Ladies Who Jam

By Katie O’ReillyApril 30, 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?”

We’re seated in the Berkeley basement of the California Jazz Conservatory. Of the women jazzing it up on TV lately, only one comes to mind: saxophonist-vocalist Grace Kelly in the Stay Human house band on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. On a small stage at the front of the room, however, there are 12 — ranging from twentysomethings to seniors — jamming hard on trumpets, trombones, drums, guitars, flutes, and violins. Their session is punctuated with enthusiastic bouts of calypso, swing, and soul improvisations, which Seeling describes as the establishment of one’s own “voice.” Jazz offers a singular way to express one’s identity, she says. “As an improviser, you’re doing more than reading the notes on the page. You’re drawing from yourself — putting yourself out there.”

This is the last day of the Conservatory’s Jazzschool Women’s Camp, an annual week of music lessons and collaboration that draws aspiring and established musicians from across the country — this year, even from as far away as Venezuela. Seeling’s partner, saxophonist Jean Fineberg, started Women’s Camp six years ago in reaction to the success of Seeling’s Jazzschool Girl’s Jazz and Blues Camp, a weeklong summer event that, since 2008, has offered girls an opportunity to study jazz under the guidance of exclusively female faculty — a rarity, as anyone who’s ever played in a jazz band can attest.

“Mothers and aunts and grandmas would pick up their girls from camp and say, ‘Man, I wish you had this when I was younger,’” Fineberg says, noting the camp now draws upward of 40 women every March — many of whom have gone on to form bands together.

Girls’ Camp typically sells out, and brings together more than 60 middle and high school-aged musicians for an intensive week of classes and, as Fineberg describes it, a “safe space for improvisation.” The point is to give girls an experience that boys take for granted — a spot in a jazz band with people like themselves, led by teachers of their own gender.

“Many girls feel alone in their school jazz bands,” says Fineberg. “Here, they get to meet 60 others doing the same thing they are.” Attendees, she says, report returning to their school bands more empowered to ask for solos, to take initiative, and to speak their minds.

The idea, says Seeling, is to remedy the fact that there are few role models for girls and women pursuing jazz. “If you don’t see anyone else doing it, it’s hard to think you can do it.” Besides broadening jazz access, Seeling’s group aims to overturn long-held stereotypes, such as that boys prefer girls whose lips aren’t “all puffed up” from playing a horn. “That’s what the trumpet sales guy told my mother in 1962 when I was starting in the school band,” says Seeling, 66. “That I’d get deformed.”

Seeling’s mom couldn’t care less, and Seeling was moonlighting in professional gigs by the time she graduated high school. In 1975, she became the first woman to graduate from Indiana University’s prestigious jazz program. After more than 40 years working in New York City and the Bay Area — backing the likes of Luther Vandross, The Temptations, Sister Sledge, and Ben E. King — Seeling says she’s still seen as a novelty.

“Every time I’m on a gig, some guy comes up to me and says, ‘Wow, a girl who plays the trumpet!’ Plenty of girls pick up jazz instruments in fourth or fifth grade, but then they get to middle school and join jazz bands; the boys get all the attention and the solos, and it’s not cool to stick out. Something like 90 percent of the teachers are men. Even when women do get into bands, it’s one of the most misogynist things in the world,” Seeling says. “How jazz works is: You get a nod when it’s your turn to improvise. If you don’t get that nod, you’re not gonna play. So, who gets the nod? Who gets featured? The higher up you go, the messier it is. Girls don’t stick with it.”

“It’s the same thing experienced by women in tech, women in science, women in politics,” Fineberg adds. With a nod, Seeling continues, “People really internalize that shit — it’s painful to see it manifest again and again.” Her own advocacy work, Seeling says, has been met with accusations throughout the jazz world that she’s pushing for her own students and friends, under the guise of a gender rights crusade. “People portray us as out-of-touch troublemakers, and they’re resistant to labor laws and principles being applied to art,” she says. “There’s a resistance to regulation — even though they know, deep down, that there’s a problem, one that’s never going to fix itself on its own. Which is why it was time to move to action.”

That action takes the form of highly visible rallies at professional music events, of formal complaints, of strongly worded letters to directors of those jazz festivals whose lineups feature exclusively male musicians in prominent performance slots. And on a more day-to-day basis, providing opportunities for women to learn and flourish. If a girl wants to attend camp but can’t afford it, for instance, Fineberg finds a way to fundraise and make camp possible.

“If you like jazz, let’s get you doing it,” Seeling says of the programming. “If you do naturally gravitate toward jazz, from a feminist perspective, that’s great. Girls aren’t conditioned to put themselves out there; they’re not aggressive. Jazz makes you take risks.”

Take the unsung history of the girl big bands of the World War II era, highlighted in Sherrie Tucker’s 2001 book Swing Shift. All-female jazz bands had existed since the 1920s. When the men went off to war, hundreds of such groups barnstormed the ballrooms, dance halls, and makeshift USO stages on the home front and abroad. Why didn’t these musicians, many of whom were prodigiously talented, never make it into our national memory? Tucker hypothesizes that the men who write history — and who disproportionately leave women out of the literary canon, the halls of athletic fame, of inventive fame, of you-name-it fame — discounted them as “swing shift maisies,” 1940s slang for work substitutes. The “real” workers came home when the war ended and reclaimed their power.

Seeling, who identifies as gay, estimates that more than 25 percent of women who pursue professional jazz careers do well. “Lesbians don’t give a shit about what men or society think,” she says. “They do what they want. And the women in jazz who are successful are the ones who start their own bands — because they don’t get hired to other people’s bands.”

