The German version of this essay has been published in the Jazzfest Berlin 2016 supplement [PDF, 1,7 MB].

Billie Rogers in Woody Hermans Trompeten-Sektion; Bild aus dem Dokumentarfilm „The Girls in the Band“ von Judy Chaikin (2011), © Promo

Among the many clichés about jazz, there is certainly one that claims that jazz is music for and by men. And it’s true enough: The customarily celebrated heroes of jazz, from Louis Armstrong via Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock to the youngest names allegedly representing a revival of jazz – Robert Glasper, Jason Moran or Kamasi Washington – are exclusively men. But, in fact, there are plenty of women who contributed to the development of jazz, and not only those who are generally mentioned in this context, like Mary Lou Williams, Maria Schneider or Barbara Thompson, Ella Fitzgerald, Jutta Hipp or Carla Bley. In 2004, the American musical ethnologist Sherrie Tucker published a paper on the contribution made by female musicians in early 20th century New Orleans, dispelling the prejudice that jazz was music made by men from its very beginnings. Other sources tell us – and this may come as a surprise to many – that there were more female than male ensembles in Europe shortly after the turn of the century and that in some places in Germany too, the first American jazz bands heard there in the 1920s were all-female orchestras.

So, if you dig deep enough, there appears to be ample evidence for the fact that, contrary to popular opinion, jazz is by no means exclusively music by and for men. But why is it so often seen in that way? Why has this cliché endured? And how could we oppose and correct this perception of jazz history as a male domain? Certainly not merely by having ensembles headed by women or even entire “women’s bands” perform at concerts or festivals. Because the point is not so much to show that female musicians are “just as good” at playing music; it is rather to demonstrate that their motivation for wanting to express themselves in this genre is just the same as their male colleagues’. However, if the musical qualifications and the motivation for making music are basically the same, the reasons for the wide-spread marginalisation of female musicians in jazz must lie elsewhere.

It may be worthwhile to touch on three of the many aspects pertaining to this topic.

Firstly, there are the jazz critics to whom we owe the documentation of jazz history long before there any real research on jazz existed. Some of them were experts, others were dedicated fans who had great respect for the music but were in fact unable to adequately describe the musical aspects of what they heard. Moreover, up until the 1950s, jazz reviews mainly appeared in popular music magazines and were aimed at an amateur audience. And so, many early critics were more keen on finding a good story than on really listening to the music. Their reports on spectacular solos or the tenor battles of Kansas often enough read like sports coverage, emphasising their element of competition (which is socially associated with masculinity) rather than the empathy displayed by musicians listening and reacting to each other (which in turn is socially associated with femininity). The relish for “higher-faster-further” (and, of course, “newer”) displayed by American and European jazz critics arose from an attitude which only went to support the focus on male musicians and the further marginalisation of their female colleagues.

Then, there is the audience which over the years seemed to be made up increasingly of men. In New Orleans, jazz was still a musical genre anchored in a community. During the swing era, it was the soundtrack for a first date, for men and women alike. But the more jazz turned into the cult object of a very specific community (i.e. the community of jazz aficionados), the less did women belong to this circle. Among the many reasons for this could be the very nature of jazz clubs, where gender was marked and communicated between the sexes in various ways. In these clubs, jazz fans mutated to proverbial stamp collectors, except that instead of rare stamps, they collected records or first-hand experiences of live-music, and fixed their rank in these predominantly male unions of experts and collectors by amassing knowledge about the music. At the same time, at least from the 1950s to the 1970s, these men saw jazz clubs as a place for potential flirtation and freedom from their family contexts. As is often the case, the concentration of the male passion for collecting became so predominant that women, in as far as they had been granted access to these circles at all, gave up, because they had better things to do, like (to serve the cliché) having a family, getting ahead in their jobs or even enjoying the actual music itself.

