The Color Purple by Biddy Healey

Last night Cynthia Erivo blew my mind. In her incredible performance as Celie in The Color Purple on Broadway she switches easily between rich and deep belting to gentle and melismatic from one second to the next. Erivo brought light and shade and force to a story I first read as a teenager, before I really understood the enduring relevance of the themes.

The show reads Alice Walker's book as a feminist tour de force. It finishes triumphal - women literally wearing the pants (sounds trite but it works) and deciding how the story goes.

To echo the Feminist Reviewer, "there is nothing on Broadway (or, arguably, that's ever been on Broadway) that stands up to this in terms of women's empowerment....None of this is dependent on the male characters. And that, in and of itself, is as feminist as it gets: women are capable of making a story all their own."

So how did the producers (of whom Oprah Winfrey is one) and directors fail to notice that there was NOT ONE WOMAN IN THE BAND. Before you say, "maybe it was all-male for historical accuracy", the band was in the pit, out of site. It wasn't a commentary on sexism in 1909. It was a product of 2016. In a show about women rising up, refusing to be invisible, taking control of their story, the band reflected the enduring, all-male status quo of instrumental music. It was probably an oversight.

And it broke my heart, because since 1909 we've come a long way, but we have so far to go.

There are hundreds of brilliant, qualified women musicians in New York who could have filled that pit many times over. But how do you get a gig in music theatre? First, be excellent and easy to work with, obviously. No argument there. Then someone needs to recommend you to fill in when they can't make it. Once you've got your foot in the door, you hope to get a call when a job opens up. People recommend those they've played with before, people who are like them, and so pit musicians continue to look the same. These practices aren't scrutinized to see who might be missing out. Pit musicians on Broadway are unionized, but it's difficult for unions to protect those who systematically aren't getting hired, who aren't getting the calls, who are invisible.

The Color Purple has a strong message: "I am here. We are here. We take up space. Just as much space as you. We exist on this planet; we need it, we contribute to it, and we are worthy of not just inhabiting it but thriving in it" (Feminist Reviewer). Erivo sent this message loud and clear from the stage in her rendition of "I'm Here", to a roaring audience. I wonder whether the musical director and the musicians in the pit were listening. I wonder if they looked around at each other down there in the dark and felt just a little bit uncomfortable.

Be a good girl or play like a man: why women aren't getting into jazz by Biddy Healey

In my first year in one of the top Australian tertiary jazz programs, only 12 out of the 40 students were women. Six us were vocalists. The others were pianists, a sax player, a drummer, and a couple who dropped out. Having come from a workplace full of smart, powerful women, it was a bit of a surprise. This wasn't a course for aspiring heavy-weight champions. And you don't need a penis to play. So why weren't women getting in? Were they even applying?

Applicants auditioned for the program before a panel of two staff members and were admitted on the basis of their performance. It's possible to entertain the idea that there might be unconscious bias among panel members - about gender or any number of things. After all, the composition of symphony orchestras changed dramatically after they began setting up a curtain to hide auditioners from the panel. But staff I spoke to said that each year they scoured the list of applicants in the hope of finding more women, and each year the numbers came up disproportionately, miserably low. A straw poll of other Australian and US programs revealed similar trends of gender imbalance. So if gender bias is causing under-representation of women, it begins well before anyone signs up for auditions - in jazz courses, anyway.

Studies show that although at high school and tertiary level women are well represented among music students, they participate in jazz programs at much lower rates. In a ten-year study at a large university in the United States, McKeage found that women represented 60% of total music majors, but just 20% of jazz ensemble participants. In another study, Steinberg found that only 30% of participants in middle and high school jazz festivals in the US were girls. Barber’s study of 39 New Jersey high schools found that while 48% of all band members were girls, they only constituted 26% of jazz ensemble members. From high school to college the numbers get worse. McKeage found that women dropped out at much higher rates than men did, with 62% of men who played jazz in high school continuing to play in college compared to only 26% of women. It appears from these studies that low participation by women in jazz is not caused by low proportions of women musicians overall. It seems like jazz might have its own, special, gender balance problems.

