Tag: women in jazz

The Art of Being True: Liberalism in Music & Stream of Consciousness

[Ed. Note: Today we present our fifth and penultimate installment of excerpts from an anthology of writings by the 12 participants of M³ (Mutual Mentorship for Musicians) in advance of their next round of concerts taking place on June 12 and 13, 2021 under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum (and which have received funding from New Music USA). The anthology, The Art of Being True, is edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth, and is published in its entirety on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. Back in December, in support of M³’s debut concerts, which were also presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. – FJO]

Lesley Mok (Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr)

Lesley Mok (Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr)

From Lesley Mok’s essay “Liberalism in Music: The Limits to Representation”

The conservatory is one of many institutions that co-opts the politics of “anti-racism” into its own non-profit industry for corporate diversity initiatives without addressing structural root causes. I’m afraid our DEI economy has created a culture of fear and shame, and consequently pride (cancel culture), instead of a practice of investing the necessary time and resources needed to disrupt the well-oiled capitalist engine that continues to churn a profit from POC workers.

My hopes in writing this is to point out the insidious nature of liberalism in creative music–both in education and in performance. Tokenization will continue to run rampant without a true effort on the part of white administrators & teachers to meaningfully include musicians of color, especially women and non-binary people in developing a curriculum, and without white bandleaders thoughtfully creating a musical context that allows them to uniquely and personally contribute to the music. It’s not enough to have us just be in the band. Representation alone will not save us.

Romarna Campbell

Romarna Campbell (photo courtesy Romarna Campbell)

From Romarna Campbell’s essay “Stream of Consciousness”

I realize that my use of the word ‘SKIN’ is a euphemism for my identity as a whole – artist, musician, Black woman, drummer, composer, producer and so much more. I also realize the loneliness that comes with the intersectionality of these terms and identities. Some days, that loneliness manifests itself as pain, other days, as bitterness, and other days simply giving up. All these terms that are used to describe me as a person can feel claustrophobic and like a steel box that I can’t get out of. How do I explain how hurtful is when someone says, “Oh, I didn’t expect you to look like that,” or “Do something more lady-like,” or laughs when I say I’m a drummer or asks me, “When are you going to get a real job?” These are not even the most offensive comments that have been said to me over the years. It hurts because I care so deeply about these things!

The Art of Being True: Aretes of the New Cyrene & Reminder to Self

[Ed. Note: Beginning on April 30 and continuing on consecutive Fridays until the next round of concerts of M³ (Mutual Mentorship for Musicians) taking place on June 12 and 13, 2021 under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum (and which have received funding from New Music USA), NewMusicBox is publishing excerpts from each of the 12 M³ participants’ contributions to a debut anthology of writings (poetry, essays, and more) edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth, entitled The Art of Being True, which are published in their entirety on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. Back in December, in support of M³’s debut concerts, which were also presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. The first set of excerpts published on April 30 are available here and the second set published last Friday are available here, but to read all these writings in their entirety, please visit the dedicated portal for the anthology on Publik/Private. – FJO]

Abstract image made from various fragments of altered photographs

Photo Courtesy of Caroline Davis

From Caroline Davis’s poem ‘Aretes of the New Cyrene’

Eyes open / examining phonics, texture, phraseology of binding wounds.
Do we heal the injuries / is ours an iterative loop / or are we.
I / your lack of femininity might be addressed with a dress.
And I / you will have few roadblocks in your career due to re:dress.
And so I / I took the liberty of shaping your hips in the final edits.

Maya Keren standing outside in front of various buildings holding a cellphone (Photo by Zora Arum)

Maya Keren (Photo by Zora Arum)

From Maya Keren’s essay ‘Reminder to Self’

In what I imagine is a common experience for many throughout this pandemic, I feel I have lost sight of my power: my sense of inner assurance; my direction; my fire. These past couple months have felt especially hard. Maybe it’s that I’m only socializing with the few people I live with in my Covid bubble as I finish up a semester of Zoom classes. Maybe it’s that I haven’t felt that rush that comes with playing and listening to live music in too many months. I’m realizing my well-being relies on a communal web far more expansive than I ever imagined. I’m familiar with the amounts of time I need with close friends and by myself, but maybe I need the embarrassed thrill of meeting new people; the same conversation with that one friend I had class with every Wednesday; the hellos and nods and gossip and flirtation and animosity. All these invisible threads holding us in silent trembling equilibrium.

The Art of Being True: To Speak in Memory & The Sun Itself

[Ed. Note: Back in December, in support of their debut concerts of Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (a.k.a. M³), which were presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. The next round of M³ collaborations, which has received funding from New Music USA, will take place June 12 and 13, 2021 (again under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum). In addition, today, M³ has released an anthology of writings (poetry, essays, and more) by each of the participants, edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth, entitled The Art of Being True, on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. To celebrate this publication and in anticipation of the upcoming concerts, we will be publishing excerpts from each of the 12 participants’ contributions to the anthology, 2 per week, every Friday between now and June 12. To read these writings in their entirety, please visit the dedicated portal for the anthology on Publik/Private. – FJO]

A few of water to the horizon and an overcast sky.

Photo by Eden Girma (courtesy Eden Girma)

From Eden Girma’s poem “To speak in memory”

I call upon an ancient conversation, of blues in the horizon,
sacred arcs that line an engine’s shape
with dew, with moving water,
to lift us beyond joy or sorrow.

In life, in death,
reality, imagination.
In tapestries that float above

as knitted by our fathers – fathers, known by quiet names,
loving through a softer power,
strings of heaven woven into brutal, mortal earth.

Anjna Swaminatha walking in the water on a beach.

Anjna_Swaminatha (photo courtesy Anjna_Swaminatha)

From Anjna Swaminathan’s essay, “The Sun Itself: Expanding my Horizons as a Queer Multidisciplinary Being”

My abundance lives in intergalactic melodies sung into a frying pan sizzling with shallots, cumin seeds, cloves and bay leaves. It lives in the precarious watering schedule of my 27 plants and their alliterating names (Parachute, Parvati, Pankajam, Pita and so on). It lives in the laughter that echoes through the walls of my fiancée’s and my rainbow-colored apartment. My abundance cannot live on a page (or worse on computer software with poorly produced midi) because it was born from something far less tangible, yet far more intrinsic. It was born in the whisper of crisp winter winds coming into one ear and endless poems and songs flowing out of the other. How can I possibly bastardize this oh so divine and human abundance by fixing it onto a page?

Multiple Voices: Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³)

The twelve participating musicians in the M3 initiative during a Zoom meeting.

