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?