A Gender Equality Challenge to the Australian Jazz Scene
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"The root of the problem is that jazz has a long, proud history… and that history is sexist." Mallory is a female jazz trombonist out to break up the boys' club.
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A Gender Equality Challenge to the Australian Jazz Scene

by Mallory Steele See Profile
Adelaide SA, Australia
23rd Jun 2017
A Gender Equality Challenge to the Australian Jazz Scene

If you’ve been keeping up with the Australian jazz scene, you may have noticed that there's a bit of a gender issue. There are plenty of examples of female jazz musicians with flourishing careers, and yet a glance at any local gig guide will show that male instrumentalists still dominate, as they have since jazz began. Severe underrepresentation of women creates a certain environment, with issues that range from the mildly annoying to the deeply insidious. Most of the female musicians I know have felt uncomfortable during “boys' club” gigs and rehearsals - they’ve been the butt of jokes, and even had assumptions made about their sexuality based on the instrument that they play.

I myself tried playing piano, drums, saxophone and bass guitar before I picked up trombone and decided to stick with it. All girls schools are often short on brass players, so I was encouraged to play trombone to make up numbers for my school's big band. As a female trombonist, I had as good a start as I could have asked for. My first trombone teachers were both women and at Generations in Jazz in Mount Gambier, I saw Shannon Barnett take on James Morrison in an epic trombone battle - there’s no scoreboard in jazz, but in my eyes she won. I distinctly recall having the impression that cool female trombone players must be a thing. While studying jazz at uni, I took a classical conducting course as an elective. When the lecturer was enquiring about the classroom’s instrumentation, I put up my hand and said “I play the trombone.” He laughed, and the class joined in. My jazz friends shot me bemused looks. I had to insist that I wasn’t joking. Even after that he kept assuming that voice was my major, not trombone. I dated a sax player, who would introduce me and say that I studied music too, but make everyone guess what instrument I played. They would ask if I was a singer, or if I played piano. Maybe flute? Acceptable female instruments. I find it difficult, now, to play trombone without feeling like I have something to prove. I get so worked up about whether I’m confirming the prejudice that I can hardly play at all.

There’s a working big band in Adelaide that, when it first formed, was noticeably all-male. Since then, I’ve heard that the leader of the band refused to consider female instrumentalists. Apparently, he was concerned that they would be subjected to sexism from the band members. Friends of mine, female and male, now boycott the band entirely. I was at a rehearsal once, for another band, and was acutely aware of being the only female present when one musician arrived and shook hands with all the guys, but greeted me with a kiss on the cheek. I flinched and mumbled something like “We’re not doing that.” It was rumoured that he was out-of-work; allegations of sexual abuse had been made against him. I was distracted all rehearsal, wondering whether nobody else knew, or nobody else cared. Countless rumours like this circulate quietly around the jazz scene. The problem is, the jazz scene isn’t a structured workplace. There’s no manager to report issues to, and no policies to disclose relevant information to employees.

If I’m offered a gig with anyone I’m not comfortable being around, I turn it down and lose the work.

These experiences have been challenging and disheartening for me, although I acknowledge that the majority of musicians I have come across are not sexist. Figures reflect an enduring underrepresentation, yet more and more articles, interviews and Facebook posts are floating around, as women and men speak out about continued inequity. Communities and organisations are attempting to bridge the gap with funding and opportunities for women exclusively, and while these initiatives help, they don’t create the equal playing field we need. Where womens’ festivals exist as an alternative to mainstream festivals, they create a binary system where the mainstream is, by default, male. Exclusively female bands create opportunities for women to play, but, whether to the exclusion of men or women, restricting band members by gender means drawing from a narrower pool of musicians. This will always be at the expense of the music. It’s important to address gaps in opportunity, but it’s also important to pick the right musicians for the gig.

The way I see it, the root of the problem is that jazz has a long, proud history… and that history is sexist. Becoming an accomplished jazz musician is largely about knowing standard repertoire, performing personal interpretations of the music and improvising using the jazz language of The Greats. And while gender equity has improved vastly over the past century, the majority of today’s repertoire has been written by men. Yet there have always been women playing jazz and writing music. Often, they’ve been overlooked, or when their work has been successful it has been credited incorrectly. I’ve seen lead sheets for Lil’ Hardin’s “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” credited to Louis Armstrong, and trombonist Melba Liston remains uncredited for arrangements she completed for musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones, as she was paid under the table at the time. Jazz has come a long way since its inception, and is renowned for its ability to adapt; to change and grow in a new direction. This growth has been necessary, not only for artistic expression, but for the survival of the art form. Now the new direction is this: gender equity.

I want to start an initiative to include womens’ compositions in standard repertoire. If you play jazz, find a tune you dig that was composed by a female musician. Take it along to a rehearsal. Play tunes by women on gigs; share recordings and lead sheets around. Standard jazz repertoire isn’t some sacred text that shalt not be tampered with; it’s dictated by what musicians choose to play. The beauty of this initiative is that anyone can participate, regardless of gender. That’s important. Gender equity is everyone’s responsibility.

This is something we can do to create an environment that respects and acknowledges womens’ contributions to jazz. We can’t apologise to all of the women whose careers were restricted by gender perceptions, but we can show them the same respect that we give so many male musicians by playing their music and allowing their legacy to live on. We need to create a jazz scene that communicates a message to working and aspiring female jazz musicians: your contributions are welcome here.

Mallory Steele

About Mallory Steele

Mallory is a writer and musician from Adelaide. She wishes we could all get along like we used to in middle school.

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Iconoclasts, Minority Voices
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23rd June 2017

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