She plays like a girl? That’s hot — and cool!

Women are making future jazz history — despite seldom showing up in top high school band competitions. My new column in City Arts – New York’s Review of Culture, has local names and immediate dates; jazz gender parity is a slow movement but my bet is it’s irreversible.

Having heard Cassandra Wilson last night at the Blue Note perform in control and thrilling with her band — as Betty Carter used to do — I’m tempted to think singers are still the point people persuading listeners that females swing hard and improvise brilliantly. But from Geri Allen to Jamie Baum to Cindy Blackman to Carla Bley to Jane Ira Bloom to JoAnn Brackeen to Sylvie Courvoisier to Marilyn Crispell to Connie Crothers to Claire Daly to Amina Figarova to Mary Halvorson (and Jessica Pavone) to Ingrid Jensen to Virginia Mayhew to Myra Melford to Allison Miller to Nicole Mitchell to Amina Claudine Myers to Linda Oh to Tineke Postma to Matana Roberts to Angelica Sanchez to Irene Schweizer to Jenny Scheinman to Sara Schoenbeck to way more than these springing immediately to mind, there are enough highly evolved, deeply creative bandleading pianists, drummers, guitarists, trumpeters, saxophonists, bassists– did everyone see that New Yorker profile of Esperanza Spalding? — to encourage young people that instrumental prowess is not a strictly male prerogative, and nor should anyone want it to be. (I’m pushing this less as a sensitive guy than because I assume all humans are musical to some degree, and I want to hear the best, not only the best men).

Disturbingly, a few weeks back I attended an address by Wynton Marsalis to a couple of classes of high school music students after a strong “Basie and the Blues” concert by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Asked by one girl in the crowd if there were ever women playing in that world-famous ensemble, Wynton mentioned that Erica von Kleist subs for Ted Nash, and that there have been women joining the band for specific gigs, but that there are so few job openings that blind auditions to fill them are not viable, and that such virtuosic mastery of the breadth of jazz’s historical styles is necessary that current JALCO members know every musician in the U.S. who could fill the bill anyway. “This is strictly a meritocracy,” Wynton explained. That being so, I bet there’s more than one woman right now sharpening her skills so as to storm that citadel, and predict that within 18 months (why should it take so long? Little attrition?) the band bus will be co-ed. 
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society is already so integrated, as is Taylor Ho Bynum and Abraham Gomez-Delgado’s Positive Catastrophe and of course Maria Schneider’s orchestra.  
I’ll try to keep track of personnel in other big bands — Mingus Big Band? Jon Faddis Jazz Orchestra? Vanguard Jazz Orchestra? the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra? Charles Tolliver Big Band? Fat Cat Big Band (yes), Gerald Wilson Orchestra (yes), Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (yes, yes) — though should this really be necessary? (No.)
A recent email from Mary Jo Papich, president of the Jazz Education Network (which is positioning itself as the successor to the International Association for Jazz Education) presented her thoughts about the current disparity thusly: 

It is a major concern of mine and we have a session on it
at the upcoming JEN conf in St. Louis.  WHY does it exist?  I believe
it starts way back to the day when a young girl picks up an instrument and is
not encouraged (in general) to play trumpet, trombone, drums, bass….jazz
instruments.  Notice the girls are almost always on piano and sax.


Then you add to the fact that the women students mostly
have male band directors as they go into HS where active jazz programs are . . . 

I thought that just being a good example of an active
female jazz band director would be enough . . . but it hasn’t been. The odds
still are not that good. One thing for certain, we must encourage, nurture, empower young women with the confidence they need to succeed in jazz
performance. I spoke last weekend to the only girl in the National Honors
Jazz Band of America in Indy [Indiana] and I asked her what it
was like….she said, “I am not used to being the only girl playing in a
jazz band so I was shocked that I was. Yes, I was intimidated at
first…but after getting to know them and playing with them, I am one of them. It’s all cool now.”

