Articles Women in Jazz by

Women in Jazz by

posted: 11/12/08 @ 06:24:am

Originally featured in the Tucson Jazz Society newsletter


This March, the Tucson Jazz Society celebrates it’s annual Primavera - Women in Jazz Festival. Thinking about the state of women in jazz brings a few things to mind. The jazz world has long been accused of being a “boys club”, and to a large degree, those complaints are valid. While there are many notable women jazz artists, for the most part they fall into categories that have traditionally been seen as “acceptable” for women in music - singers, pianists, and flutists. How many women trumpet players can you name? Sax players? Bass players? Drummers? Not many I would guess. That’s the reality - we don’t know about them, but they do exist.

Looking at the challenges faced by musicians in our culture, compounded by the choice to play jazz, multiplied to the third power if you happen to be a woman, you can see how gaining recognition as a woman jazz artist is an uphill battle. Is the record industry at fault? Is it society in general? How about blaming men? The blame game doesn’t change the reality, and besides, how can you hold the offenders accountable? If you filter the situation through the sieve of Nature vs. Nurture, you find that creativity is not gender (or race) specific, yet how is it that the relative number of women instrumentalists is so small compared to men?

A few generations ago, we could say that women were not encouraged to play instruments other than the relatively “polite” piano, flute or harp (come to think of it, how many men harpists do you hear about?) Trumpets, saxophones, drums and the like were seen as “unladylike” and young girls were largely programmed away from those choices. Even though in the 1940’s Ina Ray Hutton managed to lead a full big band comprised only of women, these players were a distinct minority. Nowadays, it is safe to say the tide has turned—more and more women artists (including instrumentalists) are gaining recognition in jazz. Obviously the women’s movement that began in the late 1960’s played a significant role in the turnaround, but indulge me for a moment while I trace the current trend to another, seemingly inane source of inspiration.

When I was a kid, there was a Saturday morning cartoon called Josie and The Pussycats. The content of this show was typical children's entertainment—In a word, it was pure fluff. And while this cartoon had nothing to do with jazz, it was for many women of my generation (and those that followed) the first sign that you could be female and play electric guitar, be a bass player or drummer. Many young girls saw their first glimpse of a female instrumentalist role model in this animated series. While some of those girls interest stayed within the rock and pop genre, many found their way to jazz. Some might say I’m grasping to suggest this show was a cultural turning point, but change often comes from the most unlikely sources. I believe this cartoon played a large role in redefining what girls saw to be musically possible for them.

Over the years, I have known and worked with many talented women artists, both vocalists and instrumentalists, and it seems the ones that have succeeded artistically have been able to transcend the gender issue completely by virtue of their talent. At one stage in her career a woman musician may feel a need to “out play” the men. This overcompensation manifests in a tendency to play things too hard, too fast and, unmusically. (Lots of men play this way too). I have backed more than a few women that tried to “macho” their way through the gig, thinking that was the route to acceptance. Due to lingering cultural biases, the result is often the opposite of what they hope for. Successful artists have learned that jazz is about personal expression, being uniquely yourself, and not attempting to be something you’re not whether that be male, female, black or white. To take this cultural revolution to the next level, we (meaning the art industry AND the art buying public) will at some point have to accept that art is not governed by gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or other non-process oriented factors. Perhaps one day there will no longer be a need to designate March as a celebration of “Women In Jazz”. Maybe we will do that all year long.