Life’s a pitch: Where are the women jazz listeners?

Amanda Ameer, blogger behind artjournal’s Life’s a Pitch, was bummed by the low number of women at pianist Brad Mehldau’s recent Village Vanguard performance (but glad about the audience’s wide age-spread). She cites jazz women instrumentalists as being rare, too. What’s up with this, she wants to know. Send her “the literature on this topic.”

Well, there isn’t any —  jazz commentators have to depend upon anecdotal experience and personal observation as basis for their speculations and analysis about jazz audiences, as so many other topics. From my perspective, though, women don’t dislike jazz — throughout my life I’ve been involved with women who like it plenty. Of course, I select all my friends for that trait, but my interactions have also included undergraduate students in my NYU classes on American music over the past 23 years, and my mother who, never before an avid fan, in her early ’80s has taken up jazz appreciation courses (and complains that most of the presentations harken to an ever-more-quickly-receding Swing Era).

The problem is that no one in the jazz world, with the exception of jazz educators, has pleasantly invited women to partake of the music. Rather than being marketed to, women have been neglectfully, perhaps unconsciously, shut out.

True, jazz at its origins was deemed down ‘n’ dirty, rough ‘n’ ready, no place for ladies — though Jelly Roll Morton in his memoirs testifies it was the working women in the brothels of New Orleans that the piano professors ragged for, whatever the johns thought. In the Swing Era, of course, women jazz fans abounded — the big bands didn’t blow much for same-sex dances, you know. And yes, there were women instrumentalists — not only pianists, not only singers, though they tended to work in gender-specific ensembles (cf. Some Like It Hot, which as in the scene show here, thoroughly upends the issue).

Women weren’t very successful broaching the Young Turks’ Bebop Club, exceptions proving the rule being Mary Lou Williams (pianist) and Ella Fitzgerald (singer). In post WWII America, the honking and screaming and cool of jazz was overall designated a male domain, but then, what wasn’t’? Young women were into poodle skirts, crooners and Elvis, right? Or, bangs in their kohl-rimmed eyes, they strummed tragic old ballads on folk guitars. That’s just the way it was.

Is that just how it’s got to be? No! I contend that since the ’60s, and probably earlier, no one in the jazz world with the exception of jazz educators has actually invited women to partake of jazz, to purchase it, assume it can be their own. Women are not advertised to or nor their preferences indulged by jazz club owners (decor, wait-staff and bartenders matter! Understand, though, that the Village Vanguard, like several other major urban American venues, is owned and operated by women). Women have not been encouraged to buy records (the maladaptive misogyny of male record store clerks is a pop-culture trope). Womens’ potential interest in jazz has been ignored by the print media (though for a while one of the womens’ mags had a jazz column — written by a man). Jazz radio has been relatively neutral, and perhaps instrument manufacturers have tried to reach out to boys and girls alike. But otherwise, women have been more likely encouraged to play rugby than, say, fusion.

Unless they’ve lived since childhood in homes where jazz is the soundtrack of choice, many women I’ve talked to feel they have to overcome self-imposed “I don’t know anything about that so I can’t ask about it” obstacles regarding jazz. What they have to know that they don’t isn’t clear. I suspect this defensive attitude comes from decades of being lorded over by guys who aren’t in the least shy about asserting a command of arcane details about a host of topics, whether or not they can synthesize their meanings, or offering opinions, info-based or otherwise. Once women are persuaded that they’re allowed to dip into jazz, those I’ve had contact with almost always find something that intrigues them. They pursue their interests out of curiosity and eventually find satisfactions (sort  of like guys do) in the music.

There is current evidence to suggest the tide may turn for women in jazz. The most positive development by far is the rise of college-level jazz education. There are currently 180 degree programs in the U.S. alone. A quick glance at the student bodies show they’re gender-mixed, and the women not only singers/pianists. If all students don’t graduate to become professional jazz musicians, that’s ok — they’re certainly becoming the basis of the next generation of jazz audience, and may simply assume more general gender integration.

Furthermore: though they are still in the minority, there’s been an immense increase in women instrumentalists in jazz over the past 15 years and that should not be discounted. What’s most remarkable about the number of significant, active, acclaimed and popular women playing trumpets, trombones, flutes, clarinets, saxophones, violins, violas, cellos, guitars, basses and drums — also composing and leading orchestras — across all styles of jazz and often with high visibility is that it hasn’t been much remarked on. We take for granted the creative leadership of not just singers Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater or pianists Geri Allen, Myra Melford, Marilyn Crispell, JoAnne Brackeen, Satoko Fuji and Renee Rosnes, but also Ingrid and Christine Jensen, Nicole Mitchell, Jamie Baum, Anat Cohen, Candy Dulfer, Grace Kelly, Claire Daly, Virginia Mayhew, Jane Ira Bloom, Jane Bunnett, Matana Roberts, Jenny Scheinman, Regina Carter, Jessica Pavone, Mary Halvorson, Leni Stern, Esperanza Spalding, Cindy Blackman, Terri Lynne Carrington, Allison Miller, Carla Bley, Maria Schneider, Sherrie Maricle, Tina Marsh and many more.

