our colour, race, gender identification, male or female - she/him/they/neutral/fluid/we/them - if anyone has talent, there should be a place for them.
The vast majority of people in the music business I meet have never discriminated against people for their gender or anything else. Young people particularly seem to find it shocking that women can still be mistreated.
We also need to be careful not to practice misandry - the deliberate selection of women over men, so some groups that make editors provide space in their columns or force festival managers to include more women are in danger of discrimination themselves. Again that fine line is difficult. For a while, we may have to actively discriminate for women in some areas, but hopefully not to the detriment of talented men.
The issue of women in music has long been problematic because it is hard to quantify and decide what discrimination is. Whether that discrimination is perceived, actual, deliberate, or thoughtless and unintentional, we should be careful not to make people afraid to comment. Differences are there to be noticed and should be celebrated. After all, these differences lead us to engage with one performer and not another. Music knows no boundaries, and we all have more in common than separates us.