Hey Ladies: Being A Woman In Jazz

Jana Herzen i i

Jana Herzen, vocalist and guitarist, is also the founder of record label Motema Music. courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of the artist
Jana Herzen

Jana Herzen, vocalist and guitarist, is also the founder of record label Motema Music.

courtesy of the artist

Last summer, NPR Music asked hundreds of female musicians to fill out a survey, and compiled all the responses. It's part of NPR Music's Hey Ladies: Being A Woman Musician Today project, pairing that data with a series of news items.

We recently went through the many responses from artists who identified themselves as jazz or jazz-inflected musicians. (Special credit to our intern Andre Barnes for doing the lion's share of it.) Here are some choice responses, paired with the questions they responded to. And if you're curious, the full set of responses is here.


Do you see differences between generations of women musicians?

Geri Allen, 45: Yes, this present generation is in many ways dominating the field creatively. And women in the industry are also some of the most important movers and shakers, There is however much more room for improvement."

Judy Niemack, 40: … in the last 20 years I've seen a big change taking place in jazz big bands. Women don't have the same doubts and fears that were there in my generation, they're educated (thanks to programs at the university level which are now available, because of teachers like me who developed them), and many more are playing sax, drums, trumpet (Ingrid Jensen is a great role model) and the traditionally male instruments. In the vocal jazz world the development of singers as composers and improvisers is also strong."

Mary Foster Conklin, 52: My last recording was a tribute to the California composer/pianist Matt Dennis. I had many long chats with his widow, Virginia Maxey Dennis, who had been a big band singer with Tony Pastor and Mel Torme. It was amazing how little had changed as far as being a female singer.

Jana Herzen, 51: Young women these days have a much higher sense of entitlement to express themselves freely than they did in my generation."

Elizabeth McQueen, 32: I see the next generation of girls approaching music, especially traditionally male instruments like guitar and drums, in a much less timid manner. Which makes my heart soar."

Lisa Lorenzino, 49: Yes and no. I saw Marian McPartland talk about being a woman in jazz at a semi-professional jazz camp on the West Coast one year. It was a panel discussion about women in jazz. Frankly, I found the entire thing to be very very interesting. She said something profound, that really affected me positively. The day that we don't need forums for women in jazz is the day that we have achieved equality. Also, she said that the music speaks for itself. I agree with this. That said, I have not felt discriminated against in the field. …

Do you think being a woman and a musician is different from being a man and a musician? If so, how? Was there a moment that made a difference clear to you?

Christiana Drapkin

Vocalist Christiana Drapkin. courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of the artist

Andrea Wolper, vocals: The differences aren't about actually being a musician, and have everything to do with culture and perception. My genres (jazz and improvised music) historically have skewed toward macho. Singing tends to be undervalued by many practitioners and listeners in these genres. And, historically, most women in these genres have been singers, and most singers have been women. So sometimes being both — a woman and a singer — can leave one feeling somewhat marginalized.

Additionally, I sometimes find it difficult to make demands or express expectations of the members of my groups (most of whom have been male). I believe this is because in life in general it can be difficult for women to balance being direct and assertive with concerns about being perceived as 'shrewish' or aggressive. At my age I'm still trying to understand how to communicate clearly in a way that's respectful of everyone including myself.

Geri Allen, piano: Yes! I believe that both women and men have the same expectation put upon them by the criteria of the field, however, as a woman having functioned in the field for some decades now, it is clear that my perspective/work/contribution, is most potent when it acknowledges my make up as a complete human being, and my womanhood is at the core of that.

Ariane Cap, bass: Yes and no. I think the experience of music and the urge to express oneself musically is universal. I see striking differences in the way my female students learn and memorize music as compared to their male counterparts (grossly simplified, women seem to learn more visual, men more auditory, women seem to use their voice more directly to help their ears, whereas males tend to be analytical ...) There sure is still a lot of prejudice about women rhythm section players — I was excluded from auditions because of being female ('This band is not a punk band!'), and it was often assumed that women in the band would not get along ('There will be cat fights', 'They will fight over the spotlight/the drummer' etc.), assumptions on sexual orientation are being made (a very famous bassist once asked me: 'Are you gay?') and I will never forget that sound guy who asked me — as I walked in the door with my amp and bass — 'So, do you have a REAL bassist, too? Where do I plug him in?'

Amanda Monaco, guitar: I think there are definitely differences in gender when it comes to music; however, I have felt it more in the straight-ahead jazz scene than in the avant-garde jazz scene. For some reason, straight-ahead jazz still has a vibe of being a "boys club" when it comes to female instrumentalists, almost as if to imply that in that world, only vocalists are female. I have had more straight-ahead male jazz musicians make inappropriate gestures towards me than avant-garde. It also might have something to do with the fact that I play guitar, where the ratio of male guitarists to female guitarists is quite high, and misogynist comments still work their way into the guitar magazines on a regular basis.

