Jazz Audience Development: The Gender Factor

Casual observation of the audience for jazz reveals that it is predominantly male, which also reflects the average jazz band personnel. One wonders aloud whether consumers witnessing more women on the bandstand might ever translate to an increase in women in the jazz audience.

Written By

Willard Jenkins

International Sweethearts of Rhythm

The saxophone section of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, one of the most successful all-women jazz big bands from the 1940s, from the website for the documentary film, The Girls in the Band.

Growing the audience for jazz has long been the most critical issue facing the music.  Writing about jazz for nearly forty years has provided me with certain perspectives from a purely music standpoint.  Presenting jazz performances, including curating concerts and festivals for over 30 years, has brought an interesting balance to those perspectives.  Critics often discount audience and staging factors in their calculus.  I’ve often wished more of my writing colleagues had a broader sense of what it takes to bring the music to the stage and, even more importantly, a healthier respect for the critical issue of jazz audience development, audience being such an essential part of the entire equation.

With jazz as with other forms of music that require a deeper listening immersion from its consumers, there is often plenty of conversation wondering aloud why there isn’t a healthier listenership—lack of exposure being the go-to causal factor.  Much of the “Oh jazz, po’ jazz, woe is jazz…” conversation that always hovers around the music may focus on some perceived lack of advancement on the part of the current generation of musicians, a certain sense of stylistic stasis.  Still another part of that diagnoses may focus on suspicions related to the fact that today’s jazz musician has arrived largely from the academy, as if to suggest that the perceived absence of the old oral tradition of jazz mores passed down via the relative informality of “the street” is problematic.  The issue for still others breaks down to the loss of the traditional record industry structure, or the scarcity of jazz on the terrestrial airways.

It’s certainly not for lack of arriving musicians.  Somehow the music continues to attract future generations of players.  We continue to encourage and produce more than enough capable, even stimulating new jazz artists.  The biggest issue remains the need to develop the jazz audience, to produce new generations of listener/consumers to meet the supply of the musicians who continue to grow the ranks of jazz players.

As an educator I’ve often been fascinated by the responses of students to this music, the great majority for whom this is a new phenomenon.  Teaching jazz history and related courses mainly to non-music students, I stopped counting how many students for whom the course represented their first exposure to jazz.  “This course opened up a new world of music for me…” is a common response to their first exposure.  So perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle missing in jazz education is educating new audiences, providing jazz insights and exposure to the people who will comprise future audiences.  While so many young aspiring musicians are learning to play the music in jazz education classrooms, only a small percentage will eventually play the music professionally.  So perhaps they’ll be the future audience core.  But frankly, not even that desired nucleus is enough to grow the jazz audience to levels that will better sustain the music’s artistry.

Casual observation of the audience for jazz reveals that it is predominantly male, which also reflects the average jazz band personnel, though there is an emergent corps of women on the bandstand.  The most hopeful element of that shift is in the increased ranks of female instrumentalists.  The vocal ranks of jazz have pretty much always been female-dominated, dating back to the old days of the “girl singer” and the all-male big band; meanwhile the ranks of jazz instrumentalists has always been overwhelmingly male.  Shifting hats for a moment from the journalist-observer to the curator-producer concerned with audience development to justify the presenting work, one wonders aloud whether consumers witnessing more women on the bandstand might ever translate to an increase in women in the jazz audience.

Given the more welcoming portals of the music academy–versus the almost completely male-centric academy of the streets where so many of the greats cut their teeth–women are arriving at a fair pace.  No longer is the scene like that described by trombonist Frank Lacy at a recent Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival during an onstage interview, where the specter of Melba Liston playing her trombone in an audacious manner in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band was such an unusual inspiration.

Leading pianist-composer Geri Allen told Jazzwise magazine (Nov. 2013) in a group interview with her ACS trio mates, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Esperanza Spalding, “I remember hearing Terry Pollard – the great pianist from Detroit – when I was a teenager, and that moment changed my life.  She was totally focused and brilliant.”  In the same piece, Spalding remarked, “Women have made a profound contribution to jazz, one that can sometimes be overlooked.  Seeing an all-female trio playing at the highest level and headlining major festivals will offer huge inspiration and encouragement to younger female players.”

