Sexism in Jazz: The Women Re-Shaping The Boys Club

Lottie Walker

Women typically face challenges breaking into male-dominated fields but the female jazz musicians of today are taking a sledgehammer to the boys club of the music industry.

Lottie Walker
Lottie Walker, from Somerset, England is a Musician, writer and activist. She is former student of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam and has trained as a classical singer for 10 years. As a writer she engages with spoken-word poetry and investigative journalism. Lottie’s passions combine to strive toward a more equitable creative industry through her work and right now through her writing.

The lack of female contribution and old-school sexism within the Jazz community is perplexing. There is no better example of democracy than a Jazz ensemble: individual freedom but with the responsibility to the group. Individual musicians are given the freedom to express themselves on their instrument as long as they maintain their responsibility to the other musicians by adhering to the overall framework and structure of the tune. The current state of the industry is a result of its past, a past reinforced by institutions who focus on the male masters; Armstrong, Monk, Gillespie. Mary Lou Williams mentored Monk and Gillespie, Lil Hardin Armstrong played piano, composed and arranged for most of the important hot bands in New Orleans, but they have become forgotten footnotes in Jazz history. Contributions and achievements from female artists are overlooked, dampening an already dim light for young aspiring women. Agreeably being a Jazz musician isn’t easy for anybody in today’s socio-economic climate and it’s true that insecurities regarding performance affect everybody. Musicians aren’t supported enough, it makes good sense to remove as many obstacles as we can to support one another while fighting the good fight.

I came to Amsterdam last year to begin studying at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam (CvA) as a classical singer before which I’d had very little exposure to jazz. Fortunately this all changed and I became surrounded by jazz music and jazz musicians. As an observer, I noticed an obvious disparity in the ratio of men to women at sessions. I sat in a polar opposite position as a classical musician with an abundance of both male and female co-workers. My female peers across the musical pond just didn’t have that on stage. It is ironic, Jazz is about communication, democracy, and integration, so why do women have such limited roles?

As an observer of Jazz culture, two things have become very clear to me. One, there is an astonishing lack of female contribution in the Jazz music industry, and two, plenty of gender discrimination to go round for the women who are making their mark. In September I met with various female artists from the Jazz department of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, a leading institution in Jazz and classical education, to discuss their thoughts on the matter.

Every one of these women met me with an impassioned discussion on this topic. Each of them from different corners of the globe, they have offered perspectives that ask for a little critical self-evaluation and awareness from the community.

Alba Roigé, a trombone player from Barcelona in her third bachelor year began by telling me about the obvious lack of women in the industry, however she says, “This does not mean that there are no women playing Jazz but when you watch concerts and go to the scene the only part you see is the men”. Liya Grigoryan, a pianist who graduated the Masters’ programme last year, from Russia felt very much the same; “I don’t see the difference in being male or female I just see being an artist.The fight for gender equality was undeniably worse fifty years ago however discrimination is just as much a current issue as it is a historical concern. Liya added however that “it’s more an issue nowadays. In any industry it is much harder to be a woman and do something significant, you have to work harder, if you don’t no one is going to notice you”. Fuensanta Méndez, a singer and double bassist in her third bachelor year from Mexico told me “You will still find people here who will make you realize that you are a woman as soon as you go and play”. Many of these women are in the middle of their studies and others have already graduated, the conservatory is one of their more frequented environments. Alba told me that “in the Conservatorium things are a little more equal but when you enter the real world you see who is the boss.”

I don’t see the difference in being male or female I just see being an artist.– Liya Grigoryan

Allison Philips, a trumpeter who graduated the Masters programme last year from the US shared with me some of her experiences; “I’ve had some weird encounters. I used to play in one big band of a famous older drummer and eventually, I stopped because I couldn’t take the comments anymore. People come up to me after a gig and they’re like; Oh my god I’ve never heard a woman do that before, you’re a girl but you make such a big sound and one person told me I’m not smiling enough on stage.” She goes on to say that “it is getting better every year, the Lincoln Center Jazz orchestra has never had a full-time female member. It’s one of the only salary big bands in the US, they are now starting to have blind auditions though”.

Everyday more and more artists become pioneers of change We applaud Jazz at Lincoln Center for making these changes to its selection process, and are hopeful they will result in a more diverse orchestra,” said Jennifer Reisch, Legal Director of Equal Rights Advocates in an interview last year. “This is an important and historic step towards increasing women’s representation in Jazz, a field in which women instrumentalists historically have faced exclusion and marginalization.” New selection procedures in the industry are an effective way to combat old school bias. It began with classical orchestras who saw that blind auditions increased the likelihood that a woman would be hired by between 25 and 46 percent, now many more industries both creative and corporate are following.

