Why is there so little room for women in jazz music?

Singers from Nina Simone to Kate Ceberano are among the most recognizable and famous jazz performers. Yet in the Australian jazz industry, women are worryingly underrepresented.

There are relatively few female jazz composers and instrumentalists. Indeed, many female instrumentalists feel that they have to be better than their male counterparts to get gigs. Some musicians even think that certain instruments are more suitable for men than for women. The drums, trombone and trumpet are perceived as ‘masculine’ and the flute, clarinet and violin as ‘feminine’.

Research also shows that jazz largely conforms to male stereotypes when it comes to women performing live. The singers have spoken of pushing back on comments about their dress and body shape. Australian trombonist, singer and songwriter Shannon Barnett recently shared how she arrived late for a stage rehearsal for a TV show because it took three times as long for the makeup department to do her hair and makeup as it did for her. the men in the group.

Studies in the United States have shown that men take more solos than women in jazz performances – yet the musical quality of the solos changed very little regardless of gender. When performing, women are less likely to hold leadership positions in jazz. Ariel Alexander, saxophonist and jazz teacher in the United States, notes:

Many common jazz practices, such as cup contests and four-way exchanges, are based not only on competition, but also on dominating the bandstand in such a way as to push others back.

Improvisation in a group setting includes leading, following, creating space and integrating as the music evolves. But women in leadership positions – on stage and off – are judged more harshly than their male counterparts.

American musician Ellen McSweeney notes that some female instrumentalists may be subject to a “sympathy tax” when they assert themselves or achieve success, such as when leading a band. Many women who lead strongly are called “authoritarians.” Those who succeed are often criticized for being “too ambitious”.

The lack of female composers represented in Australian music programming has been much discussed. One problem is the lack of female role models for aspiring jazz students – in the working world and the “canon”. Most musicians working in Australia across all genres are male.

A survey commissioned by the Australia Council in 2009 estimated that women made up only 32% of musicians. And while 50% of Australian music students are women, only around 20% of artists registered to receive APRA royalties are women. This tells us that while many girls study music, few pursue professional careers.

Jazz music student Caitlin Thomas in rehearsal at Monash University.
Author provided

Although there is no research specific to jazz students in Australia to date, these statistics are unlikely to improve for them. Female representation in tertiary music faculties is likely another contributing factor to this lack of role models. A brief summary of higher education institution web pages shows that, on average, less than 10% of jazz music scholars are women. At some Australian universities, none of the permanent jazz staff are women.

What can be done?

How to improve this visibility of women in jazz concerts and faculties of education? A recent panel discussion at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival – which I attended – looked at this question.

Recognizing the magnitude of the problem can be the first step. A survey by a newly formed national jazz student body, All In, found that not only do future female jazz instrumentalists and composers have few role models, but many influential people in the industry “don’t see a problem”. Acknowledging the problem would be an important step for the music community as a whole.

One suggestion was to introduce quotas for the number of women in festival programming (for all genres of music). But each artist wants to be selected on his merit. Unsurprisingly, many dislike the idea of ​​being selected to fill a quota, “to keep the numbers balanced”, seeing it as symbolic.

There was also talk of blind auditions. Research has shown that female orchestral musicians are 50% more likely to be selected in such an environment. And interestingly, at last year’s Tropfest film festival, when a gender-neutral selection process was introduced, the number of screened films directed by women jumped from 5% to 50%.

Another approach has been all-female ensembles, such as the Sydney Improvised Music Association’s Young Women’s Jazz Orchestra, which is designed to help the development of young instrumentalists.

But it’s unlikely that many jazz bands will “audition” for new musicians like an orchestra would. They rely more on informal networks — and the networking habits of male jazz musicians don’t always sit well with women. Deals and arrangements are often made at the “hang” bar after the concert, which is not always considered the best place for women to do this work. Indeed, sexual harassment in the Australian live music industry has recently been recognized as a serious problem.

Research has shown that, overall, men are generally more likely to mentor men than women. And yet, many women can cite high profile male personalities who have been important supporters and mentors in their jazz careers. Barnett, for example, lists over 30 male supporters at the end of a recent article she wrote on gender equity in jazz. And, conversely, it cannot be assumed that women support each other by default, or even know each other’s work.

But we can all support women by going to their concerts, buying their albums and acknowledging the issues they face. Higher education institutions could update the canon they teach to ensure more women are represented. Elementary and secondary educators may be aware of the perceptions that may exist around jazz as “man’s music”.

Women may be featured playing instruments in promotional material for jazz events. All musicians can encourage women to participate, rather than waiting for them to ask. And, when scheduling events, a little extra time researching female musicians can result in some interesting finds.

Some new research on this issue, such as that done on gender diversity in the Australian screen industry, could help shape future funding policy. Challenging unconscious bias is the first step for anyone involved in jazz. Australian musical culture will only be richer.

Cat Hope would like to acknowledge the contributions of A/Prof Sally Macarthur, Prof Dawn Bennett, Talisha Goh, Dr Sophie Hannekam and A/Prof Rob Burke.

Ada J. Kenney