And thirdly, there are the musicians themselves who were mainly operating in the homosocial environment of all-male ensembles. In the era of swing, nearly all the women on stage were singers, whose main functions were to sing the hits and otherwise sit in front of the band, looking pretty. These “canaries”, a dismissive term for female big band singers from that age, were an expression of this new gender order, established by the music industry’s marketing of jazz orchestras which stated that men were musicians and women were singers at best and otherwise merely companions of jazz fans. And all this in turn was a response to the heteronormative social order of the 20th century. In its earliest days, jazz may have been connected with a social environment that regarded women as commodities, and yet female musicians were held in great esteem. From the 1930s, however, women were increasingly presented on stage as objects (always including a sexual element). This status of the female as object was handed down through all media accompanying the music and posited in contrast to the hyper-emphasised status of subject, the unique feature of musical individuality, conferred upon their male colleagues.

But where do we stand today?

The public debate on gender has reached the sphere of jazz, perhaps a little less heated than in other fields. This may also be because the present social upheavals are creating a new kind of “normality” which did not exist around 20 years ago. People who were raised speaking two languages often aren’t sure in which language they read a given book. Could it be that today, a musician’s gender or sexual orientation no longer have a discernable impact on the reception of their music? The Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz festival, launched in 1996, was re-named Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival in 2014, because the organisers felt that the focus on women was too narrow: Too often, it implied the question of whether the female musicians there played great music in general or only great music ‘for a woman’.“We don’t have to highlight the gender of these wonderful women,” one of the presenters explained, “Talent is talent.” And when the OutBeat Festival in Philadelphia created a programme in 2014 focusing on male and female musicians who feel associated to the LGBTQ community, there was grumbling from both sides. Some of the featured artists didn’t want to be defined purely by their sexual orientation and some artists who were not part of this community openly complained: Since when was being gay or lesbian a criterion of musical quality? As bassist Jennifer Leitham, the only transsexual artist featured in the event, joked during her set: “The things we do to get a gig!” Pianist Orrin Evans, who took part in a panel discussion on homophobia in jazz held in Philadelphia, gave a succinct summary of his own attitude and that of most colleagues of his generation. When asked how he deals with gay or lesbian musicians in his band, he replied: “I don’t care whom you’re screwing … as long as you’re screwing somebody.” Music, he was saying, is about interaction between people – it is not for hermits.

The times of male dominance both in jazz and the critical reflection on the genre are not yet over. Male bookers for clubs or festivals, male college professors and male experts in public radio and television broadcasts still outnumber their female counterparts by far. As both female musicians as well as some recent studies suggest, there may in fact be differences between female and male musicians with regards to their playing, for instance in jam sessions. Biological gender, however, as Judith Butler explains, is not a fixed feature of what we have or what we are, but at most a part of the process through which femininity or masculinity are marked in the current social discourse. The world is changing and the perception of creative role assignments is changing along with it. Perhaps the look back at earlier times will continue to focus on the glorification of all-male societies as the central narrative for a while, because it is too deeply ingrained in our memories of jazz history. And this male view of history cannot be changed merely by focusing on women in jazz. Instead, it is important to think about jazz from the perspective of female musicians. And even more than that, as Sherrie Tucker suggested in a discussion on “Gender and Identity in Jazz” at last year’s Darmstädter Jazzforum, when we talk about the topic of “Women in Jazz”, we should actually mean “Diversity in Jazz”. We are closer to such an attitude than ever before: Today’s generation of female and male musicians shake their heads at an aesthetics of masculinity in jazz. For them it is all about … the music.

Additional literature:
Sherrie Tucker: “A Feminist Perspective on New Orleans Jazzwomen”, 2004.
Nichole T. Rustin & Sherrie Tucker: “Big Ears. Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies”, Durham/NC 2008 (Duke University Press)
“Gender and Identity in Jazz”, edited by Jazzinstitut Darmstadt, Hofheim 2016 (Wolke Verlag: Darmstädter Beiträge zur Jazzforschung, Volume 14)

Jazzfest Berlin 2016 takes place from 1 to 6 November, 2016.