[Updated December 14, 2020] On December 6 and 12, two concerts from the National Jazz Museum in Harlem presented over Zoom, both at 7:00 EST, offered listeners their first opportunity to hear six world premieres that are the result of a new initiative called Mutual Mentorship for Musicians, M³ for short. The two concerts were hosted by M³ “Editor in Chief” Jordannah Elizabeth, who also guided post premiere Q&As with the audience. M³ is a revolutionary new model for mentorship which was created by co-founders Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa in March and launched in June 2020 at the height of the pandemic. The founders describe M³ as “a think tank for new ways to connect, collaborate, support, create, and empower womxn musicians worldwide including BIPOC, LGBTQIA2S+, and musicians of all abilities across generations.” To celebrate these first two concerts of this new initiative, we asked the twelve initial participating musicians about why they decided to participate in this opportunity and how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. New Music USA is funding the next round of M³ collaborations. – FJO

The twelve initial participants in M³ are:
Romarna Campbell
Caroline Davis
Eden Girma
Val Jeanty
Maya Keren
Erica Lindsay
Lesley Mok
Tomeka Reid
Sara Serpa
Jen Shyu
Anjna Swaminathan
Sumi Tonooka

Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³) World Premieres: Duo Concerts & Conversations Pt.1

Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³) World Premieres: Duo Concerts & Conversations Pt.2

Romarna Campbell playing a drum set

Romarna Campbell (photo by Peter R. Fischer)

Romarna Campbell

On New Year’s Eve 2019, I remember being excited for 2020 and making all the 2020 puns I could; it was the year of 20/20 vision. In my opinion 2019 had been a pretty rough year and I was excited to start afresh, so to speak. By mid-March of this year all the optimism had completely dissipated. From the moment I landed back in the UK to quarantine, it just seemed to go from bad to worse. And in the middle of this, I was being forced to learn some hard truths myself, personally and artistically. How do I interact with my friends and peers? How can I offer support when I felt like this is a time that I’ve probably needed the most support? How do I create without being surrounded by immensely creative beings? How do I collaborate? Is music even important anymore?

It was in the midst of this doubt and fear that Jen contacted me about M³ and it felt like this little beam of excitement and happiness. Yet, I could never have envisioned what M³ would really do for me. I remember tentatively turning up for the first meeting via Zoom and instantly I experienced complete warmth and honesty from everybody and felt inspired. I wanted to play again. I wanted to write again. Music became important again. Although we have had to conduct the whole process via Zoom, with a 5-hour time difference and the lag or cameras not working properly and being entirely at the mercy of technology, music and this community that has been created prevailed over all of these obstacles.

Caroline Davis standing in front of shrubbery

Caroline Davis (photo by Alex Free)

Caroline Davis

Some are born into tribes, but the creative process of re-defining ourselves places us in new ones. This year has presented some pretty severe obstacles—the pandemic, the persisting face of race, gender, and class biases, the political climate, the encroaching climate crisis. All seem to divide us into factions while at the same time allowing us to connect with individuals who are ready and willing to fight for the cause.

The initiative dreamed up by Jen and Sara has gifted me safe spaces with which to unpack all of these obstacles and more. The group space gives perspective, while the smaller meetings have opened intimate ways of interpreting and designing poetry, melody, and video production, through sending messages, phone calls, and meetings on Zoom. With each passing meeting, my mind sees how each of us would handle situations differently, leaving me confident to approach my creative and professional endeavors with more vigor. The creations haven’t felt prescribed or scheduled in any sense; rather, they are journeys that we are all on in this tribe, which, in the end will emerge most naturally.

Eden Girma standing outside

Eden Girma (photo by Maeve Moayedi)

Eden Girma

Why say yes to M³? There is the easy answer of how could I possibly refuse any opportunity to work with the brilliant Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa? But also, I think I responded instinctively from a yearning for a holistic musical community, one that certainly predated the pandemic, and was only intensified through it.

Particularly, there seem to be so few models for intergenerational artistic communion; I’ve spoken with many friends who are also aspiring artists, and who have shared such deep desires for something akin to mentorship or apprenticeship. There is so much about the artistic landscape and industry that is utterly nebulous, especially for those (like myself) who do not come from artistic families or see themselves, their background, represented meaningfully. In the midst of cacophony and silencing discrimination, how does one find their voice? How does one survive, when attempting to employ their voice for artistic meaning and financial security? How, through our artistic practice, might we carry forward the legacy of those who fought, died, for a more just and equitable world? There is no handbook, no well-worn path, only the stories and experiences of those before us to gather any idea. So, this was one way in which M³ really struck me: as an avenue for such needed dialogue between youth and elders. To be honored with the presence and insights of such powerful and resilient women—and to also have my own perspectives celebrated and valued as something of worth—is indescribably enriching.

How is this program affecting my practice? I think, if anything, to have this vibrant community in my life right now has invigorated so much of my spirit. Given the bleakness of this time, frankly it has felt life-saving. I can perceive the growth, shifts of relationships with others and also with myself, due to the space we are creating now. What is evolving due to this program is a collective awareness and compassion and confidence that invariably influences my work by way of influencing my deeper self. And I believe that the interpersonal and internal changes occurring now will affect my practice for years to follow.

Val Jeanty holding drumsticks and sitting on a wooden floor near a window surrounded by large drums

Val Jeanty (photo by Richard Louissant)

Val Jeanty

As a collaborator/artist, working with “Women” has always been a major goal of mine.
This creative collaboration/ mentorship has been such a blessing during these intense and uncertain times. It’s a great source of inspiration and support, and it connects me to women that I’ve always wanted to collaborate with.

Maya Keren outside among greenery near a large yellow flower.

Maya Keren (photo by Lilly Dupuis)

Maya Keren

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how deep, structural change actually comes about. In moments like this one it’s easy to see change as something that is sparked spontaneously from the heat of a charged moment. But looking further, we find that social change comes about from a lineage of resistance—from decades of folks fighting not just for survival but for the right to live beautiful lives.

I’ve been reflecting on several linked movements—the fight against white supremacy, especially by radical Black feminists, the queer liberation movement, the development of creative improvised music—and how these movements all required groups of people who trusted each other to come together and create their own momentum outside of the systems that oppressed them. For me, Mutual Mentorship for Musicians feels like a continuation of this tradition. We are this little underground intergenerational family giving each other love and support to bolster ourselves against a society that leaves very little space for the voices of non-cis-male, queer and BIPOC artists. Our group completely reconstructs the foundations of our musical ecosystem; it imagines a community free from patriarchal, capitalistic, and white supremacist ideals and presents one based upon vulnerability, communal support, and compassion. And M3 does this while also meeting the current moment; over Zoom we have tuned in from Portugal, the UK, and all over the US.

The current limitations have challenged us to create new forms of community-building and art-making that take advantage of the digital format, from using the Zoom chat function to hype each other up to combining exquisite-corpse style audio recording with film editing for our joint projects. I’m so excited to continue this model of artistic collaboration and mentorship and I truly believe structures like these will create profound systemic change in our musical community and beyond.

Erica Lindsay sitting in front of a piano

Erica Lindsay (photo by Paul Tsang)

Erica Lindsay

The aspect of this initiative that I was not expecting, but feel so grateful for, is the intergenerational energy generated from our talks and sharing of perspectives. It is fertile ground for synergist transformations. It also has been a great experience to have the opportunity to collaborate with other artists that one might not have had the chance to do so otherwise, and to become more familiar with a whole new generation of amazing musicians and composers who have a strong and unique voice to contribute to the music.

Thank you Jen and Sara for spearheading the development of this creative community. I envision it expanding and growing stronger through the years. We need new spaces, new visions, new methods to communicate with and to support each other. If there was ever a time for transformation of the arts, the business, the culture, it is now. The breaking down of the normal, that this pandemic has created, let it become a crack that a new reality can be born through.

Lesley Mok against a white background

Lesley Mok (photo by Luke Marantz)

Lesley Mok

Black American Music, and the creative music it has informed, is inherently political. In a time where white supremacy, corporatization, and militant fascism seem to undermine the core values of our existence, it’s crucial we ask ourselves: how can the music, the process of collaboration, and the spaces we work within, actually reflect the times we’re living in?

