Sexism in Jazz

Lola Grieve explores the underrepresentation of women in jazz in discussion with female jazz musicians at Oxford

Performing today with Rough Edge Brass Band I find myself rather suddenly surprised, realising that on this occasion, all three saxophonists in the band are female. Whilst this may seem trivial to some, as a female saxophonist this is both refreshing and empowering.

The lack of female representation in the Oxford jazz scene is a prominent and troubling issue. If you examine the gender ratios of Oxford’s premier jazz ensembles, the statistics are pretty bleak. The Oxford University Jazz Orchestra (OUJO), for example, has only two female musicians out of twenty – similarly, on their 2017 tour to Bangladesh, big band The Donut Kings comprised of sixteen males and just three females. Two of the top jazz ensembles at Oxford bear a female representation of no more than 20% (10% for OUJO, and 19% for The Donut Kings.)

Whilst this clearly illustrates a gender imbalance, what has come to light whilst exploring this issue is the extent to which this problem is institutionalised and correlated with broader social issues surrounding gender values. Oxford, in actuality, is doing a commendable amount to help combat the underrepresentation of women in jazz, but there is clearly a long way still yet to go. In discussion with several of Oxford’s finest female jazz musicians, a selection of Oxford’s promising initiatives come to light, as do the broader social issues embedded within jazz as a genre.

What first should be acknowledged is the deeply entrenched sexism within the music industry as a whole, be it in pop, classical, jazz and so on. Taking classical music as an example, it has a problematic history in terms of equality. Not only does it have a reputation as inherently elitist, women are also vastly underrepresented. A prime illustration of this, for example, is that the Last Night of the Proms (a momentous annual musical occasion) was only first conducted by a woman, Marin Alsop, five years ago. What is also worth noting is that she is still the only woman to ever do this, returning again in 2015. This is just one small example, yet it speaks volumes about music’s problematically slow pace of social change.

However, whilst classical music has its own independent gender issues, what is striking is that it is far rarer to see a female dominated jazz band than it is orchestra – although both are respectively unlikely. In spite of classical music’s slow pace of social change, jazz still seems to be lagging behind. Whilst gender inequality is prevalent in lots of different genres, jazz seems to suffer to a more extreme extent.

The historical idea that ‘women can’t play jazz’ is both fundamentally sexist and insulting. Within the issue of underrepresentation, there is also an imbalance in that female jazz instrumentalists are rarer than vocalists. This is in part due to ideas of traditionally ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ instruments, where jazz as a genre is dominated by ‘masculine’ instruments. Speaking to OUJO President and lead saxophonist Sophia Hall, she commented on this perception: “The first thing people said when I told them I play the saxophone was that it’s a boy’s instrument…the first swing band I joined was all guys in the sax section and all the girls played clarinet”.

Similarly, OUJO vocalist Olivia Williams also pointed out how “when we [OUJO] saw the Cambridge big band come here for example…I thought ‘Oh they’ve got a female pianist’, and that was great – but I noticed it. It’s something you notice, especially in big bands. You notice the female players. It’s not really something that should be happening but at the same time when you tell people you’re in a jazz band, people often go ‘Oh, you’re the singer?’” Within jazz there are subtle social assumptions that a female member would perhaps not play ‘masculine’ instruments. Of course this does not stop women from playing instruments such as the baritone saxophone or trombone, but this is problematic in terms of how jazz is perceived on a broader social scale.

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What should be noted is that a substantial proportion of jazz’s most famous performers are women – think Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Mary Lou Williams and so on. However, tracing back some of jazz’s most recognised instrumentalists, it is clearly a very male dominated canon (take the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Thelonious Monk etc.) What is notable also is that for every famous female jazz singer, one could most likely also name a male jazz singer, such as Sinatra, Chet Baker and Louis Armstrong (who all notably double as instrumentalists).

The same cannot be said for female instrumentalists. Whilst this is generalising very broadly, the point trying to be conveyed here is the broader cultural picture that ambassadors of jazz are so often male. Obviously, that is not to discredit the plethora of talented female jazz musicians (Alice Coltrane, Mary Osbourne, Esperanza Spalding to name but a few), but they are not historically praised in the same way that men are. This becomes problematic in terms of a lack of female role models for aspiring jazz musicians.

