The Shape of Jazz To Come

From left: Linda May Han Oh, Kris Davis, Terri Lyne Carrington, Aja Burrell Wood  Photo by Kelly Davidson

Women have been part of jazz from its beginning. It’s a rich but complicated story framed by limited opportunity mixed with unwritten rules, sexism, and benign neglect. None of this is surprising: Generous as jazz can be, as art, it both reflects and shapes the society that produces it. 

“We live in a patriarchal society, and that patriarchal thread has run through this music as well,” says Terri Lyne Carrington, drummer, and producer, as well as the artistic director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.

She founded the institute to explore a fundamental question: What would jazz sound like in a culture without patriarchy? The question has surfaced at a moment in which society seems open to an important set of conversations and institutional changes, says Farah Jasmine Griffin, a Columbia University professor who has written extensively about issues of race, gender, feminism, and cultural politics, and who sits on the institute’s advisory board.

“Oh, I don’t know that jazz is any worse on these issues than many other parts of our culture,” says Griffin, who is also the author of If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, and collaborated with the late composer and pianist Geri Allen on theatrical projects. “But I’ve always felt that because jazz is so capacious and it’s always been historically at the forefront of social change and modeling social change, jazz would be a great place to try and do something like [the institute] to really kind of challenge our notions of gender norms.”

Jazz is not the only genre with a troubled relationship with female musicians. According to a December New York Times story (“When an Orchestra Was No Place for a Woman”), the Berlin Philharmonic first admitted a woman in 1982, and women could not audition for the Vienna Philharmonic until 1997. Women still make up less than half of most orchestras in Europe and the United States, the article states. And traditionally, it notes, they have been channeled into three roles: pianists, harpists, and vocalists.

Likewise, jazz has long accepted women as singers or pianists but often treated other female instrumentalists with hostility if they tried to claim a place on the bandstand. Economics played a role in what has always been a fierce competition for precious few good jobs, whatever the musical realm. But money wasn’t the only factor. 

In her book Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen, author Linda Dahl writes that “the notion that certain musical forms or instruments are ‘unfeminine’ appears to be old as music itself.” Indeed, says Carrington, “Instruments have been gendered.”

Another factor that has excluded women from jazz, especially early on, is safety. The places where the genre flourished were often dangerous for women to frequent, such as brothels, nightclubs, and speakeasies rife with an assortment of vices. 

“So, for starters, the jazz life was a challenging life, and young women probably weren’t encouraged to pursue it. That was a world that was seen as a man’s world,” Griffin, the professor, says, adding that any woman willing to put up with this environment also had to prove that she was more gifted than her male counterparts. 

The stories of female jazz pioneers at the time reflect these prejudices and circumstances. “I had to prove myself just like Jackie Robinson,” the trombonist and arranger Melba Liston, who wrote for and played in big bands in the 1940s through the 1960s, told Dahl. 

Decades later, saxophonist Adison Evans, a member of Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and Beyoncé’s touring band (2009-2015), contends with some of the same attitudes. Evans is sometimes assumed to be the singer in the band when she’s not carrying her horn. And she’s had to deal with situations her male colleagues never had to face. 

“I remember how, early on, when it came time to pay me at the end of the night, this one guy told me, ‘Oh, no, let me take you out to dinner instead.’ What?! That was my introduction to that type of behavior. It was a difficult pill to swallow…. This guy won’t pay me because he thinks that I’m going to go out to dinner with him? Why? I did a service. I played the saxophone. I’m 29 years old now, and I can say that there has to be mutual respect with anybody I work with. Otherwise, I won’t be around.”

Early Messages

Changing such behavior is challenging because attitudes are often shaped early in life and later replicated as if in a hall of mirrors, affecting every interaction.

Composer, arranger, and conductor Maria Schneider, a multiple Grammy winner and National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, says she has responded to perceptions about women in jazz by “being oblivious” to them. Her personal history, which included having strong female role models, is part of the reason she was able to ignore chauvinist attitudes.

Schneider is from Windom, a small town in Minnesota. She grew up with sisters who painted and acted and had women mentors. Schneider credits her musical approach, which blurs the lines between jazz and classical music, to her studies as a child with Evelyn Butler, a stride, boogie-woogie, and classical pianist from Chicago who taught her by moving freely from improvising on Cole Porter’s tunes to playing Bach. 