History has shown us the capacity for change when we create spaces that reflect the diversity of our creative ecosystem. Groups like the AACM, the Black Artists’ Group, and the Pan-African Peoples Arkestra have focused on building community and social consciousness, and have done so outside of existing corporate structures. To me, M3 is an extension of this work, bringing together BIPOC womxn to foster support, love, and growth through adventurous music-making.

M3 has allowed me the space to be truthful and vulnerable in an otherwise white, male-dominated, cis-heteronormative space. I’m grateful to Jen and Sara and all my fellow M3-ers for nurturing this space, and for allowing the fullest expression of ourselves.

I’m reminded of this quote by Joshua Briond: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but rather individuals and classes repeat history.” Mary Lou Williams, Abbey Lincoln, Nicole Mitchell, Susie Ibarra, Amina Claudine Myers, Terri Lyne Carrington, Fay Victor, Matana Roberts… and all those who’ve illuminated the way, thank you…The fight for liberation continues!

Tomeka Reid playing the cello

Tomeka Reid (photo by Joel Wanek)

Tomeka Reid

When I was asked to be a part of this group, I was initially on the fence. While I was concerned about my gigs disappearing for what I realized at that point would be the rest of the year and into 2021, I also felt that there was a kind of pressure to still do, to be active…so many wonderful organizations were shifting quickly to create much needed lifelines for the artist community but honestly all I wanted to do was just be and process all that was and had been happening so quickly!

Over the years, I think I have felt a kind of exhaustion of always having to adapt to some new (mostly digital) change or update and I felt like, while the moment was indeed financially challenging, this might be the moment and rare opportunity that forces all of us to just slow down, reflect, reevaluate. To just simply stop. Is it okay to just not do for a while? Thus, I was weary to commit to something, especially something that I knew would be conducted expressly online and that would require an online performance as well. I was still very much resisting that reality, lol!

But Jen and Sara curated a wonderful cast of intergenerational womxn artists and I have really enjoyed sharing and getting to know them all, some of whom I have met prior to COVID life and others whom it will be exciting to meet in person someday! It’s been a great space to hear how others are managing in this current climate. Everyone is extremely supportive of where everyone is at this current moment. It’s been a welcome positive space to be a part of in this moment that has felt so fragile, confusing and disillusioning. I am grateful that this space has been created for us to just be.

Sara Serpa sitting with her left hand on the side of her face.

Sara Serpa (photo by Heather Sten)

Sara Serpa

It has always interested me how we, as artists, can create alternative structures that connect us as opposed to alienate/divide us, where the artist is free and does not have to conform or compete in order to be successful. This mutual and intergenerational mentorship initiative proposes the idea that we all learn from each other, instead of the original top-down mentorship structure. The absence of the traditional hierarchical system is liberating, and has allowed me for a personal transformation that initially was subtle. Now, as time goes by, this seed is growing and expanding to all relationships I nurture. The meetings have opened my mind to different ways of interacting with my peers: supportive instead of competitive, honest instead of performative, transforming instead of conforming.

I didn’t have this kind of support when I was growing and studying to be a musician, and just the fact that is right happening now, when we are all forced out of work and the world seems to be falling apart, has helped me going through the uncertainty of the moment. Zoom has limitations. Nothing can replace the act of being/ playing/ listening together in a room. However, each meeting is invigorating and inspiring and shows me that we are all more connected than I initially thought.

I feel incredibly fortunate for being able to communicate and interact with this group of womxn on a regular basis. I don’t want it to end in December! Each time we meet is different – the honesty, creativity and vulnerability each one of us brings into our projects or meetings stays with me during the periods we don’t meet, inspiring me to use different approaches to challenges that seem to always exist no matter the generation we belong to. The fact that each artist has such a unique and original way of expression makes me dream about the possibilities of expanding these kinds of dialogues to as many artists as possible. I am beyond grateful for this work and to be doing it with Jen—a work in progress of imagining, restructuring, discussing and hopefully transforming our artistic landscape, in which kindness, generosity and respect prevail.

Jen Shyu with her hair in front of part of her face and a guzheng (classical Chinese zitrher) leaning against her right shoulder.

Jen Shyu (photo by Daniel Reichert)

Jen Shyu

The night after our eighth M³ meeting, I dreamt that one of my students taught me a very specific way to move my hands and legs that would enable me to fly up the stairs without ever having to step down. The infinitely linked staircases in the dream hung in the air like in an M.C. Escher drawing. The room was hardly a room, but rather a greenhouse full of sunlight with no walls. Perhaps it was so big that I didn’t feel the walls around me.

I woke up. The dream still fresh in my half-sleeping body, I tried out the hand and leg movements in my kitchen, which will surely become new movements in a new dance. This process is a metaphor for what these M³ meetings have meant to me, whether in our full cohort of 12 or in our smaller groupings. We’ve been exercising our vision-building and integrating that envisioning into our everyday lives. Personally, I’ve infused those dream states into my reality not only as an artist, but as a human being and a citizen of the world. I’ve learned from each cohort member how I can better do this, from how each artist speaks, lives their art, articulates their ideas so clearly, and creates such profound work. The issues and situations that we have talked about, all happening in real time, have continually moved me and shaped my psyche. These are issues I rarely discussed openly on such a deep level with other womxn artists when I was in my 20s or 30s. Those conversations usually happened one-on-one and rather secretly, in the context of male leadership or in relationship to men, as I usually found myself as the only woman or one of two women in any given musical setting.

My concept of “mentor” has also changed. I have many mentors, most who influenced me in life-changing ways, but also some who placed their limitations on me, telling me I couldn’t be a “jack-of-all-trades,” for example. Obviously, I rebelled. Another interaction which challenged my idea of “mentor” was just after a breakfast with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell at the Ojai Festival in 2017, where I had performed solo the day before. Little did I know it would be the last time I would see Muhal before his passing four months later. As we were walking to the elevator, I told Muhal, “I just want to thank you for being such a generous mentor to all of us all these years.” He stopped me and said, “Now wait. I don’t like this word ‘mentor.’ Because it implies someone is higher than the other, like there’s a hierarchy. I prefer the word ‘exchange.’ Like I want to know about those Taiwanese folk songs you’re into.” I was stunned and humbled. This short conversation initiated the idea of “mutual mentorship” in my head, and when Sara and I began developing the manifestation of this idea, it was one of the concepts that inspired M³, which has been absolutely shaped by our inaugural cohort members every step of the way.

We always try to take a screenshot at the end of our meetings, capturing our time together which began on the Summer Solstice of this tumultuous year of 2020. These are magical snapshots of our lives colliding at different points in our careers, painting a picture of the work that needs to be done and how we’ll continue to grow this energy exponentially outward for the rest of our lives.

Anjna Swaminathan sitting on a rock at a beach by the water.

Anjna Swaminathan (photo by Molly Gazay of Diabla Productions)

Anjna Swaminathan

Truthfully, I was initially reluctant to join M3. This of course has nothing to do with the brilliance and camaraderie that Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa offer or the beauty of the kind of mentorship they sought to cultivate. However, in the early stages of the pandemic, I was trying to feel secure in my ongoing projects and commissions and felt “too busy” for this. The feeling of community and catharsis that this group would offer was terrifying to me because it would push me to confront the fragility of our existing musical ecosystem.

