Sunday, February 8, 2009

"The woman musician never was born...

...capable of sending anyone further than the nearest exit." Or so a 1938 Downbeat editorial entitled "Why Women Musicians are Inferior" goes. Laura Barnett, contributor to the UK's Guardian, delves this frustrating issue further in her recent article Lady Plays the Blues:

The man sitting in front of me in Ronnie Scott's jazz club got me thinking. I was there to hear the Portico Quartet, but had instead spent the first half listening to the sound of his voice as he chatted to his companion - so I had asked him to be quiet. At the end of the gig he apologised a little too contritely for spoiling my enjoyment. Then he added "Why are you here, anyway? Is your boyfriend in the band?"

The answer was no, but it was the question that mattered. This man may have been a sexist throwback, but I wondered if there could be any basis to his assumption that I could not have been there out of my own appreciation of the music. I looked around the club. The band were all men. Most of the audience were men, except for a group of women whose shouts and whoops made me think they really were with the band. It made me wonder where, and how, women fit into jazz.

I can completely relate to the "is your boyfriend in the band" question (which is even more frustrating when your boyfriend actually is in the band) but I can trump this further with an experience I had when I was playing sax (way back in the day) with a funk band for a jazz brunch. The entire band was dressed in all black and the gig was a 3 hour deal. I had been on the stage for the entire time, but twice, make that two times, when I left the bandstand to go to the bathroom, I was flagged down by people who thought I was a waitress. I still had my neckstrap on and everything, but some how even as the only girl, playing a saxophone in front of the band, I was not recognized as a musician.

Barnett goes on to muse about why women are not as successful in the jazz realm siting such reasons as early education often places girls on non-jazz instruments such as flute as well as the lack of competitiveness needed that is more natural in men. She quotes several women such as Maria Schneider and Toshiko Akiyoshi as well as a few London based female jazzers. It is an interesting article on a subject that has been pontificated about almost endlessly, though its importance is significant.

Read the rest of the article, as well as this response from the blog LondonJazz.

My opinion in a nutshell is an optimistic one. I see things slowly improving. For instance, my elementary band was pretty gender balanced when it came to choosing instruments (boys on flutes, girl on drums and brass) and there was interest in jazz from both sides. The amount of female jazz instrumentalists is increasing, we even had our first female horn player headline at the Vanguard last year. I still often get the assumption that I am a vocalist when introduced as a jazz musician, but men don't look at me funny (any more) when I say that I am a composer.

As Maria puts it, "With women, maybe it's like this. If you're mediocre, you might have a tough time. If you're really good, nobody can deny it."


Stefan Kac said...

I realize that in a situation where women don't exactly have it easy, adding more difficulty in the form of an unusual instrument doesn't help. But it bears mentioning that every orchestral instrument has been used effectively in jazz at some point in its history, and that more and better players are cropping up on the oddball instruments all the time.

It's actually funny how similar my experiences as a (male) tuba player are to what many women report. People see the instrument at a jam session and immediately suggest that we play a down-tempo blues or modal tune, or they think some kind of joke is being played on them. That's when you call "Joy Spring" or "Moment's Notice" and leave them in the dust. Works every time.

I played a benefit concert some months ago for a junior high school band program where a number of students sat in: they were all female and most played "non-standard" instruments such as flute and clarinet. According to their teacher, who also happens to be a woman, all the boys chickened out.

D0nnaTr0y said...

Hey Stefan, I'm sorry it's taken me awhile to respond to your comment; I've been out of town and then sick!

Your points are well taken and I would agree with your optimism. I definitely think this is the easiest time for women in the history of jazz and hopefully any discrimination against women in jazz will soon be an incredible story of the past, like women not being able to vote. That's a heartening story about the benefit concert that definitely makes me smile.

And it is especially interesting to hear of your own similar experiences as a tuba player. I would love to be there when you call "Joy Spring!" I guess due to the competitive nature of jazz, or music in general perhaps, a closed-minded snobbery towards all that is not the norm finds a way to persist.