Saying you listen to jazz has become synonymous with an eye roll, a sigh of dismissal or boredom. In today’s roaring 2020s, the jazz genre is generally associated with the male audiophile archetype: pretentious and privileged, with misogynistic tendencies.
Personally, as a musician and an enthusiast of jazz, I am tired of dealing with a culture that is toxic and unwelcoming to anyone who is not a white dude with a superiority complex. While severe sexism and discrimination are generally not socially accepted in this day and age, the prevalence of undermining, bias and patronization toward minorities still lingers in every band room.
Race, gender and class have always been factors in who gets to play and who gets to listen, and to ignore this would be to perpetuate the problem. To cover all of the issues and perspectives on jazz thoroughly in one article would be futile, so here is my best attempt to articulate my personal critiques, alongside some context.
How did we get here? Jazz is a sound that emerged from enslaved African Americans in the South, as a way to preserve their culture, past and present, despite their enslavers’ efforts to strip their identities away. The history of jazz follows the progression of call and response labor songs to the Delta blues, built on a man and his guitar, to the syncopated keys of Joplin, to the mournful croons of vaudeville queens—the stories and sorrows of African American experiences manifested in a vast range of musical expression.
White music producers quickly realized that this sound appealed to audiences regardless of racial or cultural background. White Americans, and even listeners from across the sea, were captivated as Black performers took center stage. But the consumption of and admiration for Black music did not translate to equal treatment and respect, as most public venues remained segregated for the better half of the 20th century.
Gender was, and is, a great barrier in music as a whole, but it creates a particularly evident hierarchy in jazz. Take the fact that when asked to come up with household names, rarely will someone mention a woman and, if so, it will be a singer rather than an instrumentalist.
Melba Liston, a jazz trombonist and arranger who had a career playing in combos and big bands with the likes of Dexter Gordon, Count Basie and Quincy Jones, is an example of a name erased from history. When joining one of Dizzy Gilespie’s big bands, a band member commented on her presence with, “You sent all the way to California for a bitch?”
The lack of female jazz musicians is a product of sexism, and has never had anything to do with a lack of talent or interest. Music in the professional sense was restricted to men, and even once this rule was loosened, there were only certain instruments that were considered acceptable for a woman to play, namely piano and voice. A quote from the ’50s in DownBeat, a well renowned jazz and blues magazine, captures this sentiment.
“Good jazz is a hard, masculine music with a whip to it. Women like violins, and jazz deals with drums and trumpets,” the article read.
Because of pernicious sexism, many female jazz musicians gained their fame as singers, even if they had proficiency in instruments. Jazz singing was considered by many prominent jazz critics and figures an inferior form of jazz, requiring less mastery and skill than other instruments. The role of the singer in a traditional jazz band is not essential in the sense that a rhythm section is, but calling singing simply ornamental or a visual appeal to add to the front of the band would be playing into antiquated gender roles. Thus, the association between women and jazz singing created an inferior status of the voice in the band. The assumption that a woman can only be the singer must be dismantled, but it is equally important to emphasize the validity of singing as an instrument.
In addition to its historical roots, the modern-day gender gap in jazz can also be traced to the music education system. Young girls are often socialized not to pursue instruments that are considered “masculine,” such as saxophone, trumpet, drums and bass.
Even for students that choose these instruments, most public American school systems lack comprehensive jazz programs until high school, if they have them at all. This exposes an even bigger disparity in music education as a whole. The public school system serves predominantly white and upper class students—those who have access to private lessons and instruments and allows low income and students of color to fall through the cracks. At my high school in Seattle, which had a majority BIPOC student body, the music department, especially the jazz program—failed to reflect this diversity.
Unfortunately, Lewis & Clark is not exempt from a lack of diversity. While it is not odd that our majority white college has a majority white jazz program, what is comically ironic is that at a school with a 60-40 female majority, the jazz program is overwhelmingly male.
Jazz listening and appreciation holds some contradictory narratives around accessibility. On one hand, there is the idea that jazz is dying and no longer appreciated in the present day. On the other hand, there is the movement to gatekeep and quantify what is and is not jazz. Both of these sentiments have validity, but the context in which they are applied often loses the point.
The trope that jazz must be saved, exemplified in the movie “La La Land”, comes from a white perspective, because what does it mean for jazz to be saved? Yes, jazz should be appreciated more, but by whom, and for whose enjoyment? Not to mention that there are many current artists that honor the genre, like Esperanza Spalding and Samara Joy, who have both won the Best New Artist award at the Grammys, in 2011 and 2022 respectively.
In no way am I arguing that white people can’t play jazz. Jazz has had meaningful contributions from various racial backgrounds, but a white person has a certain position when playing jazz or any music from a marginalized group, which must be acknowledged.
Then there is the question of gatekeeping. There is an importance to defining jazz, and to ignore this would be to ignore the cultural and historical significance of Black Americans. But there is a pattern of the privileged limiting access to appreciating and playing music. This has nothing to do with preserving jazz culture.
Jazz is a quintessentially American genre of music, weaving the sounds of oppression and resilience into a complex, beautiful tapestry. Unlike most forms of music in the Western canon, improvisation and communication are stressed, rather than the precise replication of a written work. It is an open conversation between musicians, instead of a recital.
While the past decades have seen progress, there is no excuse for the overt gender bias that still exists. Whether listening or playing, music should be an inviting space to learn, create and share joy with one another. Tokenization, discrimination and patronization only diminish the beauty that is jazz.