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NPR’s Blog Supreme’s Treatment of Jazz’s Gender Inequalities

November 14, 2010 Leave a comment

A recent post on NPR’s Blog Supreme – their jazz blog – has a nice entry about being a woman in jazz.  Click here for the link.  Only one problem: except for bassist Ariane Cap all of the women are either vocalists, pianists or guitarists: all fairly traditional roles for women in jazz and popular music.  In the feature story on avant-garde guitarist Mary Halvorson and violinist Jessica Pavone in the Spring ’09 issue of Signal To Noise Halvorson took issue with the fact that she is still asked if she sings, as if all female guitarists sing.  For Halvorson this is a fairly common question by men when they learn she’s a guitarist, which shows there are still gender norms in regards to what kinds of roles in popular music are appropriate for men and women.  Unfortunately – and maybe I’m reading way too much into this – it’s possible that his well intentioned blog post by NPR furthers the stereotype that women sing, play the piano or guitar.  There are scores of extremely talented and successful women on the jazz scene today who play horns and drums, but if you check out the full list of those women that NPR surveyed they are almost overwhelmingly vocalists, pianists, guitarists and violinists.  There’s only a handful of horn players and drummers. 

Now don’t take this post to mean that I’m dumping on NPR, I’m not (mostly).  NPR could only interview who is out there, and it’s true that there are a lot of women pianists, vocalists and guitarists, which show that there are structural inequalities of biases in the way instruments are gendered, which go back well over a hundred years in American culture.  (Carol Neul-Bates’ anthology of primary sources Women In Music is a great example of this, and it’s a great teaching tool for my college students, many of whom think that gender bias and structural inequalities based on gender – and race for that matter – have largely disappeared.) 

I guess what I’m trying to get at, in what I’m thinking is a not very eloquent or clearly thought out way, is: What is the role of the jazz media in terms of dealing with the structural inequalities in jazz?  Should it try and select women musicians who are operating outside of the traditional female roles in jazz

check out how many of the women in this piece discuss the gender bias they’ve exprienced, especially in terms of how their sexuality is perceived if they’re a rhythm section player, how many women are still limited to traditionally female instruments, how straight ahead jazz is still primarily a “boys club”, etc, etc, etc, etc

in an attempt to show or create a new norm?  Or is it better, as this NPR piece does, to select a majority of women who operate, by way of their instrument(s) (the voice is an instrument too), inside traditional gender norms and have them point out the problems they face as successful women musicians?  This is a difficult question to answer, and I’m not sure what the right approach is.  Of course these possible approaches are not the only possible ways to go about changing, or at least exposing, jazz’s gender inequities, and they are not mutually exclusive.

Among it’s other benefits, one element of this piece stands out to me: as opposed to other “women in jazz” focused pieces or special issues that places like Downbeat or JazzTimes or other publications put out this piece goes way beyond only focusing on the handful of women who are prominent (Maria Schneider, Diana Krall, Regina Carter, etc – and if you’re lucky Myra Melford might show up).  There are many new voices in NPR’s piece, which is to be commended.  Perhaps just giving a voice to hundreds (if you want the full list of those interviewed go here) of women who for the most part are not heard from in other mainstream jazz outlets is a great start. 

And in lieu of trying to come up with a slick conclusion – which just isn’t gonna happen even though I’ve got plenty of coffee in my veins – I will just sign off until next time.

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