Women in Jazz - A Man's Perspective

Women in Jazz - A Man's Perspective

by Mitchell Feldman
copyright © 2001, Mitchell Feldman

My initial excitement at being asked to write an essay on "Women In Jazz" for the program book of the New Conversations Jazz Festival in Vicenza, Italy, was quickly replaced by panic after the irony of what I had agreed to do struck me like a ton of bricks. What in heaven's name do I, a middle-aged man, know about what it's like to be a woman in jazz? Or to be a woman doing anything, for that matter!

Jazz I know about. Over the past 25 years I've been involved with the music as a journalist, deejay, concert producer, record label director and publicist. Yet while I consider myself an enlightened, sensitive, "New Age" man, no matter how often I get in touch with the feminine side of my persona (what Jungian psychoanalysts call the "anima") I am not, and never will be, a woman. So being a man and having to write something informed and informative about what it's like to be a woman presented something of a dilemma.

I'm being ironic here on purpose, since the ability to write about the contributions women artists have made to the development of jazz over the past century, like the ability to create music, doesn't depend on one's gender. It's being a man and having to go beyond placing women in jazz in an historical context in order to address this topic from a sociological and experiential perspective that's problematic. Thankfully, enough has been written and discussed about the state of women in jazz today, and I personally know enough female jazz artists, to be able to share some first hand impressions and insights with you.

What's interesting is that the general consensus among women jazz artists and among men in the music industry whose attitudes about women professionals have evolved beyond the archaic, chauvinistic and prejudicial practices that have existed for millennia and continue to this day in some parts of the world (and I'm not just talking about the Middle East, Asia, Africa or South America, since women in Switzerland's Appenzello canton didn't get the right to vote until 1990 -- and then only after that country's supreme court ordered it to do so) is that focusing on any one specific group places an artificial and unnecessary emphasis on its members being "different" from the status quo. Thus, ironically, the very idea of highlighting the achievements of women in jazz is a form of segregation in itself -- what baritone saxophonist Claire Daly described to me as a "ghetto-ization" -- which is no different than isolating the accomplishments of white people in jazz, Jews in jazz or Europeans in jazz.

That women have yet to achieve equality with men in most walks of life is not news, although just last year the U.N. released the results of a global study (conducted at the cost of untold millions of dollars that probably could have been better spent elsewhere) to arrive at the rather obvious conclusion that women represent the largest single discriminated demographic group within all of humanity. So it's no surprise that women are a minority in the music business as they are in most other professions with the exceptions perhaps of nuns, nurses and flight attendants. But this phenomenon is not limited to the jazz world. The venerable Vienna Philharmonic, one of the finest classical orchestras in the world, until recently had no women members for more than a century (they've since hired a token woman -- a third string flute player or a harpist, I forget which -- but feminists still demonstrate outside Carnegie Hall every time the ensemble appears there).

It's safe to say that the paucity of professional opportunities for women in music has less to do with their abilities than with outdated attitudes towards women in society. The fact that these attitudes began to change after the Industrial Revolution, and more rapidly during the second half of the 20th century, has meant that opportunities for women in jazz have improved in modern times as they have in other areas. Yet Lara Pellegrinelli, one of the minority of professional jazz journalists who are women, recently pointed out there are no female members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO), the resident ensemble of Jazz at Lincoln Center (J@LC), the world's wealthiest and most visible jazz program led by Wynton Marsalis. In an article published last fall in The Village Voice, one of the oldest and most influential alternative weekly newspapers in the U.S., Pellegrinelli wrote that of the 278 artists (104 reeds players, 62 trumpeters, 42 trombonists, 57 bassists, 43 drummers and 74 pianists) to appear in the program since 1991, only three have been women and all were pianists. One was Renee Rosnes, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band's pianist, who acknowledges she was asked to join that band by its music director, trumpeter Jon Faddis, who relied on the normal "good old boy" network and hired a friend but in this case that friend was a woman. However, J@LC's exclusive and exclusionary Men's Club mentality is more a negative reflection on Marsalis than on the ability of women jazz musicians.

Despite the fact that women like Toshiko Akiyoshi, Carla Bley and Maria Schneider have established careers as jazz big band leaders -- following in the footsteps of pioneering artists like Carline Ray, Roz Cron and Clora Bryant who led all-girl bands between the Swing Era and the end of World War II -- jazz big bands are a domain populated almost exclusively by male musicians, the Italian Instabile Orchestra included. Bley has said she usually finds a vocal mic next to the piano every time she goes to a sound check because technicians assume that since she's a chick, she must be a singer.