As my colleagues lost gig after gig, I clenched harder to my lingering commitments, trying to convince myself that the pandemic couldn’t destabilize me. It was likely a triggered response. In March 2019 almost exactly a year before we became aware of the virus’s toll on New York City, I started experiencing severe chronic pain symptoms, which forced me to part with my instrument (the violin). I went through many of the same motions that our entire community of artists is going through now. I stopped performing. I stopped improvising with my community. I stopped traveling due to the toll it took on my back and the radiating neurological pain I was experiencing. And to make everything worse, I had also developed a psychosomatic response in my immune system that manifested as frequent respiratory illnesses, that kept me constantly washing my hands and fearful of touching my face. Fortunately, I found home in composing and felt safe to heal while still creating music.

I suppose, when the pandemic started, I wanted to be privileged enough to stay grounded. I got attached to not experiencing an existential crisis — even going so far as to create an alliance for patrons to connect to starving composers and performers from my oh-so-charitable high horse. I needed to hold on to this, and when I saw Jen’s email, my internal response was, “I’m totally fine! This should go to someone who actually needs community.” Of course, though fearful, I said yes to Jen, because I knew that every encounter I’ve had with Jen has taught me to confront my fears. I heard her voice saying something like, “go towards the things that frighten you and figure out why.”

Since we began our meetings, I’ve been so deeply grateful. For one, in these meetings, we speak at length about how these illusions of security were wound up in capitalistic, white supremacist, and heteropatriarchal structures. Many of us spoke of scarcity in our initial meetings. Feeling that there weren’t enough spaces where we could truly be ourselves, artistically, politically, and spiritually. We spoke about tactics to navigate existing power structures and to find our voices within them. And as these conversations have progressed, I’ve witnessed and experienced cosmic intergenerational healing. There are days when mentors in their 60s nurture and comfort mentors in their 20s. On other days younger mentors radicalize their experienced mentors. And on most days it is like a wild game of volleyball, each of us bouncing this radical and dynamic energy off of one another, working together to elevate in abundance rather than falling into scarcity. In the course of the past few months, the security of commissions and projects has dwindled. Yet, I feel renewed with a different kind of security. I feel connected to this ageless, timeless creative energy within me. With the love and encouragement of this community, I am exploring the widest and wildest extremes of artistic play. This group, in replacing power and hierarchy with love and radical vulnerability, has kindled a security in me that feels everlasting. I think back to this feeling of fragility in our musical ecosystem. Of course, it is fragile. It wasn’t working for musicians. This group is planting seeds of abundance, of communication, and of vulnerability that I know will transform music-making and fortify intergenerational mentorship for years to come.

Sumi Tonooka holding her left hand above her left eye in a salute or viewing pose and holding her right hand in front of her chin.

Sumi Tonooka (photo by Karen Sterling)

Sumi Tonooka

I know it’s cliché to reference the Lotus Blossom that grows out of the mud. But that is precisely what M3 is, something beautiful, and exquisite that has arisen out of these chaotic, dark and troubled times…2020, whew, and it’s not over yet!

Saying yes to Jen and Sara who had the initial vision for M3 was easy, especially considering the dynamic group of invited persons to take part. I loved their idea and vision to collaborate, with a choice group of artists that represent the broadest spectrum of sexual identity, genre, and generations among women, to produce new music together as composers and players. We meet bi-monthly via Zoom, to support each other with our diverse creative processes. The duos and quartets were formed randomly and provide an even more intimate window to share and build. M3 has provided a means of support, caring and creativity that I am so grateful to be a part of, especially now! There is a way in which we have bonded and we are learning so much from each other. There is chemistry and momentum moving forward with love and mutual respect at its core. We are doing all this through the rather limited technology on Zoom of all things and this has surprised me!

I’m a child of the 60’s and 70’s. I was raised by radical left wing bi-racial parents during a very tumultuous time in this country. My parents lived through World War II, the Great Depression, the McCarthy era. My mother, who was Japanese American was imprisoned in Internment camps during World War II because of her race. My father who was African American, was a union man, a Marxist, a factory worker. My parents’ philosophies were woven into the fabric of their children’s lives. I cooked breakfast for the Black Panther breakfast program in Mantua Philadelphia when I was 12 years old! My family marched against the Vietnam War, when the country was unified, sick, and tired, but not too tired to protest.

The current struggles of our times is something not new to many of us, it’s an old fight. I am disheartened, angry and depressed at the level of anti-blackness in our culture, the systemic racism in our institutions and prison system and the fact that Black mothers, still fear for their son’s lives, but I am relieved to see the current revolution for racial injustice and people of all races engaged so actively across the globe uniting in solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement, the Me Too movement, the Climate crisis, and more.

Nina Simone, whom I greatly admire, said that artists must address their times. We can look to artists like her to learn exemplary ways in which artists can respond to injustice. Nina was black, beautiful and bold and knew it. Her musical expression contained her fury, love, and soulfulness, fighting for freedom and equality. We can look to artists like John Coltrane whose humanity and protean musical expression and legacy is a constant reminder of what it means to be free as an artist and a great human being.

The fight goes on, as it must until we reach a level of humanity, understanding, and acceptance, a more spiritual ground of love for one another. It might be that we have to keep going round and round until we get it right. The human realm is complex and flawed and ugly and beautiful.

The concert poster for the two upcoming performances featuring photos of the twelve participating musicians and the host.

Dec 6 @ 7pm EST, National Jazz Museum in Harlem event link HERE
Dec. 12 @ 7pm EST, National Jazz Museum in Harlem event link HERE
M3 Eventbrite links (linked from the above links):
Facebook link HERE

A Fearless and Kind Leader—Remembering Geri Allen (1957-2017)

The vast number of people in this world that the great Geri Allen has influenced is undeniable. She has been an outstanding musician, mother, educator, mentor, and role model to many—including myself.

I owe a lot to Ms. Allen. Her music was extremely influential on me, including her albums such as The Life of a Song, as well as her playing on Betty Carter’s albums Feed the Fire and Droppin’ Things, Ornette Coleman’s Sound Museum: Hidden Man, and Charlie Haden’s Montreal Tapes with Paul Motian. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to play with her on several occasions, as well as to teach alongside her at the NJPAC All-Female Residency, which she directed.

Her musicality never ceased to astound me. With her deep connection with the present musical moment, she had the ability to pull you into that space along with her.

Geri Allen (Photo by Gabriel Rodes)

Geri Allen (Photo by Gabriel Rodes)

In 2014 I was lucky enough to teach at the first NJPAC residency, and also to play for six of her seven-night residency performances at The Stone in New York City during the same week. We would meet every morning at 8:30 a.m. for a faculty meeting, then teach until 5 or 6 p.m. Geri would drive us straight to The Stone, and we’d play until 11 p.m. or so. Then she would give some of us rides home, or wait with those who had already had rides, just to make sure they would be okay getting home.

Towards the end of the week I asked her how she did it, juggling everything—teaching, family, and performing—all while seemingly calm, un-phased, giving the students her all, as well as the music. She laughed and said that she had been through childbirth three times and that “this ain’t nothing.”

With all the talk about gender inequality in jazz, the suggestions of band quotas or blind auditions always seems to come up. But without more emphasis on earlier development and mentorship in the earlier stages, these quotas or blind auditions may not solve everything. Geri focused on that mentorship and directed the NJPAC Residency for female students. This camp is like no other, and I’ve seen so many gifted and talented young women grow by participating in it. She brought in high-caliber musicians, speakers, and educators, both male and female. In addition to the music itself, the program would also encompass a broader range of issues—conversations not just on musicianship, but also discussions about very important and often overlooked issues of career sustainability, personal goals, aspirations, and obstacles encountered due to gender bias. Also addressed was the reality of being a touring female musician and how that affects the other parts of your non-musical life. A lot of these personal realities can determine a woman’s career sustainability within the jazz scene.