I asked a jazz teacher once why he thought there was such an imbalance. He thought for a moment and said, ‘Well, jazz is a bit of blokey art form’. He may have been joking, but there's a long history to this belief. Linda Dahl wrote, ‘the qualities needed to get ahead in the jazz world were held to be ‘masculine’ prerogatives: aggressive self-confidence on the bandstand, displaying one’s single-minded attention to career moves, including frequent absences from home and family’. One magazine noted that women had been deprived of jazz’s red-light classrooms, while their ‘fear of looking unattractive’ hindered them from ‘blowing hot’. Most damning, any desire for marriage and family betrayed a lack of ‘male’ ambition. In his book Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture Erenberg quoted a 1940s Down Beat magazine: ‘women could either be “good girls” or “play like men”. The former forced them to emphasise looks over musical ability; the latter used their unexpected musical talent to nullify their sexuality.’ When Anita O’Day wished to don a band jacket ‘just like the guys’ rather than a gown, it led to sexual innuendo. She said, ‘[I wanted audiences to] listen to me, not look at me. I wanted to be treated like another musician, not a trinket to decorate the bandstands… [but soon rumors circulated] that I preferred ladies to men!’ One interviewee suggested that women ‘just have to work harder than the men so nobody can give [women] a hard time.’ Interviewees also recalled being told they were ‘like one of the guys’, when they got along with other band members, suggesting that even today, feminine identity and equality in a jazz ensemble setting are incompatible.

Is it possible that men are naturally better suited to the particular demands of jazz and improvisation? Wych categorically states that ‘gender has no effect on one’s ability to succeed at learning a particular instrument.’ Four separate studies found no statistically significant relationship between gender and improvisational ability among high school age musicians. Schmidt found no relationship between gender and motivation to practise. Numerous neurological studies have found differences between the male and female brain in performances of musical tasks. For example, a 1996 study found that during completion of music tasks females tended to have significantly higher inter-hemispheric coherence values when compared with males. A different study found male musicians had a significantly bigger anterior and posterior corpus callosum than non-musicians, whereas being a musician didn't seem to make a difference to women's brain size or activity. The researchers said this was most likely because the female brain already has more symmetric organisation than the male brain. Studies of children and adults found various differences in brain activity (males had more front to back activity, while females had more inter-hemispheric activity). But while activation patterns differed, the studies found ‘no difference in the behavioural performance between both genders.’

So why, in three years of tertiary jazz education, could I count the female musicians we studied on one hand? There were exceptional women musicians in the early history of jazz, of course. Perhaps some singers spring to mind. But how many instrumentalists or composers have you heard about from the 30s and 40s? Historically, women were often limited to performance areas more accepting of women, such as novelty or family acts. All-female jazz bands like the International Sweethearts of Rhythm toured in the 1940s as novelty acts. Sweethearts pianist, Sarah McLawler, recalls Sammy Lee Jett as ‘one of the greatest trombone players [she] ever heard… She was never recognised.’ Tonight Show footage of a vibraphone duel between Terry Pollard and Terry Gibbs in 1956 show Pollard’s running rings around Terry Gibbs. Yet Pollard was ‘a major player who was inexplicably overlooked.’ Among women who excelled, very few are enshrined in the ‘canon’ promoted in jazz education.

Numerous researchers have argued that the absence of role models negatively affects expectations of success in a given field. A 2012/13 report found that across all music industry jobs, 67.8% were filled by men, compared with 32.2% women. A 2001 review of active members conducted by a United States music educators’ organisation found that in 2001 only 23% of its members who were jazz teachers were women. A 2015 Music Victoria discussion paper on women in the contemporary music industry in Victoria, Australia, found pay inequality, sexual harassment, and poor working conditions were common issues reported by women. While this is unlikely to consciously inform the tertiary education choices of developing musicians, industry inequalities contribute to high attrition rates among professional women musicians, reducing the number and prominence of potential role models. This influences women’s choices by shaping their expectations of success.

