Why is there so little room for women in jazz?

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 under-represented.

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 considered “male” and the flute, clarinet and violin are “female”.

Research also shows that jazz largely conforms to male stereotypes when it comes to women performing live. The singers have spoken of pushing back comments about their dress and body shape. Australian trombonist, singer and songwriter Shannon Barnett recently shared that she was late for a stage rehearsal for a TV show because it took the makeup department three times as long to do her hair and makeup. only for the men of 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 has changed very little regardless of gender. When performing, women are less likely to find themselves in leadership roles in jazz. Ariel Alexander, saxophonist and jazz teacher in America, notes:

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

Improvisation in a group setting includes leading, following, making space and adapting to the evolution of the music. But women in leadership positions – both on and off the stage – are judged more harshly than their male peers.

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

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

A survey commissioned by the Australian Council in 2009 estimated that women make 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 embark on a professional career.

Jazz music student Caitlin Thomas rehearsing at Monash University.
Author provided

While there is no research specific to jazz students in Australia to date, these statistics are unlikely to improve for them. Another contributing factor to this lack of role models is female representation in tertiary music faculties. A brief summary of the web pages of higher education institutions shows that, on average, less than 10% of jazz music academics are women. In some Australian universities, no permanent jazz staff member is female.

What can be done?

How to improve this visibility of women in jazz concerts and educational faculties? A recent panel discussion at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival – in which I participated – addressed this issue.

Recognizing the magnitude of the problem can be the first step. A survey by a newly formed national group of jazz students, All In, found that not only do future jazz instrumentalists and songwriters have few role models, but many influential people in the industry “don’t see a problem. “. Recognizing 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 featured in festival programming (for all genres of music). But each artist wants to be selected on his merit. Unsurprisingly, many do not like the idea of ​​being selected to fill a quota, “to keep numbers balanced”, seeing it as symbolic.

We also talked about blind auditions. Research has shown that female orchestral musicians are 50% more likely to be selected in such an environment. And it is interesting to note that at the Tropfest film festival last year, when a gender-neutral selection process was introduced, the number of films screened directed by women increased from 5% to 50%. .

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

But it is unlikely that many jazz groups will “audition” for new musicians like an orchestra would. They rely more on informal networks – and the networking habits of male jazz musicians are not always suitable for women. Agreements and arrangements are often made at the “after concert” bar, 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 coach men than women. And yet, many women can list senior male figures who have been important supporters and mentors of their jazz careers. Barnett, for example, lists over 30 male supporters at the end of a recent article she wrote on gender equality in jazz. And, conversely, we cannot assume 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 recognizing the issues they face. Higher education institutions could update the canon they teach to ensure representation of more women. Primary and secondary educators might be aware of the perceptions that may exist around jazz as “men’s music”.

Women can be depicted 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 looking for female musicians can translate into some exciting finds.

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 biases is the first step for anyone involved in jazz. Australian musical culture will be even richer.

Cat Hope would like to thank the contributions of Assistant Professor Sally Macarthur, Professor Dawn Bennett, Talisha Goh, Dr Sophie Hannekam and Assistant Professor Rob Burke.


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Henry R. Wright

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