If it’s not all cool yet where you are, what can be done to make it so? Responses (as always) welcome. Below: The International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
Subscribe by Email or RSS
All JBJ posts

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Sue Mingus says

    Hi Howie,
    The women I’ve heard in jazz have been as good as anyone else. I tend not to hire musicians based on whether they are black,white, female, arab or jew. But if we are speaking of women in particular, there simply seem to be fewer women playing jazz instruments which I assume is an individual choice. The available paths– as far as I can see– are open. We have both men and women participating in our Mingus high school band competition. In our Mingus bands, Lauren Sevian is a regular on baritone, Helen Sung on piano, and others participate as they are available (the last time I called Tia Fuller she was busy). Here in my office we have a female intern who is a jazz singer and another female intern who plays flute but is not interested in jazz. I don’t have the sense there is a plot to keep women from playing jazz.
    HM: Thanks for your note, Sue. No, I don’t think there’s a plot – I think it just is a holdover from an earlier era that has been perpetuated by not doing much to counter it.

  2. Dan says

    I would not expect Wynton Marsalis, champion of retrojazz to be warm to a female contingency any time soon.
    HM: Wynton may be conservative, but he’s not intransigent. When a woman steps forth who blows him away, I believe he’ll acknowledge her and respond.

  3. says

    I can think of many reasons for the fewer numbers of female musicians represented in jazz.
    – the pool of female jazz musicians is smaller. Therefore naturally, fewer numbers of female players are represented in big bands. Simple math.
    – Choosing one’s band members is not about being fair. It’s CASTING in some cases. It is okay to want to portray certain “image”.
    – if having more females mean to bring more prestige, more capital, and better musical experiences to the band and audiences, to those big bands, they WILL hire female players. So female players just have to become that “valuable” and “indispensable”.
    – playing jazz is a life time commitment. It takes many long years to learn, develop, and mature. Women have less time (decades) than men to be able to do this. Women have to take time off from their careers to care for their children. Girls also do grow up knowing this.
    – going out and sitting in late at night (during the 90’s) was much more dangerous for female than male.
    -when you are any type of minority, you WILL face “stereo-typing” negative or positive. In jazz, negative stereo-typing come from some women vocalists.
    – there are always exceptions, in fact, Nabuko Kiryu can scat better than anyone I have ever heard, and has thorough understanding of harmony and the language of jazz. You just have to be that “EXCEPTIONAL”!!
    – all of these reasons can be co-related and somewhat cause and effect, vicious cycle. But this could be changed just as classical symphonies changed their policies. It only took them a few hundred years.
    HM: Jazzers move, jazz evolves, so much faster than “classical” music.

  4. says

    Hi Howard,
    I totally undersign Meg’s and Sue’s comments. At the same time I am observing a big movement among string players, towards improvised music and jazz. Many of the string players are women who are searching for their own voice in music, often in jazz. There are also increasing numbers of female instrumentalists who come out of excellent jazz programs in colleges searching for opportunities and outlets for their creativity.
    While I don’t think that there is a plot against women in jazz, we do have to be extremely strong and dedicated to this music. To keep impressing and therefore, in time, be accepted. But I guess it’s the same for everyone.
    It’s hard to be one of the guys in the band sometimes – men like to relate to each other and bond while making music. I have been told that the energy in the band is changed when a woman enters it…
    …but times, they are changing.
    HM: Yes Elektra, thanks for your note. But you are one of the people on the front line of musicianship trying to do it, express yourself, make some inroads. We can’t expect the times to change by themselves, unless we push the changes we want towards the vision we have.

  5. Terri Hinte says

    Check out this 2-min. feature on the Jazzschool’s Girls Jazz & Blues Camp: (happening again this Aug.). They’re in a girls-only environment to start – with women role models. Eventually they can play with the boys. :)
    HM: Thanks Terri — Susan Muscarella, who is featured in that clip, was honored last year by the Jazz Journalists Association for being an “activist, advocate, altruist, aider and abettor of jazz” — inducted into the JJA’s “A Team.”

  6. says

    Just a quick note from an internet cafe… great and interesting article!
    In Sydney we have just started an all girl big band called Sirens Big Band to try to get more women jazz musos not only into Sydney’s jazz scene but out there as role models for younger girls wanting to get into jazz.
    Our website is
    Thanks for the great article!
    HM: Nice to hear from you — good like, Sirens.

