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Pianist/Composer/Educator and Head, Jazz Studies,
Queensland Conservatorium,  Louise Denson
answers the following question...

Louise Denson

April 2011

The Question:
Why are there not more women in jazz?

by Louise Denson share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

When I migrated from Canada to Brisbane in 1999 to teach in the jazz area of the Queensland Conservatorium, I was surprised and thrilled to find that the bass tutor was a woman - Helen Russell. Not long after my arrival, the group Morgana (Gai Bryant, ) played a local venue; and not long after that, bassist Belinda Moody performed with Indonesian violinist Luluk Purwanto’s jazz fusion ensemble. A friend lent me Clarion Fracture Zone CDs featuring Sandy Evans. Another friend sang the praises of pianist Cathy Harley, now in the USA. And on the local scene, composer/trumpeter Laura Kahle was presenting her recent works for big band which had been commissioned through Jazz Queensland.

I started to get the idea - which has proven to be true - that women were and are accepted on an equal footing in the Australian jazz scene. By that I mean that women who can play get hired as sidewomen; their groups are invited to present at festivals of national significance; they are awarded grants by the Australia Council and state arts councils for recording and touring; and they are recognized at the highest levels for their achievements and their contributions to Australian cultural life

So why are there not more women playing jazz?

In Australia, the answer to this question is clearly no longer a simple one such as “The guys shut us out”, or “We’re not taken seriously” or “We’re put down so often, we get discouraged and quit.” This is not to say that women will never encounter any old fashioned attitudes or resistance on the bandstand again. But the closed doors of the boys’ club that jazz has traditionally been are now definitely open, even if women elsewhere in the world are still having to ask to be let in.

Part of the answer has to lie in music education in schools. Despite formal research and living proof that girls are fully able to play the trumpet, trombone, drums or any other instrument traditionally regarded as “more suitable” for boys, girls continue to be concentrated in the areas of piano, voice, flute, clarinet or violin. This in turn limits their opportunities to take part in school bands where students’ first exposure to jazz usually takes place. Usually only one pianist or vocalist wins a place in a secondary school big band, whereas there are 4 trumpets and trombones, and 5 saxophones. Flute, clarinet and violin won’t generally get a look in.

Once in the band, playing your part within your section is one thing, but taking a solo is entirely another. This is the kind of situation where all the delicate emotional and psychological forces which make a young person’s life so turbulent come into play. “You mean I have to stand up in front of my classmates, my family, my friends - and make up what I play? And it’s meant to sound good? I don’t know what I’m doing! I’m going to make a fool of myself! That cute guy in the trumpet section is never going to talk to me now...!” I remember experiencing all those emotions myself when I started studying jazz (although the trumpeters were all homely), and I was 26! (Okay, so I’m a late bloomer...)

Strangely, and this is a documented psychological phenomenon, women of all ages can also suffer from fear of success: “If I really play well, then I’ll get asked to do an even harder piece next time, and I know I won’t be able to handle that. Besides, if I blow them all away, I won’t make any friends because it’ll make them all feel bad, maybe even jealous...and that cute guy in the trumpet section....”

These self-confidence issues can plague a woman throughout her training and her career, certainly until she feels in some way “established”. Women jazz musicians often stress in interviews the importance of just forging ahead, shutting out the bad vibes, staying away from people who are negative - just keeping on keeping on. But you have to have a strong psychological constitution to be able to do that successfully over the long term.

Another issue is the lack of role models for the aspiring young female jazz musician. Having said that in Australia today women seem to be recognized and appreciated for their efforts, there are still not many of them in comparison to the number of men playing jazz, and therefore they are a lot less visible. Certainly books about the history of jazz both in the USA and Australia typically devote very little attention to women, with vocalists faring much better than instrumentalists. This is unfortunately true even of very recent publications, despite current research which has documented the extensive participation of women in jazz from its earliest days forward. The normalization of jazz as a masculine phenomenon, as cultural theorists would put it, can lead a young woman to think that her only possible role in the music is as a vocalist or pianist.

But assuming that a young woman has persevered and is contemplating a career as a jazz musician, any number of things might put her off. The first and most obvious is the difficulty in making a living - and not a good living, just any living. Australia Council research in 2003
2 revealed that musicians in Australia made around $26,000 per annum from music related activities. You can hardly survive on that, and your prospects of owning even a roadworthy car, let alone property are very slim. So anyone envisaging a life involving the comfort and stability which most Australians enjoy will need to think about where, in addition to playing jazz, the money will come from.

It is no coincidence that many of the world’s best known women jazz musicians do not have children. This follows on from the previous point: if you can hardly keep your own body and soul together, how can you feel confident that you will be able to support someone else for 18 or more years? Women in jazz also face the same choice that all career women do - whether or not to withdraw from the workforce for several years to raise children. It is just as difficult for a woman to re-enter the jazz workplace after a long absence as it is for a business woman to pick up where she left off six years before.

