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Women In Jazz, Redux: The Audience

Re: that last post from Friday, I actually drew up a first draft which started completely differently. I've modified and fleshed it out as a supplement to the women and jazz thoughtpiece. And yes, I am aware that the following discussion is pretty ancient in Internet years, but I do feel like there's more to be said here. So ready go:

Carmen Lundy & Dee Dee Bridgewater

Dee Dee Bridgewater and Carmen Lundy backstage at the Kennedy Center, undoubtedly discussing the semiotics of Women In Jazz festivals. Photo Credit: Margot Schulman/Kennedy Center

A few weeks ago, jazz journalist and occasional NPR correspondent Howard Mandel set off a minor maelstrom on his blog, Jazz Beyond Jazz. In responding to this commentary, he wrote about gender and the jazz audience: "I contend that since the '60s, and probably earlier, no one in the jazz world with the exception of jazz educators has actually invited women to partake of jazz, to purchase it, assume it can be their own," he wrote.

The heart of his message bears revisiting.

For a variety of reasons, from the way jazz is marketed to the ways it's commonly talked about (even in the academy, until twenty-odd years ago), women have been excluded from dominant jazz discourses, and thus, the jazz audience. It seems to me, however, that there's one underappreciated segment of this discussion: that the demographic makeup of the jazz audience is closely linked to who appears on the jazz stage.

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Mandel remarks that "there's been an immense increase in women instrumentalists in jazz over the past 15 years." This would seem crucial to growing more female listeners: the core jazz audience is a musically literate bunch, which frequently derives its interest in jazz from musicianship of the amateur or failed varieties. (Personal experience says these are not mutually exclusive.) It would follow that the more women who are encouraged to play jazz at any level, the more likely jazz's popularity will surge among them.

And in spite of any possible discomfort with their particulars, this is where Women In Jazz events (of all stripes) are most valuable. To quote commenter jeff_smith:

My 15 year old daughter is a baritone saxophone player in her high school music program. There is no jazz band. If she didn't hear about jazz at home or school, how will she find out about it? At a time when women are still exploring their opportunities in a world without the gender barriers of the past, an event like "Women in Jazz" could be viewed as an educational awareness tool for young women, or any open minded person. It might send the message: "women, please consider joining us in a pursuit that is open for your contributions, it is for you too."

Mandel also encouraged his male readers to do this: "bring women with you to hear music, talk to them about what they thought of it afterwards and engage with what they're saying." I took his maxim to heart and invited someone I knew to be a good listener, NPR Music intern-alum Eleanor Kagan, to take my +1 ticket to the Kennedy Center show. I asked her to give me some reflections:

... what I actually thought about a lot during the concert were my own perceptions of jazz music. How one doesn't actually need to know a lot about jazz, the technical terms or the history of it, to enjoy it or talk about it. I've often felt that way myself when listening to jazz music, as if I can't decide whether I like it or not because I'm not quite sure what I should be looking for.

But then it dawns on me, earlier in the night when I was captivated by Anne Drummond's bassist and when [Maria] Schneider and her orchestra members whip out bird whistles: I like this, and I don't feel the overwhelming need to qualify it. It is simply entertaining. And I no longer believe that I need to be looking for anything — some kind of higher musical truth — when I listen to jazz, but simply ask if I am enjoying myself. And when I'm as entranced by the music as I was by Carmen Lundy's and Schneider's, I completely forget to ask myself that question altogether.

Which raises this point: educate as we might, jazz audiences will never be comprised of only highly-trained musician-types. So much of the barrier to entry of jazz is a perception that it requires a foundation of history and music theory to appreciate at any level — a perception no doubt bolstered by the behaviors of typical jazz nerds (who have historically been male). Teaching more and more people jazz literacy will help, but more importantly, jazz needs to find a public tone of voice which informs but doesn't intimidate its potential new audiences (female or otherwise). [Meta-Editorial: I'd like to think that's what we're trying to do here, albeit in too many words.]

Finally, I'm encouraged in all this by a tenet of urban bicycling advocates. Of all people, David Byrne recently penned a review of a book titled Pedaling Revolution, by Jeff Mapes:

As Mapes points out, when more women begin riding, that will signal a big change in attitude, which will prompt further changes in the direction of safety and elegance. I can ride till my legs are sore and it won't make riding any cooler, but when attractive women are seen sitting upright going about their city business on bikes day and night, the crowds will surely follow.

I trust the connection to growing the jazz audience should be readily evident.