5 Ways to Encourage More Female Jazz Instrumentalists

Sweethearts of RhythmA few days ago, I shared this blog post and discussed the under-representation of female jazz instrumentalists with many folks. At some point, the question was raised of, “Well, what can we actually do about it?” Here’s my interpretation of the problem, and five ways to help solve it.

Musical Feminism 101: According to Susan McClary, women were historically excluded from music in order to make it less feminine (music is cerebral, which is considered masculine, but also involves the body, which is considered feminine). That still begs the question: Why, in 2016, where gender ratios in orchestras are basically 50:50, are there so few female players of traditionally jazz instruments?

My answer (based on my dissertation and the research I’ve done since): Because of industrial-era, educational assessment methods which promote ableism and create intense pressures for females wanting to play masculine-coded instruments.

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, they developed a factory-like educational system to get massive portions of the population educated. A noble goal, but unfortunately, the quickest and easiest way to measure learners’ success or failure was standardized testing – a one-size-fits-all approach that ranked learners on some sort of numerical hierarchy (examples of this include IQ and standardized test scores).

When jazz entered into schools and colleges, it got plugged into this hierarchical ratings system, where it remains to this day. Although female musicians are no longer actively barred from participating in music, they still tend to avoid masculine-coded instruments (which include basically all of the traditional jazz ones).

I suggest that this is because the hierarchical system creates a lot more pressure for them because they have to prove that female jazz musicians are just as capable as the hordes of male ones (which sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t – and none of this should really matter). If a female plays violin and is crappy at it, she can be one of many female violin players who just happens to be crappy. If she plays drums and is crappy at it, she’s proved (in the eyes of some) that females aren’t cut out to be drummers. (Side note: while males may tend to chose drums over violin because the latter is sexually-suspect, they do enjoy the added bonus of getting to be just another crappy drummer)

Ok, so then what do we do about all of this? As promised, here are the five things:

  1. Create, participate in, and/or support female-only ensembles and events. In a perfect world, jazz ensembles would already be a mosaic of males, females, and other gender identities and we wouldn’t need these types of things, but that’s just not the case. For me, playing in SWOJO was the first time I hadn’t been the only female (or one of two or three) in a big band. These ensembles and events are the best and easiest way to increase visibility and encourage young girls to take up jazz instruments. If you’re a guy, show your support and lay off the, “Why do they get their own group?” stuff. If you’re chill, you’ll probably still get called to sub at some point…
  2. Refer female musicians for gigs, jobs, and leadership positions. Right now, jazz professional networks are still set up to favor male musicians. The easiest way to change that is to refer qualified female musicians for gigs and other positions. (The one thing to be careful of, though, is making a referral that’s not really a great fit for the female musician for the sake of having a female fill that position)
  3. Support community education programs. The only way to get jazz past its hierarchical ranking system is to promote other learning venues. I teach and volunteer for Jazz Night School and participate in SWOJO’s educational outreach efforts. This doesn’t mean leaving formal school programs to wither and die, but to try to promote collaborations between the two systems.
  4. Reach out to the “feminine” instrumentalists and singers. At times, I’ve blown off female singers because I’ve gotten so frustrated by people constantly assuming I was one (even with my bass in-hand at gigs). While it’s important to get more girls and women playing “masculine” instruments, it’s equally important to make improvisation accessible to everyone – whether they’re classical instrumentalists or jazz vocalists.
  5. Make jazz better for everyone. We can’t just stop at making it better for girls and women in jazz – we have to tackle every inequality and exclusion. Eventually, I’d like to follow the lead of my friend Lauren, who is crowd-funding scholarships to her trombone studio for low-income students, particularly girls and young POC. Until jazz is equally accessible to all – regardless of their gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnic background, physical/mental ability, economic status, age, etc. – we still have a lot of work to do.

Is there anything else you think could be done to encourage and support female jazz instrumentalists and others?

Note: This post originally appeared on my site Gig-Ready Jazz Bassist.

Author: Leah Pogwizd

Bassist and Instructor

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