Of course this is partly the fault of history, since a vast majority of women jazz artists have been vocalists who got their starts in big bands. Some of the more notable examples are Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb; Billie Holiday with Count Basie and Artie Shaw; Sarah Vaughan with Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine; Anita O'Day, June Christy and Chris Connor with Stan Kenton; June Tyson with Sun Ra, and Jeanne Lee with Gunther Hampel's Galaxie Dream Band. The accomplishments of Lil Hardin (a talented composer and pianist who, as Louis Armstrong's second wife, convinced him to emerge from the shadows in King Oliver's band and into the limelight in Fletcher Henderson's, and was an essential member of her husband's Hot Five and Hot Seven bands before she went out on her own) and Mary Lou Williams (the brilliant pianist, composer and arranger who got her start in Andy Kirk's band during the 1930s and provided big band scores for Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, among others, before embarking on a solo career that would have been distinguished whether she had been a woman or not) shine like isolated beacons in the annals of jazz through the first half of the 20th century.

Nevertheless, there's been a significant rise in the number of women jazz musicians since the 1970s and from all indications this trend is getting stronger. During the year 2000, 25% of the participants in the annual Es sentially Ellington high school band competition J@LC conducts in the U.S. were female music students. And while singers like Cassandra Wilson or Dianne Reeves remain two of the best selling women jazz artists today, an arbitrary list of successful women instrumentalists today would include pianists Amina Claudine Myers, Diana Krall and Patricia Barber and guitarist Leni Stern (who all also sing) and pure instrumentalists like pianists Rita Marcotulli and Geri Allen and violinist Regina Carter. The aforementioned Daly's recent credits include a gig in Chicago this past March with the Gerry Mulligan Tribute Band, an honor for any baritone saxophonist, male or female. And speaking of honors, percussionist Marilyn Mazur's being awarded Denmark's prestigious JazzPar Prize in 2000 sent a very positive message at the start of the new millennium.

Jazziz in June 2000 published a round-table discussion with Bley, Stern, Daly, Wilson, pianists Barbara Carroll and Myra Melford and drummer Cindy Blackman in conjunction with a special issue devoted to women in jazz, and all made it clear that while they appreciate the recognition, they'd rather get gigs on the merit of their talent as singers, composers or instrumentalists than be singled out for special treatment because of their sex. And while the polls conducted annually by various jazz magazines are a necessary evil, they function as barometers that judge artists on the basis of their abilities. Sometimes they're referred to as horse races, but at least they aren't beauty contests. To attribute Maria Schneider's placing in the Top Three in composer, arranger and big band leader categories in several Down Beat and JazzTimes critics and readers polls in the mid-1990s (as Akiyoshi and Bley did before her) to the fact that she's a woman is as absurd as saying her collaborations with big bands in Denmark, Sweden and Finland were the result of her being born in Minnesota, the state with the highest number of Scandinavian immigrants in America.

I was lucky to be able to catch Schneider in early April before she left her home in New York to perform in Greenland and we exchanged a couple of e-mails that addressed the whole "Women In Jazz" phenomenon. She was kind and concerned enough to speak out about this issue, one it's clear she wishes were a non-issue. Yet given the fact that she's performing for us here, I asked for and received permission from her to share some of what she wrote with you -- things I certainly couldn't have said better and which definitely provide a more appropriate conclusion to this essay than anything I could have dreamed up.

"When I make music, either composing, rehearsing or conducting, about the last thing on my mind is my gender and I don't think any male musician is thinking about the fact that he's a man when he's creating music," she said. "They don't put a sign on a man saying 'MAN.' Why would they put one on a woman saying 'WOMAN?' Isn't it obvious? And what's the difference if I am a woman? If my work isn't interesting enough on it's own, I don't want any job. I've managed to do what I want creatively, and work enough to make ends meet and I think that's based on merit. I certainly work hard enough to believe it is.

"I am who I am, inside of me, and 100% of my challenge is going about the business of trying to create deeper music. That's it. Dealing with being a woman among men would rate as a 0% challenge," she continued. "I think I'm so tired of the question of gender because I feel it somehow diminishes the value of what I do. It diminishes the value of what we all do. It certainly doesn't show respect towards the incredible gift we have in music, the magic of creative expression, the beauty of personalities coming alive through sound vibration. For most musicians, the challenge of making meaningful music is everything. And we spend our lives in search of getting better and seeking to go further. Hopefully, we can live comfortably enough while continuing to search.

"I've given my entire adult life to music and if someone along the way didn't hire me because I'm a woman, I never noticed. If they hired me just because I am a woman, well, they got much more than they bargained for!" Amen.

-- April 2001 / Mitchell Feldman / Lucca, Italy


Mitchell Feldman is Down Beat's resident correspondent in Italy and a contributor to the features section of the International Herald Tribune supplement Italy Daily.


C o m m e n t s

Big Band Women 1 of 1
Keriile McDowall- Rhythmaning-CHLY 101.7 FM April 10, 14

Some big band women to think about also include from 1934 Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears- from mid 1930s Dolly Dawn and her Dawn Patrol, 1940s would be another personal favorite, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm and to also consider Canadian Big Band leaders/composers Christine Jensen and Jill Townsend.

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