Libby York, vocals: Being a band leader in the heavily male dominated world of jazz is a challenge every time I'm on the bandstand. I must attempt to be clear, direct and friendly while always being mindful of the tender male artistic ego, under a variety of conditions depending on the venue. (My husband's my drummer … lots of stories there!)

Overcoming the stereotype of being a 'chick singer' demands that I be even more on top of things than other band members. Since I'm also their employer, there's a balancing act to be fair, even tempered, and still deliver the goods musically to the audience.

Christiana Drapkin, vocals: I've been raised by my single Mom to always feel confident and to know that I can do anything that any guy could do. However, I had to find out the hard way and to negotiate for myself, that being a young woman in the performing arts field comes with its special set of hazards and stumbling stones. 'Baby, I'm gonna make you a star ...'

As a woman vocalist in the field of Jazz, I feel blessed by the fact that I can grow older and better, and nobody is going to hold it against me if I don't have the youthful looks of a Britney Spears — or that I refuse to wear such wardrobe. Thank goodness, we have the great old dames of Jazz as role models throughout a whole century!

I still find it difficult, though, making initial contacts with (almost always) male club owners and bookers. The sexism that's inherent in these unequal negotiation situations always seeps through.

Also, I think a lot of instrumental Jazz groups, even the young turks coming out of the college scene have a 'dude kingdom' aura about them that makes it difficult for women (instrumentalists even more so) to operate on equal terms, artistically and economically.

Stephanie Nilles, vocals/piano/guitar: I have been in a professional musician mindset since a relatively young age. I knew I wanted to be a musician by the time I was 12, but at that time I wanted to be a classical pianist (chamber musician). I think this makes the differences between being a man and a woman in the particular business less stark to me. That said, I have noticed that being a woman in classical music is very different from being a woman in the improv/jazz/lounge music setting, interestingly enough not at all in the way you'd assume. In classical music, women tend to hold up about 50% of the working musicians in my experience. There are many women employed by top 10 American orchestras, and the fact that they win their auditions is rarely seen as significant because they are women. In jazz, it is different. I can count on one hand the women I know who can and do take solos. Most women in the genre are singers, or singer/songwriters. There is a huge difference between male and female instrumentalists in terms of ability. The women are by and large much less self-educated or daring in their knowledge of and approach to their instruments. (Again, with singing, this is not as true). All my life, as a classical pianist, listeners would comment to me that I am such a small person, but that I had such a huge sound. When I started playing jazz/blues/rock/whatever it is I do now, the comment is most often it's surprising I can so easily get around the piano and 'are you classically and jazz-trained? You can tell.' I've noticed this comment isn't as thrown around with my male bandmates or collaborators. What's interesting to me is, it doesn't make me angry at all. When people comment that I play the piano 'like an old man,' I don't immediately reflect on the shortcomings of society by way of feminism and socially accepted women's equality. Instead, if anything, I wonder, 'well where ARE all the other women?' I think that if we (women) spent more time practicing, learning how to play our instruments, and less time marketing ourselves, there would be more Shirley Scotts and Betty Carters and less [insert female pop icons here].

Janis Ian, vocals/guitar: How could it not be? For starts, we deal with breasts, which when big look really clumsy against a guitar. For seconds, if there's no bathroom available we can't just pee outside against a wall or tree. For thirds, men still hold most of the power, though I've been encouraged, these past 15+ years, to see more and more women taking over the tech roles in theatre. Still, there are next to no female sound engineers, even though physically we have better hearing. Still no female president of a major label or publishing house. It was clear to me the first time someone in TV asked if I really needed to play guitar on my song. I was 15 and it was 1966.

Did anyone ever give you any valuable advice about making your way in the music industry? What advice would you give to a woman musician just starting out?

Champian Fulton

Vocalist Champian Fulton. Valerie Cho hide caption

itoggle caption Valerie Cho

Champian Fulton, vocals: My father is a musician and his advice has been numerous and valuable. He has always counseled me on being persistent and staying non-emotional about rejection and/or acceptance. Some people will be supportive, some people won't be supportive, and most won't care. I think as a musician in general, and even more so as a woman, you have to be able to count on yourself and only yourself. Be independent, be smart, and be proactive.

Jana Herzen, vocals: What comes to mind was a drummer friend telling me about how to lead a band. Because I was inexperienced and was hiring much more experienced players, I had a tendency to look to the band for support and leadership on stage which resulted in an unfocused stage presence. He pointed out that leading is like being the front horse of a chariot ... you need to feel the power of the team behind you, but don't look back, and don't hesitate or ask for anything from that position because that can interrupt the whole energy flow. That's true of life in general. [You] need to lead from where you stand with confidence.


Related At NPR Music: Recently for Hey Ladies, Lara Pellegrinelli reported on Terri Lyne Carrington's new album and the history of all-women jazz bands, and also sat down at length with nine of the musicians.

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