Unlike a male or female singer where the gender of the voice is clearly identifiable, an instrumentalist has a degree of anonymity as unless you can see them playing, you have no indication of what gender they are. Underrepresentation is by no means an issue of females being musically inferior. It is more an institutionalised issue correlated with gender values, including the difference in judgement when able to visualise a performance where a female instrumentalist may be judged more harshly than a male. This perception is not exclusive to jazz, however, rather a broader problem of women in leadership roles being judged by different criteria than their male peers. Women are, clearly, by no means less musically capable than men – this poses the question of why exactly women are so underrepresented in jazz.

A correlation can be noted between the confidence and assurance needed to improvise and women feeling uncertain if outnumbered by male musicians. In a discussion with Donut King’s singer from last year, Izzy Gaffney, she commented: “Men…feel more comfortable displaying their talent on stage. Being a woman is consistently associated with being careful, pragmatic and reserved; unhelpful skills to those hoping to excel as a jazz musician.”

Molly Goldstone, principle saxophonist of the Oxford University Wind Orchestra (OUWO), also touched on the issue of confidence: “I’ve recently noticed that we as women are sometimes trained…to appear humble towards our own talents. Whenever I auditioned, I would repeatedly downplay my experiences in order to seem more approachable and likeable, but that likely diminished my chances of being chosen.” This sheds light not only the issue of having the confidence to solo, but to an extent also an apprehension to vocalise any self-belief.

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Of course, that is not to say that male jazz players ‘can’t’ or ‘won’t’ be nervous in audition scenarios also – it would be unfair to make such a sweeping generalisation. However, when looking logically at the issue, it seems women experience this to a heightened extent, exacerbating societal gender values surrounding passivity which are already present.

Sophia also brought to light the masculine vocabulary often affiliated with jazz – “My experience of being not just in OUJO, but in general, is that there are a lot of male phrases that come up when describing jazz, like ‘get your jazz penis out’ and then everyone will laugh and be like ‘Ha – someone doesn’t have a jazz penis’. And it sounds like nothing, but when you’re sitting there and are the only girl in the room…’ Similarly, Olivia noted the standard phrases such as ‘come on boys’ used. Whilst this is not explicitly sexist, if outnumbered by males this can of course create a sense of marginalisation. She also described how ‘I think the thing also with soloing culture is that that can become quite a big dick-swinging content. And you know, when you don’t have a dick to swing… but again, that’s something that doesn’t just apply in jazz either.’

Whilst this is seeming to paint an overwhelmingly bleak picture, what should not be discredited is Oxford’s positive attempts to help combat these issues. Sophia Hall’s appointment as the first female President of OUJO is a monumental achievement, as is the fact that this year, almost one third of OUJO’s auditionees were female. Despite that females are underrepresented in some of the main jazz ensembles in Oxford, what is clear is that there is a exciting and expanding network of female jazz musicians at Oxford, often taking matters into their own hands and setting up their own ensembles. A prime example of this can be seen through the creation of Sisters of Funk, an all female ensemble established this year. As member Sophia described, Sisters of Funk is ‘…such a safe environment. I solo all the time in Sisters of Funk and hardly ever solo in OUJO’. Similarly, The Sisterhood Festival, taking place on 13 June at the Varsity Club, is a charity music event organised by and for those whose identity includes women. Whilst this is not a jazz specific event, it is a celebration of female musicians and their achievements, showcasing ensembles such as Sisters of Funk.

This is perhaps unfairly compressing a much larger scale shifting of the gender gap in jazz into just two examples, but what this reflects is the gradual social changes which are underway. This is not an issue specific to Oxford – it is within jazz as a whole. What is clear is that women are too often underrepresented in jazz because above all, sexism is still such an institutionalised issue.

The Sisterhood Festival took place on 13 June at the Varsity Club.

With many thanks to Sophia Hall, Olivia Williams, Izzy Gaffney, Molly Goldstone and Jess Prince.