Schneider’s father also helped shape her self-image. “Growing up, I spent a lot of time with men because my dad had three girls,” she recalled. “I was the youngest one, and my dad, who was a duck hunter, had wanted a boy to duck hunt. So, by the time I was eight, he had given me a 20-gauge shotgun and I was going hunting, and [these men] never treated me differently. I did everything that everybody else did and was treated just the same. So I think that that’s a lot of it.”

Perhaps because of her background, she also recognizes the importance of early messages: “More often than not, when we approach a little girl we talk about what she’s wearing, how pretty she is, her hair…. But we never say those things to the boy. We always say, ‘Oh, what are you building? What are you making? What are you doing?’ His message is all about what he’s creating, what he’s building, what he’s doing. And I think the most damaging thing for young girls is this feeling that their value is how they’re perceived from the outside. It just really is a time and an energy suck in every woman’s life.”      

Carrington is another exceptional musician with an unusual personal story. She was born into a musical family. Her mother played the piano, her father was a saxophonist and the president of the Boston Jazz Society, and her grandfather was a drummer. She got her first set of drums at age seven and started her professional life at 10.

“My career has been very charmed, and I’ve never had an issue working. But I realize that most people don’t have that kind of experience—and it’s not just a matter of talent,” she says. “It’s also that they didn’t have the mentorship I had, and everybody doesn’t have the same personality either—nor should they. Everybody should be able to bring their authentic selves to their artistry. And that’s not always what happened in jazz or music in general.”

In fact, Carrington says, the disparity starts young, well before college, so addressing it during this formative period is critical. Starting next semester, the institute will collaborate with Berklee City Music®—which serves more than 46,000 students nationwide—on outreach programs in middle and high schools. In addition, she says, “We also plan to meet with some music instructors and administrators in the Boston area…because I have found that many of the teachers are used to how jazz has always been presented and have not thought enough about how they can contribute to the change we need.” 

Pushing Society Forward

Launched in October 2018, the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice emerged at a time when social movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp were challenging deeply rooted gender inequities. And it touched a chord. “I didn’t necessarily expect how many people outside of the college would be contacting me around this issue—whether it is going to their school to talk about it or work with their students, or just people in the community that have events and want people to be aware of these subjects,” Carrington says.

It’s very important that this conversation includes men, she says, and that they participate in the institute and in promoting gender equity. “I believe men have to love the music enough to realize that it will not reach its full potential until the same support and access is given to everyone across the entire gender spectrum.”

Though the institute has residencies featuring male guest artists, it has showcased a greater number of female guest artists “because it is important for students to be taught and mentored by women,” Carrington notes. The institute’s visiting artist series, the Gathering, has included powerhouses such as singer and producer Dee Dee Bridgewater, pianist and composer Michele Rosewoman, and saxophonist Melissa Aldana, as well as groups such as the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Women in Jazz Combo. 

Just as impressive is the institute’s faculty and staff, which includes composer and bassist Linda May Han Oh, composer and pianist Kris DavisVal Jeanty, and managing director Aja Burrell Wood

As the institute celebrated its first year, it received a $3 million donation to create the Terri Lyne Carrington Endowed Artistic Directorship to support long-term scholarly, creative and programmatic work. The academic program thus far includes a growing number of performance ensembles as well as Wood’s liberal arts class Music and Society: Jazz Gender and Justice. “I’m an ethnomusicologist, so my approach is always to consider music as a social process and as a cultural process,” she says. “If it’s in the music, it’s in the culture, vice versa. There are many ways to effect change and address the complex issues in society and culture, and I believe that music is a way to do so. Jazz has already changed the world, so what happens when we make a change within jazz?”

For professor and author Griffin, the issue of inclusion offers jazz another opportunity to be at the vanguard of social change. 

“During the height of segregation in American society, jazz musicians of all races were playing together and learning from each other and refusing to play to a segregated audience,” she says. “And they were bringing together young people across racial boundaries, so much so that older generations were fearful because they were challenging what they thought were natural racial boundaries. That’s part of our history. So why not just live up to that history when it comes to issues like gender and sexuality? That’s who we are. That’s what we do. We don’t stick to the old ways. We push our society forward.”

This article appeared in the spring 2020 issue of Berklee’s alumni magazine, Berklee Today.

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