In the fifties Down Beat magazine said, ‘good jazz is a hard, masculine music with a whip to it. Women like violins, and jazz deals with drums and trumpets.’ This statement strikes uncomfortably close to the root of the problem. Abeles and Porter found that the ‘gendering’ of instruments – where piano, violin and flute are typically considered feminine, and drums, bass, and guitar are considered masculine – informs instrument preferences for children as young as four. That is, those instruments that are typically found in jazz are associated with ‘masculinity’. Numerous studies involving musicians and non-musicians of various ages have found similar attribution of gender to musical instruments. Abeles and Porter also found parents were significantly more likely to encourage their children to play same-gendered instruments, while O’Neill and Boulton found children believed a person should not play an instrument of the opposite gender to their own. In her study of 628 college music students McKeage found that while women represented 56% of music students, only 28% of the women compared with 72% of the men reported playing an instrument commonly found in jazz. Playing a ‘non-jazz instrument’ was the primary reason women cited for not participating in jazz ensembles. According to Conway, people who select an opposite gendered instrument report receiving negative comments about their instrument choice. She argues that when girls and women perceive a subject to be more appropriate for males, they do not perform at the same level as their male counterparts. The issue of instrument selection hinges not only on instrument-gender associations, but the belief that ‘masculine’ instruments are suitable for jazz and ‘feminine’ instruments are not, reinforcing women’s exclusion from jazz.

Among the women I interviewed as well as in the literature, women seem to feel socially excluded in male-dominated ensembles. As a freelance, ensemble-based industry, jazz is a social art. Women I interviewed reported being excluded from banter and not invited to the ‘post-gig hang’. One interviewee called her bandmates out on it, and they openly told her they'd rather hire other men because 'they could joke around and they didn't have to censor themselves'. These same attitudes seem to translate into the atmosphere at gigs, where some Melbourne venues are known among young musicians as unwelcoming ‘old boys clubs’.

Another common theme from female jazz musicians I interviewed was anxiety about being seen as ‘bossy’ when taking leadership roles. They talked about qualifying and downplaying their instructions to avoid negative responses they had experienced in the past. These experiences are reflected in research, where female instrumentalists disproportionately report negative responses from male colleagues and teachers, including through withholding of approval, criticism, and being excluded from group activities. High school and college students reported being more comfortable in traditional ensembles that were mediated by a conductor and where the rules were clear. Wehr-Flowers found that female instrumentalists experienced significantly higher levels of anxiety related to improvisation than males irrespective of performance, and typically rated their ability lower than men do, independently of actual skill.  She argued unequal social experiences exposed women to significantly greater stressors than men. Without additional support, women’s negative social experiences in male-dominated ensembles are likely to be a major factor in many women instrumentalists choosing not to pursue jazz at university or beyond.

There are so many historical and social barriers to women’s participation in jazz that contribute to their underrepresentation in tertiary music courses. Until we recognise these issues are barriers to women participating, that men don't have to deal with, and that make life as a musician harder for women, gender balance in jazz will be a long way off. Children are making choices as young as four, that are based on perceptions of gender. Widely held, but perhaps unconscious beliefs that only ‘masculine’ instruments are suitable for jazz, are continuing to exclude women from jazz, because we've already chosen orchestral instruments. And there's historical view of feminine sexuality as incompatible with excellence in jazz. The prospect of finding a place within this traditionally male-dominated community is deterrent developing female musicians, because the evidence is clear that working hard to achieve success in a male dominated field still doesn't always lead to acceptance. The canon of instrumentalists enshrined in jazz education is almost exclusively male.

So how to change it? I asked whether they'd consider quotas to get some better representation, but they insisted 'it had to be merit based.' You have to wonder, would it really destroy the quality of a program like the jazz program at my university to set a quota for women students, if that meant educators rallied to encourage more girls to try? Would it really shake the bedrock of jazz education if we gave up a few of the dudes in the canon and made room in the curriculum for some women composers and musicians?

What these things would have said to me is this: 'You belong here.' 'We want to hear what you have to offer.'  'You could be great someday, too.'

To continue the conversation, follow me on Facebook.


The research for this post was part of a university assignment. I'm grateful to the musicians, students and teachers who contributed through interviews.


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