  7. says

    March 15, 2010
    As you are aware, Howard, I have been tracking women jazz instrumentalists for some time and have interviewed many, many of them, penned essays on the issue of discrimination against them in both performance and journalism (, and included profiles of many of them in my books. Hey, I’ve even occasionally been given credit for my attention to their plight (
    I don’t think there is “a plot to keep women from playing jazz” but I question the view that it is a matter of “simple math,” to quote from two of the responses to your column. It is rather an unfortunate aspect of the culture of jazz, a culture in dire need of reform with respect to the female instrumentalist.
    As for the math, I define this in terms of the numbers that I see daily represented in the press and P.R. that come to my attention, for example, club and concert-hall schedules, festival programs, CD releases, press coverage, etc. In all of this, women instrumentalists, both as individuals and as leaders of bands and combos, appear in a ratio of, say, one to 25 or more men. I think they deserve more than this, even if some affirmative action has to be applied.
    A point that I have often made is that women are infrequently members of male-led units but that they almost always include men in their own groups. The former circumstance is not only unfair and ungenerous but unreasonable and self-defeating, as the words of Dr. Billy Taylor (as quoted in my book Growing Up With Jazz), speaking about the long history of discrimination in jazz vis-à-vis women instrumentalists, succinctly puts it: “I think this is something that we have shorted, that we have given nowhere near the kind of attention that we should have. We have made it that many of the women who could have made enormous contributions to music were not given an opportunity to do that.” These convictions inspired Billy to establish that very important annual showcase, the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at D.C.’s Kennedy Center, this spring celebrating its fifteenth season.
    In this day and age, I find the low profile of women instrumentalists in jazz nothing short of bizarre. Yes, “the pool of female jazz musicians is smaller,” as one of your respondents observes, but surely not so small that it can be virtually ignored. Women of excellent musicianship and impressive swing are out there in the many hundreds. And look at the rest of our society. Fifty percent of medical and law school students are now female. The percentage is 10% higher for overall college enrollment. There are women in symphony orchestras, all over country music, blues and other genres, in Congress (one of whom ran for president and is now Secretary of State), on the Supreme Court, women governors, mayors, university presidents, and police officers, women in the military on the front lines and as generals, women driving trains, busses, tractor trailers, and heavy equipment, flying commercial aircraft, and captaining ships at sea. Etc., etc.
    It puzzles me that jazz has not caught up with the rest of our society. Jazz broke the color barrier a decade before major league baseball did. Why does it lag in removing the barriers holding women instrumentalists back? It is certainly not because there is a dearth of — to again lift a word from the comments to your excellent essay — “EXCEPTIONAL” female horn, string, and percussion players. Your second-paragraph list — abbreviated though it is, as you concede* — highlights a mere handful of the better-known world-class women jazz artists.
    I disagree with your view that “singers are still the point people persuading listeners that females swing hard and improvise brilliantly.” Women have been prominent in jazz as singers since the early years of the idiom, and yet the prejudice against them as instrumentalists is still with us a century later. If more men admitted female instrumentalists into their bands, listeners would then recognize that they “swing” just as “hard” and “improvise” as “brilliantly” as the men. “The women I’ve heard in jazz have been as good as anyone else,” says Sue Mingus in her comment.
    Indeed, let’s hope that the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra band bus “will be co-ed” before another 18 months. It’s been a long time coming (two decades plus, in fact) — and its parent organization receives federal funding! There should be a law — in fact there is! Incidentally, I question that very many of Wynton’s crew possess, as he claims, “virtuosic mastery of the breadth of jazz’s historical styles.” And there are women who could match the few who do.
    Ingrid Monson, trumpeter, author, and Harvard’s Quincy Jones Professor of African-American Music, had this to say in her essay “Fitting the Part” in the splendid 2008 collection Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies:
    “[W]hy is it so difficult for women to get any respect in jazz? Why despite its celebration of human freedom and communal solidarity does the jazz community more often mention women (especially horn players) as objects of ridicule rather than celebration, even when they equal or surpass their male colleagues in musical erudition? Why is it not only male aficionados who carry this prejudice?”
    A recent letter (among many) thanking me for my article (cited above) on the low profile of women in jazz explains, “I am a jazz and Latin pianist and composer, have been at it for my whole life.” She expresses confusion “with regard to this phenomenon [of discrimination],” adding, “I had always thought it was ‘about the music,’ but it seems, much to my dismay, that it is often about something else. For me it IS still about the music, though I have had to alter my dreams considerably — not for lack of dedication.” She gave up her faculty position at a “very ‘prestigious’ music school because of discrimination and inequality in pay and in general [and] treatment of women as second-class musicians” and thinks that “many women are afraid to talk about this and many don’t know how to deal with the despair and quit.” She believes that “there are so few who squeak through the cracks [and] don’t go to bat for each other, as we should, out of fear, I suspect,” and concludes the letter, “We are told, once again, that it is a waste of time to focus on these matters — and it is. Or is it?”
    Praise be to you, Howard, for focusing on this very important issue. I look forward to your follow-ups on, in my opinion, this festering sore within the jazz community that needs to be addressed, just as our society has addressed other blatant circumstances of discrimination.
    * I would have included guitarist Sheryl Bailey, drummers Sherrie Maricle and Susie Ibarra, reed players Sweet Sue Terry and Kit McClure, and, most especially, saxophonist/flutist/bandleader/educator Carol Sudhalter, who has been out there decades longer than all but several of those whom you cite.
    A former editor of JazzTimes and in the 1970s and ’80s the Washington Post’s jazz critic, W. Royal Stokes is author of Growing Up With Jazz: Twenty-Four Musicians Talk About Their Lives and Careers (Oxford University Press, 2005), Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson (Temple University Press, 1994), and other books on jazz, and is currently writing a memoir and compiling a fourth collection of interviews with jazz and blues musician. He lives in Elkins, West Virginia, his website is, and he can be contacted at
    HM: Thanks for your note, Royal. One clarification — when I wrote that singers are the point people in persuasion, I didn’t mean that instrumentalists can’t be persuasive, but rather than more women singers than instrumentalists reach more jazz listeners, and so have more likelihood of being the persuaders (even though they are often relegated to a special category because they are singers, not instrumentalists). The discussion continues

