Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Ladies Who Jam

"Jazz has the power to make men forget their differences and come together.” These are the words with which Quincy Jones inaugurated the first UNESCO International Jazz Day exactly five years ago.

Broadcasting on April 30 from Havana, Cuba, this year’s headliners include Herbie Hancock, Chucho Valdés, Carl Allen, Marc Antoine, Till Brönner, Antonio Hart, Marcus Miller, Kurt Elling, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Ben Williams, Pancho Amat, César López, Ivan Lins, Igor Burman, Julio Padón, Richard Bona, and Bobby Carcasses, plus three notable jazzwomen: Cassandra Wilson, Esperanza Spalding, and Regina Carter.

If the X-Y energy sounds disproportionate in that lineup, just consider that Wynton Marsalis’s renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra — among the best-paying gigs for an American jazz musician — has never once hired a permanent female member. This is all too common a story. While female jazz vocalists like Wilson and Spalding, who also plays bass, are somewhat de rigueur, the instrument section is overwhelmingly a masculine domain, which historically prizes aggressive self-confidence on the bandstand; it’s a job that requires frequent absences from home and family, and punishes women — particularly horn players — for being “unattractive” while “blowing hot.”

What’s more, research shows that the trumpet, trombone, and drums are still perceived as “masculine” instruments, while the flute, clarinet, and piano are considered feminine. In other words, sexual stereotyping of band instruments helps explain why boys are more likely to play the trombone, and girls the flute. For a long time, in fact, girls were prohibited from playing saxophones and percussion.

Of course, a penis is no prerequisite for playing jazz. It’s a social art. But as a freelance, ensemble-based industry, it remains largely a musical boys’ club whose members typically get a foot in the door by referrals through buddies. There’s rarely any formal hiring procedures in place, or any public postings of openings in big bands or jazz ensembles. The jazz gender gap extends beyond the music — as the mastheads of leading jazz magazines show, less than 10 percent of jazz critics and journalists are women, and a player’s promotion hinges on mostly male-run booking agencies and jazz festival programmers.

In kicking off that first International Jazz Day, Jones described jazz as “the personification of transforming overwhelmingly negative circumstances into freedom, friendship, hope, and dignity.” A nice, inclusive interpretation of the music. But as a commercial business, jazz is among the most sexist sectors of the music industry.

Classical music, while not typically incubated in jazz’s red-light classrooms of bars and clubs, offers an intriguing comparison.

In the 1970s, women accounted for less than five percent of classical musicians. Then a musicians’ union mandated “blind audition” policies, which conceal the identity of performance candidates from the jury and decrease bias, be it conscious or unconscious. Today, 48 percent of symphony musicians in metropolitan areas are women, says Ellen Seeling, a professional trumpet player and chairperson of JazzWomen and Girls Advocates, the first and largest organization dedicated to promoting “the visibility of women and girl instrumentalists of all ethnicities in jazz” and advocating “for their inclusion in all aspects of the art form.”

The group’s mission poses the question: If pressure were applied to the hiring tactics of jazz orchestras, could women’s representation in the genre undergo a sea change similar to that in the classical world? Seeling hopes so.

She made headlines a couple years ago when summoning hundreds of musicians and a female-led band to stage a rally outside Jazz at Lincoln Center during a high-ticketed donors’ gala to advocate for blind auditions. But Seeling contends the very nature of jazz makes things a little more complicated.

“Jazz is cool, it’s rogue,” says Seeling, making air quotes. “It’s rogue and totally unregulated and misogynistic — even more so than rock ’n’ roll. Look at the Grammys house band, the SNL band, any of them. How many women do you see there?”

by Katie O’Reilly, LARB | Read more:
Image: uncredited