Finally, jazz may find a silver lining in the fall of the record store as women (and men, with  their own share of esthetic insecurities) buy music easily, anonymously, online. Maybe the brevity of messages on Twitter will disable the power of longwinded (male) jazz pundits and send new listeners directly to enthusiastically recommended (by whoever), analysis-defying new music. Maybe we’ll all listen first and identify the gender of creators later, if ever.

If women don’t have to suffer being treated as ditzes bearing credit cards, if they know they’ll be treated as honored guests at comfortable, clean and affordable music venues and if they see more people who look and act something like they themselves do spotlit, making beautiful music with decently respected and respectful collaborators, they may recognize they do indeed have a place and a stake in jazz, as in dance, visual arts, contemporary “classical” composition, writing, theater and other media. If they’re not treated that way, jazz will miss out on half its potential participants. Men, let’s make it happen — bring women with you to hear music, talk to them about what they thought of it afterwards and engage with what they’re saying. We’ll all be richer for the dialog being broadened. Really — won’t jazz make us happier together?
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  1. says

    Thanks for the post on “Women jazz listeners”…I really enjoyed reading it!
    HM: I believe this commentor has recently completed my coure “The Arts: Jazz” at NYU. If I’ve identified correctly, she was in my weekly 80 minute seminar with a dozen other students whose prior experience with jazz was to start with more or less limited, and whose progress over 15 weeks of directed viewing, reading, listening, talking and written responses was 100 per cent to the good. That is, every person got something out of it — no one rejected the music, jazz history, culture, issues, personalities after the exposure; all seemed pleased with new discoveries. They are men and women, self-selecting electives to fulfill undergrad degrees, often while working fulltime and with families — taking the time to learn about jazz comes at a price to them (not least of all, NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies tuition). But I’m grateful for such students who rigorously engage me in learning about jazz and thinking about its resonances.

  2. valerie Gladstone says

    i don’t think it’s a good idea to blame men, marketing, etc. there will always be things in the way of discovery of anything wonderful. one has to take chances. blaming others is a very negative dead end. i went to jazz clubs on my own as a teenager and loved the music on the spot.
    HM: Agreed: It’s not the doing of “men,” but rather society, that things are as they are, and it’s always up to the individual to make it different.

  3. selena anguiano says

    There are some jazz women, here:
    Its not New York or Chicago Jazz but still…have a look.
    HM: I’d like my examples to be drawn from wider, but I haven’t been getting around so much recently. In most recent distant trip, last October, there was a loose coterie of women of several different generations attending the concerts as personally appreciative devotees. But that was in the Azores off the coast of Portugal.
    Thanks to the Kennedy Center for its longtime support of Women in Jazz initiatives including the Mary Lou Williams Festival. I’ve written of a couple women instrumentalists heard at the PDX Jazz Fest, Portland OR, and a couple yrs ago reviewed a record by a Seattle women’s big band. There are women instrumentalists in Berklee and New England Conservatory, but I don’t know their names — Miami? Pittsburg, Cleveland, Memphis, Louisville, KC, Detroit, St. Louis, Madison, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Omaha, heck right out to SF and LA and down to Denton, Tx, there are women musicians and listeners out there. Tina Marsh is doing unreasonably unheralded great things in Austin, Kitty Margolis and Madeliene Eastman in the Bay Area, Ruth Price as Jazz Bakery proprietor in LA, etc.
    Did I mention Esperanza Spalding? Playing bass and scat singing at the White House. Amazing, who’d a thunk it?

  4. Sheila Anderson says

    Howard, Howard, Howard, you are sounding like a chauvinist. You need to get out more and see the number of women in the clubs. Unfortunately I don’t see enough Black women but there are plenty of women who like and study jazz. Out of the nine WBGO announcers four are women, ironically Black women (OK, Awilda is a Puerto Rican). Women are making names for themselves these days. Tia Fuller has an all female band and she is a terrific multi reed player, composer and arranger. Sadly, I have heard male musicians say that they don’t like women in jazz because they interfere with the male bonding and many feel that women don’t swing like men. Let’s face it, the “jazz police” have done more harm than good by telling people that they can’t like jazz unless they KNOW something about it. Why can’t people just hear it and like it?
    HM: Sheila, I should *definitely* get out more. But I’m quite aware that women have found radio to be welcomg to them as jazz producers, announcers, station managers, and listeners, too. As far as my being a chauvinist, I won’t deny it’s possible because that comes with my gender, though I have consistently argued for women to have equal access and billing in jazz (not to mention jazz journalism — I’ve commissioned women to write articles, invited them onto panels, edited and mentored women writers, asked them to join the Jazz Journalists Association, voted for them in the Jazz Awards, and so on). Please see where this thread started — with a blog posting by Amanda Ameer on ArtsJournal’s Life’s a Bitch, wondering why women weren’t at a Brad Mehldau Village Vanguard show. Or did you just not like my headline paraphrasing Freud?