  8. Andrea Wolper says

    Thank you, Howard, for addressing this issue. I can add little to Royal Stoke’s excellent comment, except to say that institutions from corporations to country clubs have always found convenient excuses for discrimination. In case anyone doesn’t know what I’m talking about, here are a couple of old chestnuts: “If we knew anyone black or Jewish who wanted to join our club, we’d be happy to consider them.” “Our board of directors comprises leaders in the industry, and for some reason those are all white male.”
    It’s 2010; hopefully, by now, most of us understand the vacuousness–or, put another way, the head-up-the-assness–of such statements. Overcoming discrimination is not a passive endeavor. There may be fewer female than male instrumentalists in jazz, but there are enough women, certainly here in New York. Institutions will stop discriminating when their leadership decides that’s what they want to do. It’s that simple.

  9. Matt Miller says

    Hey Howard,
    Thanks for the thoughtful and timely article. Have to give a shout out to my sis, the great trumpeter Kate Miller. She and the equally talented multireedist Roxy Coss are ones to watch. Roxy’s band plays every Monday at 9pm at 181 Cabrini in Washngton Hts.

  10. Paul Lindemeyer says

    Hi again Howard. I’m the guy that posted back in June about how jazz performance may possibly be “coded” as a masculine activity. I didn’t endorse that “coding,” but even discussing the possibility was taken as advocacy, for which I was roundly schooled. And deservedly so – if I had been advocating.
    The question that raised was: what is the jazz community as a whole willing to hear about the issue? Musicians are smart, outspoken people, but there is an insularity that we sometimes eagerly enforce. Jazz is fiercely sectarian even within itself – let alone within music/the arts/society. To the point where that makes for creative ferment, more power to the sectarians – but at the point where it fights awareness and devalues community, we have to question it. We’re not doing that enough.
    One of the costs of that is a lack of awareness of the role the music occupies – or might, or could occupy – within a greater world. That means we may not be open to “etic” (=outside observer) perspectives on what we do, who we are, etc.
    “If you gotta ask, you’ll never know,” goes the saying. Ie: yes, we’re a sodality (gender-neutral term for fraternity/sorority). Yes, we’re separate, so we’re much less open to cultural analysis than musical. But that kind of outside perspective – informed by dialogue with the inside – can only help us understand.
    I see jazz fumbling with identity on several fronts, as well as audience, economics, etc. – and jazz musicians and listeners unable (or unwilling?) to do much but shrug regretfully and keep playing the music. Could it be that we don’t have the conceptual toolkit to do more? Or could it be that we find that kind of thinking suspect to begin with – indicative that a cat ain’t paid his dues and can’t tell us nothin’?
    I welcome counterexamples, hopefully in service of counterarguments. But if you feel the right to bash, that’s OK by me, altho Howard may feel differently.
    HM: Nice insights, Paul, thanks for posting here. I see a continuum of attitudes and behavior, from those who find the thinking suspect (which is resistant and may be defensive) to those who just keep playin’ and don’t wanna think about that other stuff to those who actively try to change the course of the future by acting in the present. Those who have most to lose may be most defensive and resistant, and dismissive of even granting the reality a glance.
    I can’t imagine why anyone would bash you for what you’ve written — readers are encouraged to engage with Paul’s post, but be civil, ok?