The NJPAC Residency for female students is a camp like no other, and I’ve seen so many gifted and talented young women grow by participating in it.

I felt that through this residency Geri really helped to bring all these women together, ultimately creating a support network and community hailing from different generations. It was an empowering and inspiring experience I was lucky to be a part of.

Earlier on in my career I did not want to discuss my experiences as a female within a male-dominated scene, in fear that discussing any of these hardships I had faced would be seen as complaining and it would invalidate the work I had put into my music.

This changed throughout the years when I began to teach more female students and especially when I was put in situations like this residency under the direction of Allen. There was the realization that it’s not only okay to discuss these experiences, but it’s important to address these issues and to have a support network for the next generation of female musicians. She demonstrated how to teach with kindness while also encouraging students to push and challenge themselves.

I remember during conversations with her that she would ask me what I was working on and what my goals were. She would mention programs for grants, fellowships, etc., but never that I “should” apply. Instead she would instead ask in an empowering manner, “Is this something that interests you and something you’d like to pursue?”

Geri Allen was the kind of person who made you believe you were special and capable of anything.

A huge inspiration to all and an indisputably remarkable musician and person, she was the kind of person who made you believe you were special and capable of anything. It makes me happy to see all these beautiful photos and hear these stories about her strong and selfless character from people much closer to her than I was.

I hope the best for all of her family and friends during this difficult time. As a female instrumentalist working on jazz, I can’t help feeling like we’ve lost our fearless leader, but I feel incredibly lucky to have known this beautiful spirit. Her legacy will live on.

Pictured (from left to right): Maria Elena Gratereaux, Geri Allen,Terri Lynne Carrington, Linda Oh, Ingrid Jensen, and Cecilia Venel. (Photo by Gabriel Rodes)

Pictured (from left to right): Maria Elena Gratereaux, Geri Allen,Terri Lynne Carrington, Linda Oh, Ingrid Jensen, and Cecilia Venel. (Photo by Gabriel Rodes)

Jazz Audience Development: The Gender Factor

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?

1, 2, 3… Action

Spring is here – finally – as earth prepares to put on a colorful new coat, we experience the energy of new life.  Some of us get an urge to do spring cleaning—getting rid of the dirt and dust of winter and unwanted clutter—and clear the path ahead.  As Women’s History Month winds down, this will be the perfect opportunity to sweep out the clutter from the past and move forward into a future that brings together the music of black, white, brown, male, and female individuals all over the world.
In my earlier articles this month, I traced the history of Women in Jazz (including my own) and looked at research results that document psychological and social differences between the genders, as well as barriers to entry for women.  In this last article I would like to reflect on a series of concerts that I completed with an eight-piece all female group in celebration of Women’s History Month and to conclude with action steps towards an inclusive future.


The 2014 Women In Jazz Concert.

For 20 years now, I have hosted Women in Jazz features during March in the Indianapolis area.  Our first event was in March 1994 for the Jazz Fables Series in Bloomington, and it included vocalists Janiece Jaffe, Cherilee Wadsworth (now Dean of Arts at the Kansas City Community College), and Rachel Caswell, myself on piano, saxophonist Kristy Norter (who went on to play with DIVA), and a male rhythm section.  Some of the events over the years were on elaborate stages, such as the Indianapolis History Center and the Walker Theatre, some in clubs such as the Jazz Kitchen and Bloomington’s Bears Place, and everything in between.  We usually had great audience response and many fun shows. Reflecting over those 20 years, here are some of the changes I’ve witnessed as well as lessons learned.

1. Up until 2008, it was very difficult to find a rhythm section and we needed ‘ringers’.  Now I’m faced with tough choices between several excellent female drummers and bassists in the area.

2. Similarly, our groups usually featured a handful of vocalists and the repertoire was mainly vocal standards.  Now we have a repertoire of originals as well as music written by a wide variety of female composers from Berniece Petkere to Marian McPartland, Carla Bley, Joanne Brackeen, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and many more.  Our front line is at least three horn players; this year we had trumpet, saxophone, and violin.

3. Due to the success of our events, other leaders and promoters organized similar tributes.  Unfortunately, they usually were led by several vocalists and backed by an all-male group, thus reinforcing the original stereotypes even further rather than creating new role models.

4. Some fellow musicians did not want to participate in our tribute series, since they wanted to be acknowledged for their musical skills rather than for their gender.  Of course, that’s the goal for all of us and a much respected choice.  But as discussed in the earlier articles, there are some barriers to be broken down and action is still needed; we’ll continue to blaze trails for all of us.
5. Every so often the pushback would also come from the male community, pointing out that nobody is organizing a tribute concert for them and that the series is reverse discrimination using our gender as a gimmick.  Well, looking at the percentage figures of male participation in jazz groups and employment figures (more than 90% each), there are plenty of opportunities and tributes available for them year-round.  And according to the feedback from my fellow musicians from this year’s series, many of these opportunities are still closed to them.  Wouldn’t that be similar to making Dad breakfast in bed for Mother’s Day?

Natalie Boeyink on bass

Natalie Boeyink

This year’s featured artists spanned three generations of jazz women with great careers in progress and ready to take off.
Natalie Boeyink (bass) has backed up luminaries such as Jovino Santos Neto, Joe Piscopo, David ‘Fathead’ Newman, Jon Hendricks, David Liebman and Lorraine Feather.  She is currently completing a Doctorate in Music Education at Indiana University and serves as the director of the Attica String Project.

Anna Butterss on bass

Anna Butterss

Anna Butterss (bass) hails from Adelaide, Australia and is taking the U.S.A. by storm.  L.A., watch out when she moves there in two months after finishing her Master’s Degree in Jazz Studies at Indiana University.

Carolyn Dutton on violin

Carolyn Dutton

Carolyn Dutton (violin) is originally from Indiana and returned recently after a successful  30-year career in the New York music scene, performing everything from Broadway to jazz to punk, and touring the world.

Arianna Fanning with drumsticks

Arianna Fanning

Arianna Fanning (drums) recently relocated to Nashville, TN after completing a degree in jazz studies at Indiana University.  She was a finalist in the inaugural Hit Like a Girl Drum Contest and has backed up the likes of Randy Brecker, Jeff Coffin, Sean Jones, Shawn Purcell, Michael Weiss, and Chuck Redd.

Amanda Gardier

Amanda Gardier with her saxophone

Amanda Gardier (saxophone) has performed alongside notable musicians like Randy Brecker, Peter Erskine, Curtis Fuller, John Clayton, Brian Culbertson, Wycliffe Gordon, and Dana Hall.  She is a student band director at North Central High School in Indianapolis this spring.

Heather Ramsey Clark

Heather Ramsey Clark

Heather Ramsey Clark (vocals) is versatile in many styles and leads the Midwest School of Voice. She has wowed audiences in Italy and Germany and is my collaborator for the Girls Create Music summer songwriting camps for girls ages 9-16.

Janiece Jaffe at the microphone

Janiece Jaffe

Janiece Jaffe (vocals) is a master of improvisation and vocalese.  She has produced multiple albums and has toured internationally.  In addition she leads healing and meditation workshops with her voice and crystal bowls.