Another issue is the rigors of the jazz life. Jazz involves a lot of late nights, low pay, long hours, hauling heavy equipment (depending on what and where you play), take-away meals, road trips, sometimes getting ripped off, sometimes dealing with truly horrible venue owners, event organizers or agents... it can all get a little old. And there are some very serious issues for women: walking back to your car alone at 3 am pushing a trolley of gear can quite literally endanger your life when you’re in an entertainment precinct full of weekend revelers. (One plus for all working musicians is the ban on smoking in pubs and clubs: at least our chances of dying from second-hand-smoke-induced lung cancer have been greatly reduced.)

If the jazz life is so taxing, perhaps the question I should be answering is, Why are there any women in jazz at all?! The answer is that jazz is a music worth devoting your life to. It offers a unique opportunity for self-expression and a lifetime of exploration, discovery and growth. I get excited every time I hear one of my tunes come to life in the very capable hands of my colleagues, and completing a project such as a CD or a set of arrangements gives me a great sense of accomplishment. And despite its drawbacks, the jazz life is exciting, challenging, rewarding, and fun. You get to travel, you get to find out what you’re made of when obstacles and challenges arise, you have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re in a good karma profession which improves the quality of life on earth. And you are part of a community - a fractious, disparate, loosely-knit community of rabid individualists - but one in which the relationships you form with your fellow musicians are among the most important in your life.

As an educator as well as a composer/performer, the question of how to encourage more young women to take up jazz is important to me. Teaching at the tertiary level, I have no direct influence over what happens in Queensland’s schools, but I like to think that the jazz area at the Conservatorium offers a supportive environment for the development of all our students. The fact that many of our female graduates are active and visible on the Brisbane music scene can only be a good sign for the future.

1 Judy Jacques, Andrea Keller, Sandy Evans, Alison Wedding, Janet Seidel, Lisa Young, Shannon Barnett, Megan Washington, Tina Harrod, Linda Oh and Kristen Berardi have all won Bell Awards in various categories; Judy Bailey and Sandy Evans have received the Order of Australian Merit (OAM).

2 Throsby, D & Hollister, V. (2003). Don’t give up your day job: an economic study of professional artists in Australia. Australia Council.


© 2011 Louise Denson

Have Your Say
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I was very interested to read Louise's article on women in jazz.  I have had the opportunity to work with several excellent female practitioners of the art: Judy Bailey, Sandy Evans, Fiona Lugg, Lisa and Nicky Parrott (both from Newcastle,NSW now NY,NY resident), Sue Cruikshank,Sandi White, Marie Steinway and Natalie Morrison.  I agree with the other respondents who hold that there is a subtle difference in the group when ladies are involved. With them in the rhythm section there seems often to be a more palpable incentive and support for the soloist, an encouragement to create and swing. If more women were brave enough to become seriously involved in jazz it could only be a good thing.  Thanks for your article, and good luck with your course in QLD.

Posted by Glenn Henrich on Friday 1 April 2011

Thanks for such a thoughtful and thorough essay. Many of your comments resonate with me as a male musician too, and I feel that most of the disincentives to pursuing a career in jazz for a woman are the same for a man. It must be true that there is a different response generally to these issues between the genders. I agree that the cultural conditioning from school onwards still plays a significant role in the perceived role of women in the jazz scene. Maybe boys are generally more confident about 'mucking in' with improvisation, aided by the male ego.  My own experience in working with women musicians such as Jann Rutherford, Cathy Harley, Debbie Kennedy, Sandy Evans, Leonie Cohen, Monique Lysiak and Mara Kiek is that the group dynamic is subtly changed to feel more balanced, less competitive perhaps and always striving for the highest quality. If more women are to be part of the jazz scene, I think they can stake their position best by bringing female virtues to the culture of the music... that doesn't need to mean that the music will sound much different, but I think women have a different intention to men when they play, and that can be their greatest contribution. It has something to do with ego I reckon... gender issues can be touchy to write about, but I feel this is very important.

Posted by Paul Cutlan on Friday 1 April 2011

Well said Louise. I tend to just use my ears for music and I hear no difference in quality between men and women, but perhaps a difference in sentiment or touch, and for this I am drawn to many women musicians because their experience "sounds" different to mine. Eliane Elias is a good example here for me. Maria Schneider too, and the Australian women you mentioned also. Thanks for your article.

Posted by Bill Risby on Friday 1 April 2011

I enjoyed your essay Louise. There is a subtlety in the female expression I think men can learn a lot from. The Queensland Jazz scene and all your students are lucky to have you.

Posted by Tony King on Friday 1 April 2011
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