Women in Jazz: Surviving and Thriving

Volume C, No. 11November, 2000

Natasha Jackson

International Women in Jazz and the Local 802 Jazz Advisory Committee collaborated to present a panel on “Women in Jazz: Surviving and Thriving” on Sept. 25. The women of the JAC wanted to address the unique issues facing women jazz musicians and immediately thought of IWJ, the pre-eminent organization representing women in this field. The meeting’s goal was to provoke discussion of sensitive issues like sexual discrimination, and the struggle it takes to be recognized as an artist instead of as “another pretty face” or a token minority.

The audience was composed of women musicians, many of whom expressed frustration in dealing with experiences such as not being taken seriously over the phone as a result of having a high, “young sounding” voice. Another woman told of being sent home by employers who weren’t expecting her husband’s “sub” for the band to be his wife.

The panel included a variety of contributors to the jazz industry. Sylvia Cuenca, renowned drummer and bandleader, spoke of her experiences playing with high profile jazz artists and her trials in the male-dominated industry. She said she works through it by focusing on her craft and surrounding herself with people who are more positive.

Gwen Black, a visual artist and founder of Incorporation of Artists on the Move (IAM), said she observed how little visibility women jazz musicians have in the industry while she was in a relationship with a jazz musician. She decided to conduct her own research and found that a rich history exists – a history she draws from in her work.

Both Black and Cuenca paid tribute to Clark Terry for acknowledging women artists’ talent and encouraging them to persevere. Cuenca first played with Terry almost a decade ago and he has continued to hire her regularly on the basis of her skill. Terry also encouraged Black to pursue her “Beauty and the Beat” project, which recognizes the contributions of women in jazz.

Sue Terry, saxophonist, JAC member and moderator, raised the provocative question of whether women should market their sexuality. “This is show biz, and you have to use what you’ve got,” said Linda Bramble, a booking agent and producer, but she emphasized that this in no way means that women should demean themselves or take the focus off the art.

She and Dierdre Henry of Festival Productions both stressed the importance of a professional personal presentation, from press packet to verbal communication. Responding to the question of how to get recognition from booking agents before you have an established name, Bramble suggested making sure that you know who the key players are and making sure that they know you. Henry emphasized building a mailing list and keeping people aware of upcoming performances.

Sally Placksin, author of “American Women in Jazz, 1900 to the Present,” spoke about the importance of being aware that women have a place in the history of jazz. Contemporary women jazz musicians can use this as a foundation on which to build their confidence and strength. An audience member reinforced that point, and testified to the need for more examples of women instrumentalists, when she told about the young daughter of a friend who wanted to play the saxophone in the school band – but somehow ended up with the clarinet.

Howard Johnson, a saxophonist known in part for starting the first Saturday Night Live band, provided valuable insights into attitudes and opinions some male musicians have regarding their female counterparts. Although sexist views exist, Johnson said, he does not view this as intentional – but as an issue that has still not received the serious attention it merits. Jimmy Owens, trumpeter and an active Local 802 member, said he received negative reactions after hiring a female jazz drummer for one of his performances.

All the panelists agreed that education and awareness are key to moving beyond the stereotypes. “Look around the room,” Owens said. “Usually this room is full of men – but because this was about women, the men stayed away.”

Bramble replied instantly, “You know, we need more guys like you, Jimmy, to bring the others along so they know this is something they should support.”

Another Women in Jazz panel is scheduled for next year.