That’s why, for the past 20 years, Seeling has directed the Montclair Women’s Big Band, featuring 17 of the Bay Area’s most formidable musicians in a Basie-style band that performs six to 10 gigs a year. Seeling only books those that will net each player a minimum of $100, and Montclair has performed at the Grammys, the Monterey Jazz Festival, and for SFJazz. They’re currently in the process of putting out their second album, Womens Work. The main objective, Seeling says, is to shed light on women musicians in the Bay Area. “If women don’t know one another, they can’t network — which is important in jazz.”

During a recent gig at San Rafael’s Fenix Supper Club, a male drummer performed with the band. When introducing him for a solo, Fineberg quipped: “Tonight this gentleman gets to feel like so many of us have felt our whole lives!” The audience burst into applause, and the band members revealed knowing smiles.

A vendetta, however, this isn’t. The raison d’être of JazzWomen and Girls Advocates is born, in part, of social justice, but mostly of love for the art form. The overarching idea is that if jazz becomes more accessible and inclusive, it can actually live up to the ideals in Jones’s speech.

“They say corporate boards are better at decision-making when more women are involved,” says Sara Sanderson, a Berkeley-based civil rights attorney and president of JazzWomen and Girls Advocates. She is also an amateur saxophonist-vocalist. “You broaden the talent pool, you provide better access, and it gets better. That’s a fact in any industry.”

Sanderson adds that the gender divide is even more punishing for women and girls of color — a cruel irony, considering the fact that jazz originated in African-American communities of the post-slavery era. In jazz, the systemic mechanisms of social injustice are alive and well; black and Latina girls go to underfunded schools that can’t afford instrumental music programs — and “forget private lessons and time to practice,” Sanderson says.

With that in mind, trombonist Angela Wellman founded the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music in 2005, providing quality, affordable music instruction to students in under-resourced parts of the community. “Because of the absence of culturally relevant teaching, many students of color score lower on standardized testing, and are programmed into academic remediation courses, which, not surprisingly, are scheduled at the same time that band and orchestra happen,” says Wellman, a third-generation African-American musician. She first started playing at the famed chitlin’ circuit Local 626, a former black musicians’ union in her native Kansas City. “It’s why a number of kids miss out. And let’s face it, music education is expensive; it’s a middle- and upper-middle-class pursuit.”

Wellman’s public conservatory seeks to illuminate the roots of music in Oakland, one of the most diverse cities in the United States. “We think about the music associated with this country, and much of it came out of the experience of the enslaved African people,” she explains. “Much of the music that we know as popular came from the banjo — an instrument I’d argue slaves in the Caribbean and American South created out of their ancestral memories of Africa.”

Wellman recently secured funding to start a program called Black Girls Play, designed to offer opportunities for aspiring musicians from middle school through their early 20s. “Black girls are sorely underrepresented in school jazz bands,” she says. Even so, several kept popping into an after-school class Wellman was teaching at a local middle school. “They kept coming back, and they started bringing their friends. I looked around one day and noticed I had way more little girls than boys, and I asked them about it, and they said, ‘Well Ms. Wellman, we wanna play!’ It got me thinking about being a young woman becoming a professional trombonist. I grew up oftentimes being the only woman in a band.”

Wellman, too, believes jazz as a craft only stands to benefit from a broadening of its talent pool. “No matter what body you’re in, you gotta be able to play to succeed,” she says. “But if people don’t give you the space to do that, and if we as teachers don’t address the forces of racism and sexism that make it extra hard for some players to get ahead, you can’t get good.”

Black Girls Play aims to bring more black girls into the experience of music and the music business. “I do see more young women and girls advancing in music — having their own bands and such — but not fast enough, as far as I’m concerned,” says Wellman, noting Beyoncé’s all-female bands are helping. “We have to see ourselves playing music at a high level if we’re gonna say, ‘I can do that, too.’ You need role models who look like you do.”

Above all, Wellman says, jazz needs a big band-sized injection of equity. “That requires people of power recognizing their power, and making the necessary changes and adjustments to equalize the playing ground,” she says. “When we talk about sexism and classism and racism, it only gets better if the people of power in a given situation actually recognize how they might be part of maintaining systemic inequity.”

“Nobody gives up power; you have to take it. Period,” Seeling says pointedly. “Nobody willingly gives it up.” Sanderson believes that if more of the jazz aficionados, patrons, and donors realized how inequitable the field is, the necessary changes would be easier to make — at least in the socially conscious Bay Area. “It’s about individual rights and civil rights — and the people who keep giving money to jazz need to know about it,” she says. “That’s why we have to take a strong stance.”

It’s a stance that, however gradually, is paying off. After collaborating with JazzWomen and Girls Advocates, Jazz at Lincoln Center announced last year that they will be adopting blind auditions for hiring in its orchestra, with an agreement to post openings in all the union papers and at colleges with large jazz departments. “We signed an agreement with them last April,” says Seeling, who says she’s ready to take on another musical institution.

As for UNESCO’s 2018 International Jazz Day lineup, it’s not looking like an intersectional gender achievement. The hope is that by the time the students of Girls’ Jazz & Blues Camp and Black Girls Play come of age, lineups will reflect the true diversity of talent within jazz. Until then, the struggle continues.


Katie O’Reilly is the adventure and lifestyle editor of Sierra magazine. She is based in Berkeley, California.

LARB Contributor

Katie O’Reilly is a Berkeley, California-based writer, and the adventure and lifestyle editor of Sierra magazine. Her essays and journalism have appeared in The Atlantic, Buzzfeed Ideas, Bitch, Bustle, Vela Magazine, Narratively, Michigan Quarterly Review, and The James Franco Review.


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