Clearly the rising gender parity of instrumentalists on the bandstand is an inspiration to other women to perform the music, but the question remains open as to whether their presence can equally translate to women in the audience for the music. Attend any jazz performance and, unless there is a celebrated vocal element onstage, the audience will likely be predominantly male.  This leaves one wondering if more women would turn out in numbers parallel to the female turnout for vocalists in exchange for the promise of women instrumentalists onstage, particularly in leading roles.  I recall positively thrilled women in the audience for performances by saxophonist Tia Fuller’s uplifting and fashion-forward all-women quartets.  Just recently a performance by the very special Spring Quartet, which included three prominent jazz bandleaders—Jack DeJohnette on drums, Joe Lovano on saxophones, Esperanza Spalding on bass—plus Leo Genovesse on piano and keyboards raised similar questions.

From the standpoint of a keen audience and performance observer, that Saturday evening at the Warner Theatre in downtown D.C. was remarkable on several fronts.  The audience was robust for what I suspected would be an evening of original, uncompromisingly creative music given DeJohnette and Lovano’s well-established proclivities.  That expectation may have been different from that of many audience members, particularly since the audience demographic reflected what one would more likely experience at one of Spalding’s concerts than, say, a DeJohnette or Lovano gig.

The Spring Quartet performed several knotty originals, like Spalding’s “Hystaspes Shrugged,” Lovano’s “Le Petit Oppurtune,” and DeJohnette’s “Priestess of the Mist, ” including lots of edgy, near freely improvised passages.  Questions were raised as I gazed around the audience and spotted an unusually high number of women and African Americans (that audience equation a topic unto itself).  My sense was that both audience factors were owed primarily to the presence of Spalding in the band.  Likely a certain percentage of the audience came anticipating Spalding’s winning mix of instrumental virtuosity and precocious vocal exploits related to her own recordings.  I’d hazard an educated guess that some entered the theatre not realizing that in this instance the bassist was part of a cooperative ensemble.  The evening featured only one sung performance, a wordless ingredient in Spalding’s original composition that was decidedly different from the flavors of her Grammy-winning recording.
Despite what for some may have been a disconnect between ticket-buying expectations and onstage evidence, there was no mass exodus between tunes, nor was there any sense of audience disappointment in the air.  Audience response was enthusiastic throughout the evening.  Contacted later Lovano remarked, “That was a great audience in D.C., we really felt inspired.”  I was motivated to wonder aloud whether the presence of exceptional female instrumentalists like Spalding on the bandstand, regardless of the creative content of the performance, might conceivably beckon additional women to a given jazz gig.  Following the Spring Quartet concert the buzz in the lobby was palpable, including overhearing a multi-cultural klatch of women marveling at Spalding’s bass facility, with not a discouraging or disappointed word related to pre-concert expectations.

Thus encouraged, for a purely anecdotal, small sample perspective I posed the following question to an informal group of women who are ardent observers of jazz and frequent audience members, including musicians, music educators, and professional women in other walks of life: Would an increased number of women on jazz bandstands be one means of growing the number of women who attend jazz performances?

Twin Cities-based editor and music writer Pamela Espeland feels the most important element in encouraging more women to attend jazz performances lies in the audience composition and the basic environment in which the music is performed. “It matters if you walk into a club and the crowd is all or mostly men.  So maybe it’s partly about making a venue more attractive to women,” Espeland submits.  Bassist-vocalist Mimi Jones, who frequently attends her husband, pianist Luis Perdomo’s performances, believes the manner in which women on the bandstand comport themselves has much to do with their impression on women audience members and a subsequent desire to attend performances.  “There tends to be a different type of energy added to the mix making it really fun to experience if she is throwing down as hard as the guys in the band,” Jones asserts.  “Women also like to study other women by nature.”

Sarah Wilson, a musician and administrator at the Levine School of Music in the D.C. area (formerly at the Thelonious Monk Institute), spoke from an education perspective on the prospects of not only increasing women in the audience but on the bandstand as well. “I think having young female students see female jazz musicians on stage definitely makes them more interested in participating, not just attending,” she suggests. “They see someone like themselves onstage, which makes them think it’s something they could do.”

