The Girl In The Room

You’ve all heard the phrase “the elephant in the room”, right? Loosely translated, it means “an obvious problem or risk no one wants to talk about”. Well, this past week or so, people have been talking. Three separate articles have made their way across my screen, either forwarded to me by friends or in discussion groups, all centered on one particular elephant - the disparity in the number of women in jazz. The fact that it’s getting attention implies that at least people are starting to SEE the elephant, but the reaction to those conversations says we have a long way to go in setting it free.

Tia Fuller published an opinion piece this week on the heels of her GRAMMY nomination for best instrumental jazz album for her fifth release, Diamond Cut. She is an unquestionably accomplished saxophone player and a woman of color. In her op-ed, she talks about the difficulties she has faced throughout her career in jazz - everything from not being taken seriously on her instrument to being outright discriminated against. She has experienced things that are commonplace to women everywhere, like “you should smile more”, to things that are unique to her profession, like being walked over at a jam session. Tia also highlights the persistent issue that female performers of any sort have dealt with for ages - you not only have to be talented, but you have to LOOK the right way, too. Even Ella Fitzgerald was told she was not fit to be onstage because of her appearance, with Chick Webb famously saying “I don’t want that old ugly thing” to a then sixteen year old Ella after she won amateur night at the Apollo.

Some readers at this point might be saying “this is old news, isn’t it?” or “but times are changing, so that’s good!” - and both statements are true, yet false at the same time. Farnell Newton, the leader of a really fantastic Facebook group called “Jam Of The Week”, posted a link to Tia’s op-ed in the group. A little about JOTW first - Farnell posts a theme for the week, and the JOTW followers (over 67,000 and growing) post videos of their work on that theme. The group spans the world - there are professional and amateur musicians of all ages, ethnicities and genders represented here - and they are crazy supportive of each other’s work. Criticism is constructive, support and cheerleading is the norm. So, when Farnell posted Tia’s article, the resulting commentary was somewhat telling. A couple of dissenting themes emerged: “I’ve never seen that where I’m playing so it must not be pervasive/true” and “There must not be as many talented female instrumentalists or we would have heard about them”, interspersed with comments we women who put ourselves out there have seen or experienced a LOT - like “you’re making too big a deal out of this” or “stop being so sensitive”.

Whoa! This was an eye opener for me. Not that people still think that way - that’s EXACTLY what Tia was expressing in her piece - but that there, in that particular group, these sentiments would pop up. That people - yes, largely male people - would be dismissive of the actual experience of another jazz musician as told in her own words, as a plea (mandate?) to make changes in the industry, stated within a group where that same dismissive person probably was a huge cheerleader for a female musician’s post the day before… there’s that elephant again. It’s playing a saxophone.

elephant sax.jpg

This issue hits me particularly close to home because I have a teenage daughter in a high school jazz band. I am a ridiculously proud band parent, and I love our band program - it has been one of the most valuable classes both my kids have taken. But even our program demonstrates the obvious gap in female jazz participation: the overall band program is just over 50% female; the jazz band typically hovers around 20-30% (my daughter tells me this semester it’s 40%, so yay!). This isn’t unusual, but it’s part of the challenge of growing more female jazz instrumentalists - we unconsciously start weeding out girls from the very beginning.

This fabulous article by Kelly Clingan, “The Educational Jazz Band: Where Are The Girls?”, highlights just some of the myriad ways we limit female jazz performers. Some of it starts the minute we ask them to choose an instrument in elementary school. Jazz instrumentation is pretty defined - trumpets, trombones, saxophones, drums, piano, bass - with flute and clarinet being doubled/secondary and things like oboe not even being there at all. If a jazz instrument doesn’t land in a girl’s hands when they start band, well, the outcome is already kind of defined. That’s just the tip of a very large iceberg, and I highly suggest you click over and read the full article. If you want some quick reinforcement, just google “jazz band stock images” - almost every single image shows men playing instruments, and if there is a female pictured, she’s singing, not playing.


I’m not saying the picture is bleak, or that it’s not changing. It is, albeit slowly. On the heels of reading the discussion in JOTW and Ms. Clingan’s article in Jazz Ed, the outstanding pianist Carmen Staaf (who performed with Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom in Take Five Music Productions’ inaugural performance last October) shared a review of Winter Jazzfest published in The Atlantic titled “What Jazz in 2019 Will Sound Like”. Winter Jazzfest is a weeklong jazz tour de force, featuring over 150 performances in 12 venues around New York City in January each year. The author, David A. Graham, talks about his experience at this year’s festival, and how some of the best performances he took in were headlined by women, going so far as to state “...the present and future of jazz are female. While women have been part of this music scene since the start, they’ve often been marginalized. Not this year, and not at this festival.”  

It’s going to take all of us - musicians, patrons, club owners, promoters, elementary through college music teachers/professors - to keep this change rolling. As more female jazz instrumentalists take the stage, more young girls have role models. More young girls with active support, modeling and the confidence that they’ll be taken seriously (and not actively discriminated against) means more adult female jazz instrumentalists. There are signs of progress, to be sure, but there’s still a long way to go.

And really, when you think about it, most jazz clubs are intimate rooms. There just isn’t space for an elephant.

- Lori

Lori Chandler