Doug: Recently, I was hired for a gig to play acoustic bass. I had never met the band leader before, but he told me “I called Bill, Jim, Andy, Robert, (fake names here) and none of them were available. I’m glad I found out about you, because I was almost forced to start calling women!” Hopefully, that was just a joke in poor taste.
In my personal experience, I’ve played with excellent women musicians. A few that come to mind are Sheryl Bailey, Dena DeRose, Karen Teperberg, Lisa Parrott (whose sister Nicki played bass with Les Paul), and the list goes on. All of them are incredible.
So my question to you is, why do you think there is a bias against women playing jazz music?
And to follow up: The female jazz instrumentalists I’ve played with have been amazing. Do you think that women are driven to work harder in music due to the stereotype they have to overcome?
Lisa: Hi Doug,
No problem with the question. I get it, usually in a much less sensitive and sophisticated way than you phrased it, all the time.
First, thanks for saying nice things about my playing. I really enjoyed your playing too! I had a great time sitting in last Monday and hope we can play together again before too long.
Now on to the “female question.” I guess the first thing I should say is that I’m flattered and honored to be put in the same company as the female musicians you listed, who are indeed terrific. And I know plenty of other great women jazz musicians, including, for instance, Leslie Land (a bassist and vocalist who lives in Durham) and my first-ever sax teacher, a kick-ass reed player named Mary Pat Hughes, who lived in Baltimore until she died in 1999 at the age of 38.
Maybe you’ve hit upon something in your second question–that those great women worked so hard to be good because of the need to overcome gender discrimination. I don’t know; I can’t speak for them. In my own case, I’ve just tried to keep learning and practicing because I want to be a better musician for its own sake, because it is so rewarding to make music and to be able to play with talented people. Then again, though, I’m not a full-time musician, and that may insulate me from the kind of pressure you suggested.
In fact, as I think my own example shows, female musicians can be good and bad and everywhere in-between. We know of some great ones, and we’ve heard some not-so-great ones, just like with male musicians. How they play isn’t necessarily related to their sex, but rather to all the things that make any musician good or not good, like how much time they devote to it and how easily it comes to them.
But people often notice female jazz musicians, and I think it’s not only because we’re relatively rare. It’s that over the many decades in which jazz music has existed, there has developed a certain aesthetic that’s not just musical, but that involves how people look when they play their instruments, how they interact with one another, how they talk, and so forth. Now I’m not saying that all jazz musicians walk or talk the same way, but there’s a certain range that we generally expect our musicians to fit into. Female musicians, or at least instrumentalists, look different than people generally expect, and it’s not just that we have different bodies. I remember reading an interview with the great jazz trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, in which she said that she could never get used to seeing pictures of herself playing the trumpet because it just didn’t look right. She kept trying to make herself look “right” when playing–fancier or more casual clothes, “girlish” or “boyish” hair–but finally she realized it was just that she wasn’t used to the look of a woman trumpeter.
There’s also a certain macho aesthetic that runs through jazz, or that runs through some jazz. The great cutting sessions between, say, Dexter Gordan and Johnny Griffin really were pissing matches (can I say that on the internet??) between two guys showing off not only their saxophone chops but their testosterone. (What a sight it must have been, too, with “long tall” Dexter towering over the diminutive but fiery Johnny Griffin!) I think if women had invented jazz there probably wouldn’t have been so much of what seemed like bare-knuckle boxing. (That said, there definitely are women who can throw down with the best of them.)
Mainly, though, I think what accounts for the “bias” against women players is simply unfamiliarity. I really don’t get the sense that most male jazz musicians are against playing with women on principle (except maybe for that bandleader who called you); they just aren’t used to it. Years ago it looked strange for a woman to wear a police uniform or have a stethoscope hanging around her neck, but now it doesn’t. I’m hoping, and expecting, that before too long the same will be true for women with saxophones around their necks.
Hope I didn’t go on too long, and if I did, please feel free to edit. Thanks for your interest, and all the best,