But Can She Play?

“Only God can make a tree,” the swing historian George T. Simon wrote in The Big Bands (1967, London: Macmillan), “and only men can play good jazz.”

As outrageous as this statement seems on first reading, it does lead to the question of fundamental differences between male and female psychology and physiology related to jazz performance. We now accept that women are from Venus and men are from Mars, in sports women and men compete in different categories with different standards, so are there any physiological or psychological differences in learning and performing jazz? And what kind of effects might these differences have on collaborative performances and pedagogical approaches to learning jazz? In this third article on women in jazz, I’d like to share some of the recent research in this area and possible implications of the results.

Ariel Alexander

Ariel Alexander

Saxophonist Ariel Alexander, whom I got to collaborate and perform with while she was an undergraduate Jazz Studies major at Indiana University, completed her doctoral dissertation for the University of Southern California in 2011, entitled Where are the Girls? A look at the factors that limit female participation in instrumental jazz. She did an extensive review of the literature and a survey study to uncover some of the issues that prevent female musicians from pursuing a career in jazz performance. The basic ability to improvise doesn’t seem to be an issue. Selected studies by Madura (1993)[1], Hores (1977)[2], and Bash (1984)[3] did not uncover gender issues in researching factors related to jazz improvisation achievement. Thus Ariel decided to investigate the masculine image of jazz, sexual stereotypes of instruments, behavioral and social differences between males and females, and sexual discrimination.

I discussed some of the historical issues with masculine stereotypes in jazz in my last article, demonstrating the typical cover images of textbooks. In her book Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women, Linda Dahl notes that the often dangerous nightclubs, at that time an essential learning and networking environment for jazz musicians, were an unsafe environment for women to participate in late night jam sessions. In addition, Dahl explains that the aggressive self-confidence on the bandstand displaying one’s blowing power was clearly a masculine prerogative[4]. Thus an early lack of role models is apparent and as previously discussed, the few women who overcame those barriers are historically not acknowledged. The importance of such role models has been noted in research by Gould (2001), showing that women performed with significantly greater success when the role models with whom they interacted were also women.[5]

In 1978, Ables and Porter conducted a large research study including adult and child musicians as well as non-musicians on the sexual stereotyping of instruments. They found that drums, trombone, and trumpet were seen as masculine instruments, while the flute and violin were identified as feminine by respondents older than elementary school age. Younger children displayed very few preconceptions.[6] The conclusion is that the process of introducing school children to instruments reinforces such stereotypes. In addition, five of the seven instruments included in a typical school jazz band were identified as masculine in this study (drums, trombone, trumpet, bass, and saxophone). Even in more recent studies, similar tendencies were still apparent and as a result access to participation in jazz may be denied early to those who are more likely to get the recommendation of choosing the flute or violin—the girls.

Trumpet Cartoon

Image by Papapishu from Vector.me

And what about women being from Venus and men from Mars? While women may be better at multi-tasking, we also like to travel in packs and build our identity on relationships.[7] Autonomy, independence, and separation are a significantly larger portion in the male developmental journey. In addition, females tend to avoid competitive environments and display greater amounts of anxiety and stress in such situations than their male counterparts.[8] Accordingly, the likelihood of a female teenager volunteering for an improvised solo in front of her peers that includes the option of failure is certainly smaller than her male band mate stepping out to show off his unique personality. Thus negative attitudes towards learning jazz improvisation and a lack of confidence are easily the result of such personality differences. Wehr[9] suspects that the lack of opportunity to build self-efficacy, one of the main predictors of success in jazz improvisation, is one of the main reasons for the gender issue in jazz.

Is there anything we could do about these issues or should we just accept the facts? Knowledge is power, so how about transforming the findings above in some strategies that potentially have a big impact on the gender issue in instrumental jazz. Let’s revisit the history books and make sure to credit the contributions of women and diversify the images. In terms of pedagogy, how about some alternative jazz ensembles, such as a flute choir or chamber jazz group or just integrate a wide variety of instruments in the regular ensembles? And to overcome the peer pressures, let’s provide lots of safe entry points to improvisation, such as specific guidelines, patterns, etc. and introduce the concept before puberty becomes a barrier. And as much as possible, let’s encourage diversity in jazz college faculty.

