New initiative from Berklee tackles gender disparity in jazz

When I asked drummer and Berklee teacher Terri Lyne Carrington which of the damning statistics about women in a poll of the top jazz critics of 2019 stood out to her the most, she gave a simple answer: “None of them they don’t surprise me.”

The survey in question was the 2019 NPR Jazz Critics poll of the 50 best jazz releases of the year. According to research by NPR’s Lara Pellegrineli, 58% of selected albums had no female musicians, and 58% of those albums had no women considered core personnel. Women directed or co-directed only 21% of top albums. And women only made up 7% of the critics who contributed to this poll in the first place.

This data is highlighted on the website to Next Jazz Legacy, a collaboration between New Music USA and Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, led by artistic director and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. The numbers, they say, are self-explanatory; that’s why Next Jazz Legacy exists.

The program welcomed its first class of musicians this year and recipients are just beginning their year-long residency.

Broadly speaking, Next Jazz Legacy uses the “guiding principles of racial and gender justice” to connect women and non-binary jazz musicians with creative mentors and apprenticeships. In the context of creative work, “exposure” can be a word that elicits strong reactions, but according to Carrington, it could be the single most important aspect of a young musician’s career. When she was ten, trumpeter Clark Terry took her to Wichita, Kansas, where she met drummer Buddy Rich. “There’s like a chain of events that happens once you have opportunities…and the more opportunities you have, the more opportunities there are, if you have the talent,” Carrington said. “Nothing replaces experience and exposure with masterful musicians.”

A recurring theme among program managers I spoke to was the excitement of giving a new generation of musicians an on-ramp that was much harder to come by decades ago. Guitar veteran, Boston native and current Brooklynite Mary Halvorson, who works with trombonist Kalia Vandever, reflected on her own early career experience. “When I was growing up, I had very few female mentors,” she said. “I was very lucky to have some really wonderful male mentors, but I always felt like there was a bit of something missing that I think would have been very helpful to me.”

The inaugural Next Jazz Legacy cohort is made up of seven people, drawn from a pool of 86 applicants. The winners aren’t bound by geography — they live in places from Cincinnati to Gothenburg, Sweden — but among them are two Boston-based musicians, drummer Ivanna Cuesta Gonzalez and pianist Anastassiya Petrova. They were both involved in Berklee’s Jazz and Gender Justice program, but as Kazakhstan native Petrova pointed out, this is a career opportunity that doesn’t require you to be enrolled in the conservatory. As many former students, musicians or not, know, earning a degree doesn’t necessarily confer a multitude of job opportunities. “It’s really a powerful tool that a lot of female jazz artists can use after graduation because sometimes you need a little boost after school,” said Petrova, who has an apprenticeship with Chris Potter and a creative mentorship with Kris Davis.

Anastasia Petrova

Joe Musacchia / Berklee College of Music

Ivanna Cuesta – who will work with Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding – sees her music as “the clearest way to express an idea”. Case in point: Despite an early exposure to jazz (she cites her father’s appreciation for Weather Report as her entry point into Shorter’s music), her youth in the Dominican Republic didn’t necessarily encourage girls to get into the kind of music she wanted to play. “I grew up with people saying, ‘Oh, this isn’t for girls,’ or like, ‘you should be doing something else,'” she explained. But sitting in this kit is a way of communicating something to the contrary, that “you can do whatever you want.” You can be a drummer, you can be a composer. It doesn’t matter what you are in the end, it’s as if you were.

Ivanna Cuesta
Ivanna Cuesta

Penelope Santana / Berklee College of Music

Asked about research regarding this 2019 NPR poll, Carrington pointed to an inescapable irony. The musicians chosen for the list header picture are all women: Val Jeanty, Kris Davis and Carrington herself.
This concentration of excellence at the top, Carrington argued, will never be representative of the music community as a whole. “You can’t say women are okay if they’re in the top 10 and they have, you know, 30, 40, 50 percent of the albums,” she explained. “You have to go through, say, the top 100 and make sure women and non-binary musicians are included in the full lockdown. ‘Cause what’s happening is [at] the top, you’re only dealing with, you know, the absolute crème de la crème. And then that kind of suggests that they’re exceptions.

Ada J. Kenney