Women in Jazz: Some Observations Regarding the Ongoing Discrimination in Performance and Journalism

The presence of women instrumentalists in jazz at best making incremental progress — albeit almost totally so in combos and bands that they themselves are leaders of (and in which one finds many, and sometimes mostly, men) — it is clear that there should be no let-up in the effort to bring an end to this blatant form of discrimination in the jazz world. Women belong, and deserve to be, in the mainstream of the art form. That they are not is shameful. In fact, jazz is far behind not only American society but behind all other performing arts and all other musical genres in demolishing gender discrimination.

One of the most heartwarming expressions of concern about this salient issue was Nat Hentoff's Last Chorus column in the June 2001 JazzTimes. Titling his piece “Testosterone Is Not An Instrument,” Nat alluded to Lara Pellegrinelli's “scorching . . . indictment” of Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for excluding female instrumentalists from its ranks. Lara’s broadside originally appeared in the November 2000 Village Voice and reappeared in an updated version in the March 2001 JazzTimes. Titled, respectively, “Dig Boy Dig: Jazz at Lincoln Center Breaks New Ground, But Where Are the Women?” and “I Guess I Would Notice. But That Doesn’t Mean You Shouldn’t,” the VV article can be read online at villagevoice.com and the JT one at jazztimes.com. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra remains all-male as of this essay's posting in March 2004.

Nat Hentoff quoted Billy Taylor as a strong supporter of women instrumentalists. “Time won't do it,” said Dr. Taylor. “There has to be an effort.” In a trenchant follow-up Letter to the Editor in the September 2001 JazzTimes, British jazz author Mike Hennessey commended Nat “for his condemnation of the pernicious and persistent discrimination to which female musicians have been subjected for decades.”

Nat also wrote, in the November 2003 issue of JazzTimes, a wonderful column on Diva. “If there were still big band cutting contests,” he said, “[Diva] would swing a lot of the remaining big bands out of the place.” (Nat’s columns can be found on line at jazztimes.com but the magazine's website does not run its Letters to the Editor column, so the published hard-copy issue itself will have to be sought for Mike's letter.)

Another splendid article is Monique Buzzarté, “View from New York: J@LC — Notice Something Missing?” on Newmusicbox.org. Buzzarté, a trombonist living in New York,specializes in new music. An author and educator as well as a performer, her advocacy efforts for women in music led to the integration of women into the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1997. Buzzarté’s article has some arresting links, e.g., “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of 'Blind' Auditions on Female Musicians,” a study by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse published in the September 2000 issue of the American Economic Review, showed that the adoption of screened auditions in symphony orchestras resulted in an astonishing 50 percent greater rate of advancement for women from the preliminary to the semi- final audition rounds, and much greater likelihood that they would win in the final round.

Perhaps it's time to again mount the battlements. Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, which receives federal funding, still has no women in its ranks. (Anybody out there for a class action suit?) A wonderfully ironic commentary on all of this was provided by the recent occurrence of a "Jazz and Democracy Symposium" at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, on December 10, 2003. I haven't seen a transcript of the discussion so I don't know whether the absence of women in the LCJ Orchestra was cited as constituting a glaring contradiction of the symposium’s theme. One hopes that there was at least one gadfly in the audience who put the question to Wynton, “Where is the other fifty per cent of the populace in your ‘democratic’ orchestra?” (For some wonderful photographs of the event by Enid Farber, log onto www.jazzhouse.org and scroll down to Jazz Photos in the Gallery and then to “The Jazz & Democracy Symposium.”)

Two of my own books contain profiles dealing with this issue. In The Jazz Scene (Oxford University Press, 1991), Baltimore-based flutist Paula Hatcher discusses the status of women jazz instrumentalists as of 1990. In my Living the Jazz Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), Washington-area multi-reed and woodwind player Leigh Pilzer updates the scene a decade later. In the former book I “ghettoized” women in a dozen pages of the final, “Contemporary Scene,” chapter. Chided for so doing, I spread women throughout Living the Jazz Life. I take pride in the fact that, of the forty musicians profiled in the latter, eleven are women instrumentalists. My forthcoming (January 2005) Growing Up With Jazz (Oxford University Press) also contains profiles of some women instrumentalists from here and abroad.

Another issue that should be of concern to those who wish to see the elimination of gender discrimination in jazz is the ongoing, and flagrant, bias against women as critics of the music. Examine the mastheads of the leading U.S. jazz magazines and take note of the ratio of men to women writers and photographers. Down Beat has four women among the total of 58 contributors named, JazzTimes five of 61, Jazziz seven of 48.

Several years ago I was examining the list of those who voted that year in the annual Down Beat International Critics Poll and noted that only three women were among the 103 critics listed. This number of women has remained steady since then.

I might note that, about five years ago when I first counted the total critics involved in the Down Beat International Critics Poll, the number stood at 103. Last year's 113 indicates that, while the total has increased, those added have not changed the representation of women in the list. There were three in the 2003 list. I ask you, why did Down Beat not add ten women instead of swelling the male contingent?

The virtual absence of women among the critics for the Down Beat annual poll is a very serious, issue that should be addressed in an aggressive manner, not waiting for women to approach the magazine. I would conjecture that most women jazz writers would hesitate to do so, having already concluded that the Down Beat editorial staff and its contributing writers is pretty much a male preserve. Not a happy image in this day and time, eh?"