Jordan West at the drumset

Jordan West

Jordan West (drums),  a senior at Ball State University, is not only sought-after as a drummer, but is also known for her unique vocal styles with her group Trackless.

Lexie Signor with her trumpet

Lexie Signor

Lexie Signor (trumpet) hails from Michigan and is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Trumpet Performance at Indiana University. She specializes in lead trumpet playing and wows audiences with her beautiful sound.
I asked all of the participants to reflect on our concerts and to provide feedback on their favorite aspects of the series, the importance of raising awareness of female participation in jazz, and support strategies that would have helped them in shaping their own careers.  They all agreed that one of their favorite aspects of performing together was the non-pressured environment of not having to prove anything to their band mates.  “We compliment and complement each other” (Carolyn).  They also felt inspired by their peers’ high level of musicality. I would love to see a group like this go around to schools and play at jazz festivals; wouldn’t that make a statement!” (Natalie).

The issue of raising awareness for female participation in jazz was also crucial for them.  Everyone admitted how difficult it was to push the boundaries without any role models.  Similar efforts might prevent the large dropout rate of instrumentalists in middle and high schools.  Furthermore, leadership and creative roles of women in the general workforce are still limited and leadership in jazz as an extremely creative art form can set powerful examples.  “Promoting female improvisers and band leaders in jazz highlights the fact that women are equally as bold, creative, powerful, and intellectual as men” (Amanda).
As we’re still working on establishing equal rights in the workplace and at home, having mothers on the bandstand is important inspiration for the younger generations“Just sharing the stage with such strong and musically expressive moms last night has really helped me debunk this lie for myself and renewed my faith that yes, we can have our cake and eat it too!” (Lexie).  Janiece raised an important additional point: “Equality does not mean ‘sameness’ though.”  Including more female voices into the improvisational process will add variety and distinct perspectives, making the music richer and appealing to wider audiences.  And finally, more support in career development strategies and mentoring outside of school is needed.  Moving to a new town and trying (as a female) to get people to let me sit in was really discouraging” (Natalie).
Monika Herzig at the piano
Overall, while we have made big strides forward, we still don’t have a woman in the White House (as Carolyn pointed out).  The good news is that we might only be a few years away from achieving this goal.  Until then, taking action will be the only way to facilitate change, and anyone can contribute.  Such action can be on a larger scale by organizing concerts, lobbying for equal rights and pay scales, or employing women whenever possible. But what about one small step that any of us could do right now, such as encouraging a 10-year old girl to take up drum lessons, or taking some youngsters to a jazz concert, or just taking a risk without being afraid of public image.  So my charge to all readers at the end of this series and at the end of this year’s Women’s History Month is to commit to one action item in support of female involvement in creating music for the rest of the year – and do write it down, as it might get lost in the daily shuffle.  And please don’t ask me if I’m the singer with the band when you see me perform next time.

But Can She Play?

“Only God can make a tree,” the swing historian George T. Simon wrote in The Big Bands (1967, London: Macmillan), “and only men can play good jazz.”
As outrageous as this statement seems on first reading, it does lead to the question of fundamental differences between male and female psychology and physiology related to jazz performance. We now accept that women are from Venus and men are from Mars, in sports women and men compete in different categories with different standards, so are there any physiological or psychological differences in learning and performing jazz? And what kind of effects might these differences have on collaborative performances and pedagogical approaches to learning jazz? In this third article on women in jazz, I’d like to share some of the recent research in this area and possible implications of the results.

Ariel Alexander

Ariel Alexander

Saxophonist Ariel Alexander, whom I got to collaborate and perform with while she was an undergraduate Jazz Studies major at Indiana University, completed her doctoral dissertation for the University of Southern California in 2011, entitled Where are the Girls? A look at the factors that limit female participation in instrumental jazz. She did an extensive review of the literature and a survey study to uncover some of the issues that prevent female musicians from pursuing a career in jazz performance. The basic ability to improvise doesn’t seem to be an issue. Selected studies by Madura (1993)[1], Hores (1977)[2], and Bash (1984)[3] did not uncover gender issues in researching factors related to jazz improvisation achievement. Thus Ariel decided to investigate the masculine image of jazz, sexual stereotypes of instruments, behavioral and social differences between males and females, and sexual discrimination.

I discussed some of the historical issues with masculine stereotypes in jazz in my last article, demonstrating the typical cover images of textbooks. In her book Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women, Linda Dahl notes that the often dangerous nightclubs, at that time an essential learning and networking environment for jazz musicians, were an unsafe environment for women to participate in late night jam sessions. In addition, Dahl explains that the aggressive self-confidence on the bandstand displaying one’s blowing power was clearly a masculine prerogative[4]. Thus an early lack of role models is apparent and as previously discussed, the few women who overcame those barriers are historically not acknowledged. The importance of such role models has been noted in research by Gould (2001), showing that women performed with significantly greater success when the role models with whom they interacted were also women.[5]

In 1978, Ables and Porter conducted a large research study including adult and child musicians as well as non-musicians on the sexual stereotyping of instruments. They found that drums, trombone, and trumpet were seen as masculine instruments, while the flute and violin were identified as feminine by respondents older than elementary school age. Younger children displayed very few preconceptions.[6] The conclusion is that the process of introducing school children to instruments reinforces such stereotypes. In addition, five of the seven instruments included in a typical school jazz band were identified as masculine in this study (drums, trombone, trumpet, bass, and saxophone). Even in more recent studies, similar tendencies were still apparent and as a result access to participation in jazz may be denied early to those who are more likely to get the recommendation of choosing the flute or violin—the girls.

Trumpet Cartoon

Image by Papapishu from Vector.me

And what about women being from Venus and men from Mars? While women may be better at multi-tasking, we also like to travel in packs and build our identity on relationships.[7] Autonomy, independence, and separation are a significantly larger portion in the male developmental journey. In addition, females tend to avoid competitive environments and display greater amounts of anxiety and stress in such situations than their male counterparts.[8] Accordingly, the likelihood of a female teenager volunteering for an improvised solo in front of her peers that includes the option of failure is certainly smaller than her male band mate stepping out to show off his unique personality. Thus negative attitudes towards learning jazz improvisation and a lack of confidence are easily the result of such personality differences. Wehr[9] suspects that the lack of opportunity to build self-efficacy, one of the main predictors of success in jazz improvisation, is one of the main reasons for the gender issue in jazz.

Is there anything we could do about these issues or should we just accept the facts? Knowledge is power, so how about transforming the findings above in some strategies that potentially have a big impact on the gender issue in instrumental jazz. Let’s revisit the history books and make sure to credit the contributions of women and diversify the images. In terms of pedagogy, how about some alternative jazz ensembles, such as a flute choir or chamber jazz group or just integrate a wide variety of instruments in the regular ensembles? And to overcome the peer pressures, let’s provide lots of safe entry points to improvisation, such as specific guidelines, patterns, etc. and introduce the concept before puberty becomes a barrier. And as much as possible, let’s encourage diversity in jazz college faculty.

A final note on physiological differences—Ariel and myself and many other jazz women are married to fellow musicians. Being such a minority in the field amounts to a large number of choices for possible mates who have the same interest, similar work schedules, and don’t mind long practice sessions and rehearsals around the house. Hence jazz couples are quite common, in fact we performed a series of triple couple concerts here in Indiana with bass/drum and vocal/saxophone duos plus our piano/guitar combination.

