Women in Jazz

By Nina Cherry

The music industry is, and always has been male-dominated, especially in jazz. The vast majority of jazz musicians in the canon are men. The genre was born in raunchy clubs that were considered to be unfit for a lady. Jazz is the ultimate boy’s club. There are a few prolific female vocalists that made their way into the canon such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, and Billie Holiday, but the number of female instrumentalists that have received the recognition they deserve in the genre is even scarcer.

I didn’t realize how large the gap was until I started a unit on the jazz canon in one of my classes. I knew about plenty of female jazz vocalists, but I realized that I could not even name one female jazz instrumentalist. It turns out that UMKC’s Conservatory of Music and Dance has a total of one woman in the jazz studies program – a sizeable and very reputable program. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it – why are female jazz instrumentalists so underrepresented?

A large part of jazz are the solos, and that’s how we are remembered as instrumentalists – that is our statement of expression and our time to show off. Aspects of jazz such as “trading fours” (definition: http://people.virginia.edu/~skd9r/MUSI212_new/materials/definitions2.html#tradingfours) are about asserting dominance on the bandstand – something often viewed as “masculine”. Improvisation and soloing are other major aspects of jazz which require leadership, so that role is almost always filled by a man.

Although there has been plenty of racial integration in the history of jazz, there remains a huge margin to be filled in terms of gender inclusion. I firmly believe that out of all of the genres of music, jazz has the furthest to go in terms of gender equity.

This is a fantastic article for more on this topic: http://theconversation.com/why-is-there-so-little-space-for-women-in-jazz-music-79181