Bias is more than often something we don’t even realize is creeping into our minds, affecting everything we see. This discussion presented a variety of tales from the scene. Some were of a more explicit nature, ignorant comments from ignorant people (who I hope are reading this article) and others more a subtle sexism, stemming from feeling and atmosphere.  Aurora Hentunen, a pianist in her second bachelor year from Finland recalled  “I was doing a concert in Groningen and I needed to prepare a band, there was a bass player and we played a couple of songs, then I said something about the number of bars and he corrected me. I felt like that it wasn’t really about that, it was more the fact he didn’t trust my knowledge because I am a woman and he didn’t like that I was the leader. I’m made to feel that I should be softer as a leader, otherwise you’ll call me a Nazi bitch or Hitler, which happens by the way. Even though I know that those names (Nazi etc) are used in a playful way, it still says something. I’ve never heard anyone call a male leader a Nazi or a bitch. And a thing about the leading, I think the woman’s attitude towards herself plays a big role: still from all the bands and groups only a few men have questioned my authority.” Irene Reig, a Saxophonist who has graduated the Masters programme, from Barcelona described how she is made to feel, “I am almost always playing with only men in bands because that’s what there is. You are used to it but in conversation, you feel apart, they are talking about women in a bad way just when you are doing a soundcheck and waiting around and it’s like ‘hello I’m here!’”. Alba recalled a recent discussion she’d had,  “ Last week a friend and I were in the car and some cheesy Jazz came on the radio with a sax solo that wasn’t so bee bop. My guy friend says “This must be a woman playing”. I asked him to explain and he came back with “Oh you grow up different” and “Men, we like to fight”. I said, “I like to fight, you wanna go outside?”. You hear all the time, “Oh wow you have a character you are a tough woman”, No I’m not though I’m just tired of your shit. They are surprised that women can play good, I’m a special case? No i’m not a special case!

My guy friend says “This must be a woman playing”. I asked him to explain and he came back with “Oh you grow up different” and “Men, we like to fight”. I said, “I like to fight, you wanna go outside?”. You hear all the time, “Oh wow you have a character you are a tough woman”, No I’m not though I’m just tired of your shit. They are surprised that women can play good, I’m a special case? No i’m not a special case! – Alba Roigé

Fuensanta reflected on the impact this has had on her “You can become aggressive just to fight that shit but women Jazz players are not all like that. I like to surround myself with people who won’t make me be that way. I know what is expected of me so often.  I am pretty sure that If I had played something else or been a man, a lot of things would have been different. To find a community has been hard and it has been somehow lonely, macho culture is big in Mexico and even when we play together sometimes I can’t just be part of the hang. I am young, I am a woman and I am a singer – why would you treat me like a princess? I’ve had to say “I’m not what you think I’m going to be” and it’s very antimusic because you aren’t just enjoying yourself or focusing on the music. How would it be if I was a man or even just an instrumentalist?”

This discussion in itself is very “anti-music” looking at it Alba remarked on how “Music is another power, when you are into the music it’s like God and that’s the reason we do it. Music loves everybody. These thoughts and prejudices are not what music is about. It doesn’t understand race or gender”. Julia, an Electric Bass player in her fourth bachelor year from the Netherlands told me, “there is social discrimination, guys look for a player and they don’t want it to be a girl because then it breaks up the boys club.” The problem here, as Allison put it is that “Jazz is a social genre”.  Liya agreed telling me “I’ve just been reading the autobiography of Herbie Hancock and I read many others also and all you read about is guys and the way they were hanging. Sometimes I’m just like, can I be part of this? You feel isolated. You get gigs by hanging with people if you are there in the right moment”.  