After 22 years of marriage, I have to give my husband Peter Kienle immense amounts of credit for sharing all possible responsibilities in terms of household chores, organizational and musical duties, and making this career path possible. Only when it came to the birth of our daughters and the initial period of nursing—preceded by a period of large dresses and awkward piano positions preferably in non-smoking clubs—did we had to give in to our differences by design. Even though I performed the night before and the night after my first daughter was born, there were many instances during the first few years of raising our daughters where I had to send Peter to gigs with substitutes and put my overall career on the backburner.

Most likely I could have increased our vast list of babysitters even further and closed the door more often while practicing and composing. But it also would have meant missing many special moments during my daughters’ first years of life: bedtime stories; evening cuddles; first milestones—my daughter Melody stood up for the first time in a playpen that we had set up next to us while performing at an outdoor event. I don’t regret any choices I had to make because of being the “mom”, even though I fell a few years behind the young lions in building successful careers.

Monika and her daughters

Monika and her daughters.

1. Madura, Patrice: Relationships among vocal jazz improvisation achievement, jazz theory knowledge, imitative ability, previous musical experience, general creativity, and gender. (Dissertation Abstracts International, Jun 1993, Vol. 53, p. 4245.)

2. Hores, Robert: A comparative study of visual- and aural-oriented approaches to jazz improvisation with implications for instruction. (Dissertation Abstracts International, Oct 1978, Vol. 39, p. 2121.)

3. Bash, Lee: “The relationship among musical aptitude, musical achievement, psychosocial maturity, sex, age, preliminary improvisation performance and the acquisition of improvisation performance skill” in Jazz Research Papers, 1984, Vol. 4, p7.

4. Dahl, Linda: Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women (Pompton Plains, NJ: Limelight Editions, 2004).

5. Gould, E. S.: “Identification and application of the concepts of role model: Perceptions of women college band directors” in Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, vol 20 (1), 2001, pp. 14-18.

6. Abeles, H. F, & Porter, S. Y.: “The gender-stereotyping of musical instruments,” in Journal of Research in Music Education vol. 26, 1978, pp. 65-75.

7. Gilligan, C.: In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

8. Eccles, J. S.: “Gender roles and women’s achievement-related decisions,” in Psychology of Women Quarterly vol. 11, 1987, pp. 135-172.

9. Wehr, E.: Understanding the experiences of women in jazz: A Suggested Model University of Iowa (In progress).

Unsung Heroes

a variety of jazz history books commonly used in the classroom
On March 8, 1914, women all over Europe rallied against the pending war and requested the right to vote. March 8 was declared International Women’s Day and has become a global day of recognition and celebration. Many countries treat it as a national holiday, and in some places people give gifts to their wives and mothers similar to Mother’s Day. Much has changed in the last 100 years and some argue that the battles have been won for women’s rights. Unfortunately, there are still many instances in which women earn less than their male counterparts, and the number of women in business and politics is still not equal. Similarly, there are a fair number of successful female jazz instrumentalists in the contemporary jazz scene and role models for every instrument. But in reality, participation is still in the single digits and many doors stay closed to women.

In my second post for NewMusicBox, I’ll trace some of the history of women in jazz. The above pictures are the covers of a variety of jazz history books commonly used in the classroom. Please take a moment and compare the pictures. Now formulate a description of “the jazz icon.” How does the picture below fit the description?

Kaytee Esser's painting "Kansas City Jazz"

“Kansas City Jazz” by Kaytee Esser. Reprinted with the permission of the artist and available directly from her.

It doesn’t, and it’s certainly not an image found in jazz history books. Were there no female musicians playing instruments or do we just not know about them? The truth is that there were plenty of capable and talented ladies, but social expectations for the household matriarch did not include frequenting dance halls at night and touring around the country for weeks in a bus full of men. In addition, most of the instruments in a jazz combo—such as the drums, bass, or brass—were perceived as more suited to male players due to physical requirements. For some brave women, the attraction to this exciting new music was stronger than social barriers. Their stories are mostly untold and they remain in the shadow of the “jazz giants.” In recognition of International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate some of the instrumentalists who joined the bands.

May Aufderheide (1888-1972) was born in Indianapolis and became quite successful as a Ragtime composer in the first decade of the 20th century. Her 1908 “Dusty Rag” was one of the first important rags to emerge from the Indiana-Ohio region. Her last success was her “Novelty Rag” in 1911, before marriage and family duties ended her composing career.

Lilian Hardin-Armstrong (1898-1971) played piano and worked at a music store in Chicago. Fascinated by the sounds of this new music called jazz, she learned the style and started playing with a variety of groups and was eventually invited to take over the piano chair in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1921. The second trumpet player in the band became her husband in 1924 and she convinced him that he should become a leader in order to showcase his incredibly strong sound and talent for improvisation. And thus Louis Armstrong started his own groups. One of the recordings that Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven became well known for is “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue”—a Lil Hardin original. After their divorce in 1938, Lil remained active in the music business for the rest of her life and passed away two months after Louis when playing the “St. Louis Blues” during a Louis Armstrong memorial celebration.

A variety of performers emerged from musical families. Chattanooga-born trumpeter Valaida Snow (1904-1956) was one of them, and she was working as a professional entertainer by the age of 15. She performed in musical reviews and as bandleader, recording for Derby, Apollo, and Chess Records. The role model for trumpeter Dolly Jones (1906 or 1907-c. late 1970s) was her mother, trumpeter Dyer Jones. Dedicated to her instrument and the music, Dolly performed with bands in the Chicago area and earned the respect of her peers, such as Roy Eldridge and Doc Cheatham. The Hampton Sisters—Aletra Hampton (piano, vibes), Virtue Hampton (bass), Carmelita Hampton (saxophone), and Dawn Hampton (vocals), were part of the Hampton Family band, which was best known for their youngest brother, trombonist Slide Hampton. (Two of the surviving sisters—Aletra and Virtue—continue to perform together to this day; Carmelita died in 1987.)

During the Great Depression all-female groups first became popular—roles shifted due to the need for diversion in difficult times. But players were often acknowledged for reasons beyond musical ability.

“[W]omen are never hired because of their ability as musicians, but as an attraction for the very reason that they are women, and men like to look at attractive women. Consequently, the manager is continually reminding the girls not to take the music so seriously, but to relax, to smile. How can you smile with a horn in your mouth? How can you relax when a girdle is throttling you and the left brassiere strap holds your arm in a vise? If we quaver a little on the high notes, it’s because we are asked to do a Houdini … On the other hand, men’s orchestras are usually hired because of their ability as musicians. Their good looks, their presentability other than neatness, will rarely enter the question.”

Jeannie Gayle-Poole, Peggy Gilbert & Her All Girl Band, Scarecrow Press: 2008, p. 84.

The tradition of all-female orchestras continued during the Second World War and women were employed in men’s bands to fill the gaps. The most popular of these groups, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, traveled on many USO tours. Among other groups from that era were Ada Leonard’s All American Girls, Ina Rae Hutton and Her Melodears, Helen Lewis and her All-Girls Syncopaters, The Parisian Red Heads, Ivy Benson and her All Girl Orchestra, Clara De Vries and Her Jazz Ladies, Gloria Gaye and Her Glamour Girls Band, and Gracie Cole and Her Orchestra, to name just a few. Obviously there was no shortage of capable musicians, but as soon as the men returned from war duties they reclaimed their jobs in the entertainment business.
Trombonist, composer, and arranger Melba Liston (1926-1999) played with and arranged for Randy Weston, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Count Basie, Billy Holliday, and many others. At the age of seven, she picked the trombone as her instrument of choice because she thought it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. Eventually the hardship of life on the road and the abusive environment in all-male bands caught up with her and she quit performing. Nevertheless, she wrote arrangements for Randy Weston up until her death at the age of 73.