Pianist/composer/bandleader Michele Rosewoman recalled her experiences interacting with parents of impressionable youngsters.  “I have had many mothers and fathers tell me that they brought their daughters out to see me perform, or that they wanted to do so, because they felt it would inspire their daughters and offer them an example of how they can and should be all of and whatever they wanted to be.  Often, these parents are concerned with showing their daughters alternatives to traditional female roles in society and countering the images that mass media pounds into their heads,” Rosewoman asserts.  “I am always struck by the way women in the audience so often express that they are moved to see me on stage holding my own with all male musicians and even more expressive of a personal pride they feel to see me at the helm,” she says, mirroring Mimi Jones’s assertion that not only seeing women on the bandstand is inspiring to women audience members, but witnessing women holding their own among their male counterparts is potentially the biggest thrill for women audience members, inviting their return as ticket consumers.

Meanwhile some women in the music business expressed healthy skepticism about whether an increase of women on the bandstand would attract increasing numbers of women in the seats.  “Any woman I have ever turned on to jazz has been floored by the beauty, sexiness, and confidence that exudes from the men truly playing this music,” says music publicist Kim Smith.  “They are turned on by that.  The only exception was Alice Coltrane, who raised the bar higher than any woman ever has and makes women cry just as hard as a man.  I can only speak about the women I have personally turned on and it is still the case.”
Robin Bell Stevens, executive director of the Jazzmobile organization, sees no correlation between women on the bandstand and increased numbers of females in her audiences.  “My audiences come for the music.  Personally I have never observed any indicators to imply that gender makes a difference; it doesn’t for me, a lifelong jazz enthusiast,” offers Robin.  When this writer suggested that perhaps Ms. Bell Stevens comes from a somewhat altered perspective on this question since jazz is in her blood–her dad was the late Ellington bassist Aaron Bell–she admitted that might be a factor in her thinking.

From the newest generation of women jazz instrumentalists is the saxophonist Melissa Aldana from Chile.  Aldana, who won the Thelonious Monk Competition prize (the first woman instrumentalist to do so), is blessed with a rich tenor saxophone tone and a deeply communicative sensibility with her male band mates. She deferred a bit from the other respondents, offering a more general and philosophical perspective on the question.  “I think that one thing doesn’t have anything to do with the other.  Music transcends genders, age, and cultures, and people that love jazz are ones that are going to be the supporters.”
But musician-composer-educator Monika Herzig, who is a Jazz Education Network (JEN) board member as well as a contributor to NewMusicBox this month, was enthusiastic in her affirmation that more women instrumentalists on the bandstand would translate into more women in the audience: “An absolute yes; for social reasons it’s easier to identify with the performers, for musical reasons the musical product will be transformed, for psychological reasons it feels more like a community–and the performers will become role models for the audiences.”  Fellow music educator and JEN founding member Mary Jo Papich suggests a more basic sensibility, that audience members may tend to gravitate towards artists “like them” on the bandstand. “The band should look like the audience they want to attract,” she says.

Cultural anthropologist Jennifer Scott, with whom this writer collaborated on a Brooklyn Bed-Stuy jazz oral history project, spoke of her level of anticipation for who is on the bandstand as a potential additional attraction.  “If I know in advance that there will be a woman vocalist or instrumentalist in the band, it’s an added draw, and the same for most of the women I know.  Self-identification goes a long way.”  But she’s uncertain about those audience members not similarly immersed in jazz.  “As for those [women] who don’t typically go out to hear jazz, I’m not so sure that would be the case, because I’m not sure why they don’t go hear jazz in the first place.”
Last May during their annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, an event originated by the late jazz renaissance man Dr. Billy Taylor out of his profound desire to uplift women’s profile on jazz bandstands, the Kennedy Center announced that henceforth the festival would no longer be completely woman-centric.  Festival MC and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater was outspoken from the podium regarding her dismay over this decision (a sentiment shared by some in the audience as catcalls indicated).  On the other hand there are those who feel such an event is in essence a sort of ghetto-ization of women on the bandstand.

In her reflections on our basic question, longtime jazz and arts administrator and presenter Sara Donnelley eruditely included such events in her consideration.  “Women are undoubtedly appreciating the increased inclusion of women both in bands and leading them.   I also agree that women need not be singled out in “women in jazz” fests.  The organic increase of women populating [jazz] bands just makes the music broader, more realistic, and adds staging that is more visually interesting,” she said, mindful of aesthetic factors that might appeal to potential women audience members.

So what’s your take: Would an increased number of women on jazz bandstands be one means of growing the number of women in attendance at jazz performances?