A final note on physiological differences—Ariel and myself and many other jazz women are married to fellow musicians. Being such a minority in the field amounts to a large number of choices for possible mates who have the same interest, similar work schedules, and don’t mind long practice sessions and rehearsals around the house. Hence jazz couples are quite common, in fact we performed a series of triple couple concerts here in Indiana with bass/drum and vocal/saxophone duos plus our piano/guitar combination.

After 22 years of marriage, I have to give my husband Peter Kienle immense amounts of credit for sharing all possible responsibilities in terms of household chores, organizational and musical duties, and making this career path possible. Only when it came to the birth of our daughters and the initial period of nursing—preceded by a period of large dresses and awkward piano positions preferably in non-smoking clubs—did we had to give in to our differences by design. Even though I performed the night before and the night after my first daughter was born, there were many instances during the first few years of raising our daughters where I had to send Peter to gigs with substitutes and put my overall career on the backburner.

Most likely I could have increased our vast list of babysitters even further and closed the door more often while practicing and composing. But it also would have meant missing many special moments during my daughters’ first years of life: bedtime stories; evening cuddles; first milestones—my daughter Melody stood up for the first time in a playpen that we had set up next to us while performing at an outdoor event. I don’t regret any choices I had to make because of being the “mom”, even though I fell a few years behind the young lions in building successful careers.

Monika and her daughters

Monika and her daughters.


1. Madura, Patrice: Relationships among vocal jazz improvisation achievement, jazz theory knowledge, imitative ability, previous musical experience, general creativity, and gender. (Dissertation Abstracts International, Jun 1993, Vol. 53, p. 4245.)


2. Hores, Robert: A comparative study of visual- and aural-oriented approaches to jazz improvisation with implications for instruction. (Dissertation Abstracts International, Oct 1978, Vol. 39, p. 2121.)


3. Bash, Lee: “The relationship among musical aptitude, musical achievement, psychosocial maturity, sex, age, preliminary improvisation performance and the acquisition of improvisation performance skill” in Jazz Research Papers, 1984, Vol. 4, p7.


4. Dahl, Linda: Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women (Pompton Plains, NJ: Limelight Editions, 2004).


5. Gould, E. S.: “Identification and application of the concepts of role model: Perceptions of women college band directors” in Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, vol 20 (1), 2001, pp. 14-18.


6. Abeles, H. F, & Porter, S. Y.: “The gender-stereotyping of musical instruments,” in Journal of Research in Music Education vol. 26, 1978, pp. 65-75.


7. Gilligan, C.: In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.


8. Eccles, J. S.: “Gender roles and women’s achievement-related decisions,” in Psychology of Women Quarterly vol. 11, 1987, pp. 135-172.


9. Wehr, E.: Understanding the experiences of women in jazz: A Suggested Model University of Iowa (In progress).

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2 thoughts on “But Can She Play?

  1. william osborne

    Thanks for your interesting article! One good way to break down stereo-typical gender coding of instruments is for women to serve as role models playing instruments coded as male. A great example is the DIVA all-woman big band playing “76 Trombones.” It’s really fun to watch this video:

    Deb Weisz, Jen Krupa, and Leslie Havens are the trombonists. Jen is the granddaughter of the famous jazz drummer Gene Krupa. She has played with the United States Navy Commodores since 2004. Leslie played with the Artie Shaw Orchestra for ten years. DIVA is one of the most active big bands in the USA.

    And here’s a “straight” version of “76 Trombones” played by the all-woman Bones Apart trombone quartet – an extraordinary performance! Note that it has had 1.7 million hits:

    Videos like these help dispel harmful stereotypes. Yes they can play!

    Reply
    1. Monika Herzig

      Thanks for sharing – yes they can play! I saw Diva several times and actually had a chance to play with Jen too in Washington at Twins Jazz Club – fabulous ladies!

      Reply

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