Jazz is a global community, making this a global issue. Aurora states “It is remarkable that you can find people of 40 different nationalities in one building from one school”. I asked some of the girls to describe the differences between the Dutch scene and the scene from their native cultures. Maripepa Contreras Gámez an Oboist in her third bachelor year from Spain told me “In the south of Spain where there is not much Jazz culture, one female guitar player and me on oboe, even most of the Jazz singers were male I felt like the weird one. You’ll always feel this pressure as a woman to prove yourself and sometimes I’ll play too much or too high because of that pressure.” Ann Hung an electric bassist in her second Bachelor year from Taiwan, told me that so far she feels quite equal here; but maybe that is because Taiwan is so unequal .“I’m so free here, I can play double bass – can you imagine? In Taiwan I am one of the only female bass guitarists sometimes I feel guys are angry If  I am better than them, they think that maybe a guy only asked you for a gig just because he wants something from you. The audience tells you ‘You’re good for a girl’. In Taiwan women in the rhythm section don’t trust themselves because the cultures enforce the idea that they should be scared in a group of men. A man is physically stronger so supposedly he will make the better sound for the rhythm section. This was one reason I was not allowed to learn double bass because I am not strong enough,  it is “too hard” for me – electric bass was the compromise. I think that women can also make a different sound that reflects character, I am just as special.”

A lack of female representation contributes to women remaining the minority in Jazz. Julia tells me that when she began to pursue electric bass she was aware of this “I was aware. I thought that there aren’t women composer, they’re all men, white, European. history here  is dominated by men anyway. People, who pave the road, how many women did that?” Similar to the way history books focus on a white euro-centric perspective, a lot of female musicians don’t see their role models influencing history. This has an impact on encouraging young girls to pursue careers in music, I feel it also in the classical world – Clara Schumann, Maria Anna Mozart, anyone? Rebeka Zajc a pianist in her first bachelor year from Slovenia thought, “If there were more female teachers there would be more female students, so we can see examples that motivate us”.

 In most Jazz departments around the world, there are 300 or 400 musicians in their programme with around 15% to 20% being women, women who are mainly singers.

The Jazz faculty of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam is also exclusively male with the exception of female singing teachers. When asked, most of the women told me that they had never had a female teacher. Magalí Datzira Sallas a double bassist and singer in her third year on Erasmus from Spain said “I feel this a lot, I had a female double bass teacher. She taught me everything and always told me that she was the only one, she had to fight”. I do not discredit the aptitude of male teachers, I asked how all of these female musicians were exposed to Jazz and many of them have male teachers and role models to thank.

There are clear differences between generations of female Jazz musicians and the severity of obstacles they face. Billie Rogers a trumpeter from Woody Herman’s orchestra in the 1940’s said this “You wanna be good anyway, but if you’re the girl in the band you have to be”. I read this quote to many musicians I spoke to about this subject both men and women, and many of them agree that this is the reality. Irene told me that someone had once said “women cannot play as good as men” she responded; “We don’t want to play as men, we want to play good”.  Magali feels that simply put, “I have to bring myself, the best of me”.

Diversity matters and women need to be creatively supported, they are not a gimmick, they must not fill a quota and they must not be commodities to sell with skirts. How can we be agents of change? Fuensanta explains “It is very important that when we hear something that is wrong, we must say something about it“. Men must really denounce this behavior among themselves, There should be zero tolerance for this especially between one another in the backstage comments. Do not accept it.” For the younger generations, Aurora feels “There needs to be more encouragement from a younger age, they aren’t as frightened by it and they will find themselves in a community.” For her peers and colleagues around her, Irene said:  “listen to us more, if we are saying this is bad instead of saying we are exaggerating just believe me and listen.

Art is one of the most powerful social weapons and this can come from anyone, from anywhere. I hope it starts coming from a more equitable world. It is exciting, a new generation is coming forward who do not carry the predispositions from previous generations of gender, race or sexuality. For this generation I asked for some advice and will leave you with this.

“Take the time to figure out what you is right and what you think is beautiful. Then with an open heart find people who you can resonate with. Play. Share this. If you know what is right then don’t trust anyone else’s opinion more than your own. You’ll receive prejudice as a woman but keep doing what you think is right and not what is expected of you. Find what you think is beautiful and do this as best as you can.” – Fuensanta Mendez

You can find the work of these musicians in the links below along with a Spotify playlist of some of their favorite female artists.

Allison Philips http://www.allisonphilips.com/listen.html

Irene Reig https://soundcloud.com/irenereig5tet

Aurora Hentunen https://soundcloud.com/user-609119977

Fuensanta Mendez https://soundcloud.com/fuensanta-m-ndez-lecomte

Liya Grigoryan https://open.spotify.com/album/4Y2BRX47doA0bUl2GRYrFT

Magali Datrzira https://www.facebook.com/magalidatziramusic/

Ann Hung https://soundcloud.com/user-875478664

Listen to our favourite female artists past and present 

https://open.spotify.com/user/lottie.walker/playlist/0takU3m8RsA4KbuPptOfnZ?si=Yie4OcdN