There are many more examples of outstanding musicians who, despite all obstacles, followed their passion and prevailed in a male-dominated environment. But unfortunately, as music educator and author Janis Stockhouse noted, they received little credit for their contributions.

“The main problem in the public perception of women in jazz is not a resistance to their potential future roles, but a failure to recognize the profound impact those musicians have already had on the game.”

Janis Stockhouse, Women Jazz Musicians: Conversations with Twenty One Musicians. IU Press: 2004.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let’s rewrite history and include many of these daring and dedicated role models. And more importantly, let’s give them the credit they deserve for their contributions to the music. There is a wonderful resource to get started over at the NPR website.

Three Strikes Against Success

I’m honored to contribute a series of four blog posts this month on the topic of “Women in Jazz” as we celebrate Women’s History Month in March.  Just a few weeks ago, I participated in a panel discussion with fellow jazz women at the 5th Jazz Education Network (JEN) Convention in Dallas.  It was interesting to get everyone’s perspective, ranging from the initial “things have gotten much better, it’s just about being a good player no matter what gender or color” to admitting “but I often don’t get access to the same opportunities.”  What this tells me is that it’s an uncomfortable topic and there are issues.  The good news is that if we do talk about these issues and find solutions, we won’t need any further conversations on the topic in the future.  For the four posts this month, I plan to start with a female jazz musician’s perspective (my own) followed by some historical background and selected research facts and conclude with action items to initiate the changes needed.

In 1988, I arrived in the US ready to start a career as a jazz musician. With the support of a scholarship, I was able to complete a master’s degree at the University of Alabama while getting acquainted with my new environment and planning a career path.   My boyfriend Peter Kienle (now husband for over 20 years) didn’t seem to have any trouble finding people to play with and the telephone was ringing quite frequently for him with gig offers.  Initially, I wasn’t paying attention and just made sure to practice and learn as much as I could.



We are children of the ‘70s and came to jazz via groups like Weather Report, Return to Forever, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.  Hence we formed a fusion group with a bassist and drummer from the university (who later became Nnenna Freelon’s regular drummer) and worked up a sophisticated repertoire of originals.  I helped set up some dates on the local strip and in the Birmingham clubs and our group, BeebleBrox, became known for cool grooves and intricate compositions. One day during rehearsals, I noticed that the bassist didn’t address his questions about my charts to me, but rather to Peter.  He asked Peter what “she” wanted him to play.  I realized that it was very difficult for him to communicate directly because everything about me was different.  I brushed it off and tried to be like one of the guys, but somehow that didn’t work.  Maybe because I wasn’t one of the guys?  I finally had to admit to myself that I didn’t laugh about all the same jokes, didn’t use the same slang language, didn’t show off for the girls, and didn’t care very much about competing with others.  I loved the process of making music, writing music, and getting it ready to be heard by an audience—the sophisticated harmonic language of jazz, the cool rhythms, the interaction with the audience—but I was not one of the guys.  Could that be part of the reason why Peter was playing plenty of casual gigs without even looking and I had to arrange for performances as a leader or tag along as the guitarist’s girlfriend?

That’s when I started to search for role models, others who were like me.  As a fan of Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz show on NPR, I looked a bit closer at her history.  When she arrived in New York in 1950 together with her new husband, trumpeter Jimmy McPartland, she started her ten-year residency with her trio at the Hickory House. Her first review, from critic Leonard Feather, began by noting she had “three strikes against her: she’s English, white and a woman.”  She managed to take exactly those three strikes and use them as the foundation of her extremely successful and long career.

Marian McPartland

Marian McPartland. Photo by Barbara Bordnick, courtesy of Marian McPartland

First of all, she grew up in England during the period portrayed in the PBS series Downton Abbey that recently took America by storm.  The old class separations were crumbling and a new lifestyle of freedom and personal expression was accompanied by jazz oozing in from the airwaves and the American officer’s clubs.  As a result, McPartland became fascinated with jazz as a way of expressing her musical thoughts, but she also had a strong background in classical music and other popular music styles.  Her compositions and harmonic language reflected this “English” background and, by embracing her heritage, she was able to contribute her unique voice to the jazz melting pot.

Her second strike was being white.  In jazz, this is often seen as a symbol of not being grounded in the culture and musical heritage that initially gave birth to the rhythmic, improvisatory, and expressive characteristics of jazz.  She certainly immersed herself in the jazz culture the moment she arrived in the US, and her appearance on the famous “A Great Day in Harlem” photograph as one of a handful white musicians is a testimonial.  And even further—for decades she paid her dues by playing for long hours every night in a noisy steak house, accumulating an immense repertoire of songs, and eventually bringing the cultures together by featuring musicians of all color and gender on her Piano Jazz shows.

And yes, there is the third strike of being a woman.  Similar to my experience of “not getting the calls,” McPartland realized she had to take charge and create her opportunities.  Her long stint as a leader of her trio at the Hickory House is legendary, but furthermore she also created her own record label, Halcyon Records, in 1969, released more than 20 albums under her own name on Savoy, Concord, Jazz Alliance, and her own label (not counting the Piano Jazz recordings), and at the age of 60 launched what would turn out to be the longest running show on NPR.  But even more important than learning leadership skills out of necessity was her gift for collaboration.  Research does confirm that women naturally tend to collaborate with their peers and work towards a common goal rather than exhibit the competitive nature of male counterparts.  When McPartland arrived in New York, she instinctively reached out to peers and created a strong bond with Mary Lou Williams, thus finding an ally and a gateway into the jazz scene.  Later on, her collaborative nature inspired the idea of featuring fellow pianists in conversations and duets for the common goal of spreading the word about jazz, so successfully accomplished during more than 30 years of “Piano Jazz.”
Getting to know McPartland’s story gave me courage.  I had identified the obstacles in my career path and I had found someone who had successfully overcome these obstacles and paved a path for me to follow. Once I started looking, I discovered women such as Carla Bley, Jessica Williams, Geri Allen, Joanne Brackeen, Mary Lou Williams, Myra Melford, Regina Carter, Shirley Scott, Melba Liston, and many more with established and blossoming careers.  Being part of a group gave me the confidence to proceed: to pursue a doctorate under the tutelage of David Baker at Indiana University; to lead my own groups on more than a dozen recording projects and tours around the world; to write music that received a DownBeat Award and that has been featured in television shows; but most of all to teach the following generations to do the same and get their voices heard.  I did not find the stories of my role models in textbooks though; I had to seek them out and ask questions.  Why are these trailblazers not included in our history canon?  Tracing the early history of women in jazz will be the subject of my next post.  In the meantime, make a list of your local jazz heroines and find their stories.


Monika Herzig

Monika Herzig

Jazz pianist and Indiana University faculty member, Monika Herzig has performed at many prestigious jazz clubs and festivals around the world. Groups under her leadership have opened for acts such as Tower of Power, Sting, the Dixie Dregs, Yes, and more. Her March 2011 DVD/CD combo Come With Me on Owl Studios features a mixture of originals and modern arrangements.