As a true band kid, jazz is one of my favorite music genres. I played the tenor saxophone in jazz band from the 7th to 11th grade. Playing alongside my peers was always a freeing experience that was a great creative outlet. Early on though, I realized that in my jazz class there was usually only one girl for every seven or eight boys. The ratio was even worse in jazz videos I would see on YouTube. Looking back, even all my jazz teachers were men. Despite women being some of the greatest jazz artists of all time, they are greatly underrepresented. I make sure that I am aware of this and make sure my jazz playlists are diverse in the gender of the artists featured. I want to bring awareness to readers to ensure that women in jazz get fair representation and young women around the world feel inspired to go into jazz as well.
Billie Holiday is one jazz vocalist that has always stood out to me. She lived a short life (1915 – 1959) that consisted of struggle, but she consistently fought against the powers that held her down. She was born into poverty and experienced substance abuse that seemed to control most of her life. Despite her disadvantages she went on to work with some of the biggest jazz artists in history including Count Basie, Lester Young, and Artie Shaw. Most of Holiday’s songs reflected her melancholy life. Her most famous and historically significant song is “Strange Fruit”. The song’s lyrics originated from a poem written by a Jewish teacher from the Bronx. These lyrics expose America’s racism in a heart wrenching way as it depicts the lynching of African Americans that was occurring in the south at the time. Her recording label refused to produce the song out of fear from reactions from listeners, so Holiday turned to a friend to produce it for her. She was forbidden from singing the song at many venues and there was some outrage towards her because of how raw and honest the song was. Holiday is a woman I will always look up to. She was a minority in many aspects of her life, people always attempted to silence her, and she was born in poverty, yet she fought for all her accomplishments and helped many with the message she spread and the art she created.
Some contemporary women in jazz are still paving the way for women to share the space. Esperanza Emily Spalding is an American jazz bassist, singer, songwriter, and composer. She won a Grammy in 2011 for Best New Artist. Another artist is Diana Jean Krall, a Canadian jazz pianist and singer known for her contralto vocals. Even TikTok famous artist Laufey Lín Jónsdottír, a singer, songwriter, and guitarist got famous singing in a modern jazz style. I highly recommend listening to some of these women to further aid in their popularity and show the world that women belong in the jazz spotlight too.
Furthermore, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra has never had a female performer and still does not have a woman in their ranks. This is one of the most recognized jazz bands in the world and receives federal funding. A great look at this problem was written in 2004 by W. Royal Stokes. This blog post states:
“One of the most heartwarming expressions of concern about this salient issue was Nat Hentoff’s Last Chorus column in the June 2001 JazzTimes. Titling his piece “Testosterone Is Not An Instrument,” Nat alluded to Lara Pellegrinelli’s “scorching . . . indictment” of Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for excluding female instrumentalists from its ranks. Lara’s broadside originally appeared in the November 2000 Village Voice and reappeared in an updated version in the March 2001 JazzTimes. Titled, respectively, “Dig Boy Dig: Jazz at Lincoln Center Breaks New Ground, But Where Are the Women?” and “I Guess I Would Notice. But That Doesn’t Mean You Shouldn’t,” the VV article can be read online at villagevoice.com and the JT one at jazztimes.com. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra remains all-male as of this essay’s posting in March 2004.”
This situation has not dramatically changed in the last 18 years which is alarming and should be a topic taken with extreme consideration. Women deserve to be represented in jazz. The movement to involve women in STEM seemingly parallels my thoughts on women in jazz in motivating women to represent themselves in spaces that have historically been male dominated. I hope all readers take the time to listen to some female jazz musicians and recognize how their representation matters.