Point of View
Pianist/Composer/Educator and Head, Jazz Studies,
answers the following question...
Why are there not more women in
by Louise Denson
When I migrated from Canada to
Brisbane in 1999 to teach in the jazz area of the Queensland
Conservatorium, I was surprised and thrilled to find that the
bass tutor was a woman - Helen Russell. Not long after my
arrival, the group Morgana (Gai Bryant, ) played a local venue;
and not long after that, bassist Belinda Moody performed with
Indonesian violinist Luluk Purwanto’s jazz fusion ensemble. A
friend lent me Clarion Fracture Zone CDs featuring Sandy Evans.
Another friend sang the praises of pianist Cathy Harley, now in
the USA. And on the local scene, composer/trumpeter Laura Kahle
was presenting her recent works for big band which had been
commissioned through Jazz Queensland.
I started to get the idea - which has proven to be true - that
women were and are accepted on an equal footing in the
Australian jazz scene. By that I mean that women who can play
get hired as sidewomen; their groups are invited to present at
festivals of national significance; they are awarded grants by
the Australia Council and state arts councils for recording and
touring; and they are recognized at the highest levels for their
achievements and their contributions to Australian cultural life1.
So why are there not more women playing jazz?
In Australia, the answer to this question is clearly no longer a
simple one such as “The guys shut us out”, or “We’re not taken
seriously” or “We’re put down so often, we get discouraged and
quit.” This is not to say that women will never encounter any
old fashioned attitudes or resistance on the bandstand again.
But the closed doors of the boys’ club that jazz has
traditionally been are now definitely open, even if women
elsewhere in the world are still having to ask to be let in.
Part of the answer has to lie in music education in schools.
Despite formal research and living proof that girls are fully
able to play the trumpet, trombone, drums or any other
instrument traditionally regarded as “more suitable” for boys,
girls continue to be concentrated in the areas of piano, voice,
flute, clarinet or violin. This in turn limits their
opportunities to take part in school bands where students’ first
exposure to jazz usually takes place. Usually only one pianist
or vocalist wins a place in a secondary school big band, whereas
there are 4 trumpets and trombones, and 5 saxophones. Flute,
clarinet and violin won’t generally get a look in.
Once in the band, playing your part within your section is one
thing, but taking a solo is entirely another. This is the kind
of situation where all the delicate emotional and psychological
forces which make a young person’s life so turbulent come into
play. “You mean I have to stand up in front of my classmates, my
family, my friends - and make up what I play? And it’s meant to
sound good? I don’t know what I’m doing! I’m going to make a
fool of myself! That cute guy in the trumpet section is never
going to talk to me now...!” I remember experiencing all those
emotions myself when I started studying jazz (although the
trumpeters were all homely), and I was 26! (Okay, so I’m a late
Strangely, and this is a documented psychological phenomenon,
women of all ages can also suffer from fear of success: “If I
really play well, then I’ll get asked to do an even harder piece
next time, and I know I won’t be able to handle that. Besides,
if I blow them all away, I won’t make any friends because it’ll
make them all feel bad, maybe even jealous...and that cute guy
in the trumpet section....”
These self-confidence issues can plague a woman throughout her
training and her career, certainly until she feels in some way
“established”. Women jazz musicians often stress in interviews
the importance of just forging ahead, shutting out the bad
vibes, staying away from people who are negative - just keeping
on keeping on. But you have to have a strong psychological
constitution to be able to do that successfully over the long
Another issue is the lack of role models for the aspiring young
female jazz musician. Having said that in Australia today women
seem to be recognized and appreciated for their efforts, there
are still not many of them in comparison to the number of men
playing jazz, and therefore they are a lot less visible.
Certainly books about the history of jazz both in the USA and
Australia typically devote very little attention to women, with
vocalists faring much better than instrumentalists. This is
unfortunately true even of very recent publications, despite
current research which has documented the extensive
participation of women in jazz from its earliest days forward.
The normalization of jazz as a masculine phenomenon, as cultural
theorists would put it, can lead a young woman to think that her
only possible role in the music is as a vocalist or pianist.
But assuming that a young woman has persevered and is
contemplating a career as a jazz musician, any number of things
might put her off. The first and most obvious is the difficulty
in making a living - and not a good living, just any living.
Australia Council research in 20032
revealed that musicians in Australia made around $26,000 per
annum from music related activities. You can hardly survive on
that, and your prospects of owning even a roadworthy car, let
alone property are very slim. So anyone envisaging a life
involving the comfort and stability which most Australians enjoy
will need to think about where, in addition to playing jazz, the
money will come from.
It is no coincidence that many of the world’s best known women
jazz musicians do not have children. This follows on from the
previous point: if you can hardly keep your own body and soul
together, how can you feel confident that you will be able to
support someone else for 18 or more years? Women in jazz also
face the same choice that all career women do - whether or not
to withdraw from the workforce for several years to raise
children. It is just as difficult for a woman to re-enter the
jazz workplace after a long absence as it is for a business
woman to pick up where she left off six years before.
