Three Strikes Against Success

In 1988, I arrived in the US ready to start a career as a jazz musician. So my boyfriend (now husband for over 20 years) Peter Kienle and I formed a fusion group with a bassist and drummer from the University of Alabama where I was completing a master’s degree. But one day during rehearsals, I noticed that the bassist didn’t address his questions about my charts to me, but rather to Peter.

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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.