  5. Vic Bradley says

    One glaring omission in both your lists of important leaders AND educators, women in radio, etc.– Marian McPartland. She has arguably done more to further exposure to women in the jazz world than any other single person in the past 30 years. She performs a large number of compositions by women in her sets and on PIANO JAZZ, has performed for multiple Presidents, received numerous prestigious awards and has long made a point of featuring women jazzers as a large percentage of her guest artists on this show hear by close to a quarter million listeners weekly for 30 years. Props must be given where they are due. We need more like Ms. McPartland.
    HM: Absolutely correct, and an egregious omission. Know that Seattle-based jazz journalist Paul de Barros is writing a biography of Marian McPartland. She’s been a Jazz Awards winner in several categories including last year Lifetime Achievement, and the Jazz Journalists Association’s Award for Broadcasting is co-named for the late Willis Conover (of Voice of America) and the very-much-with-us Ms. McPartland.

  6. Eric Scott Reed says

    Most of the women I see in clubs are accompanied by other male fans or they are the girlfriends/wives of musicians.
    Anyone who expects that when it comes to “bonding” that men should behave any differently than women do in that area, is in denial. It’s just the nature of things.
    Finally, you have to admit there’s a certain physical strength/prowess that goes hand-in-hand with playing Jazz – look at Fats Waller or Art Blakey – those guys could barely be bested by other men, let alone women.
    Nobody’s saying you have to be Black and male to be a great Jazz artist but, history has shown us that the paradigm was formed by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, etc. It’s cultural NOT genetic.

  7. says

    Um … so … ah, you’re telling me that the only reason that I actually LIKE jazz is because ‘they’ HAVE marketed it to me? Is that all it is?
    OMG that’s depressing.
    But I think it is also a false, and I think you think it is false too. What brought you to jazz? I’d say look at that first. Then, as an ex jazz-journalist, I’d have to point out the glaring truth that ‘jazz’ is a really really fuzzy term that encompasses a great deal. Grover Washington Jr and latter-day George Benson were both HEAVILY rewarded by a largely female audience. Nat King Cole too. And Sinatra.
    But maybe not Anthony Braxton, but I have to confess that I didn’t really ‘like’ Braxton so much as I studied and puzzled over him like some kind of Rubix Cube. You have no idea how happy I was to hear him in Guelph say that he eventually realized that “‘intellectually interesting’ just wasn’t interesting enough!” — had I been there I would have given a standing ovation for that, because it sums up EXACTLY why I didn’t like a great deal of the ‘jazz’ I had to cover in my career.
    So, like, maybe it’s like what our ma’s told us when we were back in High School: “Girls get smarter faster than boys do.” — I mean, it IS a possibility, no?
    HM: Right, nobody marketed jazz to me, I had a little exposure then pursued it myself. But as a 16 year old I was intrigued with the gritty aspects of the Jazz Record Mart, jazz and blues, which would have put a lot of people off, boys and girls alike. You’re right, too, Gary, that a lot of jazz (by men) that’s smoother or more romantic has attracted women fans. And men fans. And Braxton, who was BRILLIANT and candid and funny in Guelph a couple years ago, has wracked up a slew of very talented women colleagues/proteges/students, among them Marilyn Crispell, Nicole Mitchell and Mary Halvorson. Intellectualism (thoughtfulness? content?) isn’t necessarily a turn off to either/any gender, either.

  8. Andrea Wolper says

    Eric Scott Reed said, “Most of the women I see in clubs are accompanied by other male fans or they are the girlfriends/wives of musicians. . . . Finally, you have to admit there’s a certain physical strength/prowess that goes hand-in-hand with playing Jazz – look at Fats Waller or Art Blakey – those guys could barely be bested by other men, let alone women.”
    I don’t have to admit anything. Re the first statement, how do you know the women you see in the clubs didn’t bring the men with them, and not the other way around? And as for the second argument, how do you account for the women who do play piano, drums, trombone, bass, etc., and play well? Consider context, Mr. Reed. Opportunity. History. If you think it takes a strong man to play an instrument (or is it just jazz that requires that special strength?), you’re not exposing yourself to enough music.

  9. says

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    Mickey Carroll
    Grammy nominee
    Gold Record recipient