While the world of jazz music has always been a racially diverse place, it has historically shown a pretty stark gender imbalance: the number of female and non-binary musicians (particularly instrumentalists) is remarkably lower than the number of male musicians. Many women in the jazz field have at one time or another felt marginalized or dismissed outright. And even if you’re lucky enough to find fantastic mentors and teachers, there is still something that leaves a lot of female musicians wanting more: to see themselves reflected back at them from the bandstand.
Women in Jazz Organization is about to kick off its second full year of WIJO Mentors, a volunteer-based, year-long collegiate mentorship program designed to connect and enrich the community of women and non-binary people in jazz. The program is run by a small but mighty team: Roxy Coss (founder of WIJO); Elsa Nilsson (project coordinator) and myself as the project director.
In this program, professional jazz musicians from WIJO are paired with selected students who are pursuing jazz in any capacity (but not necessarily as a major or minor). The 2019-2020 season of WIJO Mentors will run Oct. 15 through May 15.
WIJO Mentors provides strong role models to up-and-coming college musicians in a safe and supportive environment, and offers a way for established jazz musicians on the scene to actively participate in and shape the future of their community. Selected mentees will receive a once-in-a-lifetime experience to learn in a one-on-one setting from professionals from around the world, receiving guidance on musical, career, and interpersonal skills. Mentors are required to provide their mentees with two private lessons and four 30-minute meetings or discussions, as well as professional feedback on their applications. All participants are also invited to two special WIJO Mentors events, one to introduce each other, and one at the conclusion of the year to celebrate all of the hard work. Last season, we hosted a listening party/jam session at Jazz at Lincoln Center. This was a great way for all of the mentees to meet and play with each other, and it’s also a great way to introduce them to the WIJO community at large – because, after all, once they finish their degree programs, the mentees will be potential WIJO members!
Not only is it meaningful that the mentors themselves are generously giving their time and energy to help our students, it’s paramount that the young people in the program see themselves represented at the professional level.
“Knowing that there was someone out there who I could relate to and went through the same things I am going through right now helped me become a better musician,” said mentee Jess Goodrich, an alto saxophonist from University of North Texas who was paired with baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian.
Pianist Yvonne Rogers from Eastman School of Music, who was paired with pianist Rachel Z Hakim, said that “the WIJO Mentors program has already had a huge positive impact on my musicianship, my understanding of myself, and my outlook for the future.”
The sentiments Jess and Yvonne expressed were echoed by many other mentees. The word we kept seeing pop up over and over again was “inspired.” But the beautiful thing to me about this sort of program is that everyone benefits. Both members of each pair get a lot of inspiration and knowledge out of the experience. Pianist Monika Herzig said that working with her mentee was enlightening because “it helped her understand the hurdles and perception of the current generation,” and alto saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer said of her experience as a mentor, “I can now offer something that I never had when I was a young woman. This gives me great joy and satisfaction.”
Jazz history has a rich lineage of musical mentorship and apprenticeship, which has helped to broaden and bolster the entire musical community. But those personal connections haven’t been as readily available to young women and non-binary people in jazz, and that is really at the crux of it all. These connections will hopefully follow these musicians – both mentors and mentees – through their careers. Repeat-mentor Rachel Z Hakim summarized her experience well when she said, “I made a good friend…and that’s what it’s all about!”
Every community can be enriched by diversity – it’s always been that way. How many things that we love are a product of the synthesis of disparate elements? It’s how we ended up with jazz in the first place. The strength of our music scene comes from the drive and creative diversity of the population, and that creative diversity is cultivated by the diverse people in the population. It has to start with us. And in order to enact change in representation of women and non-binary people on the music scene, we need to mobilize and inspire the next generation.
We are living in a pretty divisive and polarized time, and it seems that we as a collective need to shift our energies a bit and focus them toward collaboration and communication. We’ve all got to generally get along better. And a great step toward that is mentorship – seek out the opportunity to mentor, or to be mentored. It pushes the musical community forward and makes the seemingly big world a little smaller. Being an artist is hard, so why not try to make it just a bit easier? Mentee Sarah Milligan, a tenor saxophonist from University of Texas at Austin, put it well when she described her experience in WIJO Mentors: “It is nice to know you are not alone.”
For more information on the program, please visit www.wearewijo.org/mentors
Emily Pecoraro is the director of the mentors program of Women in Jazz Organization. A member of Local 802 since 2016, she is a professional woodwind player, composer and educator.