  11. Mickey Horwitz says

    Howard –
    Thank you for facilitating another discussion about the comparitively low numbers of female players in jazz. I very much appreciate the comments of others here and agree about the self-imposed limitations we women sometimes place on ourselves — including plans for having children, which do not mesh well with staying out gigging until 2:00 or 3:00 A.M.
    However, as one who went to music school some 20 years ago, I can attest to the fact that young women who were not yet even thinking about children received a strong message from (mostly male) teachers early on: You may be good, but you’re going to have to prove yourself to be better than the guys if you want to be lauded for your playing instead of your looks. Funny thing was, I and my female peers weren’t interested in being lauded for our looks in the first place. And without naming names, some of the most offensive comments came from teachers who were (and are) regarded in jazz academia as being the “good guys.” So, we worked that much harder. Some excelled, some did not. But after I left school and started playing gigs regularly, I was lucky enough to get into bands with men who were far more evolved than my former teachers. Still, if I had a nickel for everytime a guy in the audience came up and said, “You play really well for a woman!” I’d be a millionaire today.
    Is the tide turning? Maybe. Slowly. But when I see Wynton Marsalis’ comments I wonder if it isn’t always going to be one step forward and two steps back. On the other hand, when I hear the playing of someone like Mimi Fox, I don’t think of her as a “woman guitarist.” I simply think she is a great player who worked hard and improved exponentially in the space of a few short years. My musician friends are the same way — they hear the music first, and think gender second.
    As for Paul Lindemeyer’s comment on this thread, I’m not interested in bashing him. But neither am I interested in a rewriting of history, ie. that his comments in June of last year were merely an objective discussion on “how jazz performance may possibly be ‘coded’ as a masculine activity.” In fact, his comments last June centered on the theory that women are naturally (biologically) inclined to be part of a “communal” experience, and that we are biologically prevented from expressing ourselves with individuality, and therefore cannot achieve “prowess” on our instruments.
    Every time I hear a great female player, I know that theory is faulty. But, if I read you correctly, challenging Mr. Lindemeyer’s theory probably puts me in the category of someone “who has more to lose.” Whatever that means.

  12. says

    HM: I have no argument with your comments, Mickey. My thought about defensiveness being a reflex against thoughts of transformation were about those people who have the most to lose from transformation — entitlements, privileges, status that they’re afraid they’ll lose — and I don’t see challenges to Paul Lindemeyer’s posting as by definition stemming from such concerns. So no, in this case I don’t think you read me right (at least that’s not what I intended to say; I explicitly invited people to chime in). I didn’t read Paul’s comments as being about women or men (it’s been a long day, maybe I ought to look at it again). I thought he was being critical of Wynton’s comments, same as you are. There I go, seeking consensus. . .

  13. Paul Lindemeyer says

    Thanks for the continued support, Howard, but it seems it’s too late to change any minds on what I wrote last June.
    I’ll merely say “hear, hear” to what Mr. Stokes posted March 15. Although I might caution him, if he posts again, not to dig too deeply into the “whys” of the situation, and definitely not to advance any hypotheses he may not have the chance to take back.
    HM: It seems to be the nature of spirited discussion on the web to express one’s points of view without much absorption of other pov’s.
    On the women-in-jazz front, though, there are many positive developments I’ve been appraised of over the past few weeks, which I haven’t had time to blog about. I hope to get to that in the *next* couple of weeks. Keep reading!