Another issue is the rigors of the jazz life. Jazz involves a
lot of late nights, low pay, long hours, hauling heavy equipment
(depending on what and where you play), take-away meals, road
trips, sometimes getting ripped off, sometimes dealing with
truly horrible venue owners, event organizers or agents... it
can all get a little old. And there are some very serious issues
for women: walking back to your car alone at 3 am pushing a
trolley of gear can quite literally endanger your life when
you’re in an entertainment precinct full of weekend revelers.
(One plus for all working musicians is the ban on smoking in
pubs and clubs: at least our chances of dying from
second-hand-smoke-induced lung cancer have been greatly
If the jazz life is so taxing, perhaps the question I should be
answering is, Why are there any women in jazz at all?! The
answer is that jazz is a music worth devoting your life to. It
offers a unique opportunity for self-expression and a lifetime
of exploration, discovery and growth. I get excited every time I
hear one of my tunes come to life in the very capable hands of
my colleagues, and completing a project such as a CD or a set of
arrangements gives me a great sense of accomplishment. And
despite its drawbacks, the jazz life is exciting, challenging,
rewarding, and fun. You get to travel, you get to find out what
you’re made of when obstacles and challenges arise, you have the
satisfaction of knowing that you’re in a good karma profession
which improves the quality of life on earth. And you are part of
a community - a fractious, disparate, loosely-knit community of
rabid individualists - but one in which the relationships you
form with your fellow musicians are among the most important in
As an educator as well as a composer/performer, the question of
how to encourage more young women to take up jazz is important
to me. Teaching at the tertiary level, I have no direct
influence over what happens in Queensland’s schools, but I like
to think that the jazz area at the Conservatorium offers a
supportive environment for the development of all our students.
The fact that many of our female graduates are active and
visible on the Brisbane music scene can only be a good sign for
Judy Jacques, Andrea Keller, Sandy Evans, Alison Wedding, Janet
Seidel, Lisa Young, Shannon Barnett, Megan Washington, Tina
Harrod, Linda Oh and Kristen Berardi have all won Bell Awards in
various categories; Judy Bailey and Sandy Evans have received
the Order of Australian Merit (OAM).
2 Throsby, D & Hollister, V. (2003).
Don’t give up your day job: an economic study of professional
artists in Australia. Australia Council.
© 2011 Louise Denson
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I was very interested to read Louise's article on women in jazz. I have had the opportunity to work with several excellent female practitioners of the art: Judy Bailey, Sandy Evans, Fiona Lugg, Lisa and Nicky Parrott (both from Newcastle,NSW now NY,NY resident), Sue Cruikshank,Sandi White, Marie Steinway and Natalie Morrison. I agree with the other respondents who hold that there is a subtle difference in the group when ladies are involved. With them in the rhythm section there seems often to be a more palpable incentive and support for the soloist, an encouragement to create and swing. If more women were brave enough to become seriously involved in jazz it could only be a good thing. Thanks for your article, and good luck with your course in QLD.
Posted by Glenn Henrich on Friday 1 April 2011
Thanks for such a thoughtful and thorough essay. Many of your comments resonate with me as a male musician too, and I feel that most of the disincentives to pursuing a career in jazz for a woman are the same for a man. It must be true that there is a different response generally to these issues between the genders.
I agree that the cultural conditioning from school onwards still plays a significant role in the perceived role of women in the jazz scene. Maybe boys are generally more confident about 'mucking in' with improvisation, aided by the male ego.
My own experience in working with women musicians such as Jann Rutherford, Cathy Harley, Debbie Kennedy, Sandy Evans, Leonie Cohen, Monique Lysiak and Mara Kiek is that the group dynamic is subtly changed to feel more balanced, less competitive perhaps and always striving for the highest quality.
If more women are to be part of the jazz scene, I think they can stake their position best by bringing female virtues to the culture of the music... that doesn't need to mean that the music will sound much different, but I think women have a different intention to men when they play, and that can be their greatest contribution. It has something to do with ego I reckon... gender issues can be touchy to write about, but I feel this is very important.
Posted by Paul Cutlan on Friday 1 April 2011
Well said Louise. I tend to just use my ears for music and I hear no difference in quality between men and women, but perhaps a difference in sentiment or touch, and for this I am drawn to many women musicians because their experience "sounds" different to mine. Eliane Elias is a good example here for me. Maria Schneider too, and the Australian women you mentioned also. Thanks for your article.
Posted by Bill Risby on Friday 1 April 2011
I enjoyed your essay Louise.
There is a subtlety in the female expression I think men can learn a lot from.
The Queensland Jazz scene and all your students are lucky to have you.
Posted by Tony King on Friday 1 April 2011
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