December 1, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – So, what’s it really like to be a woman jazz musician? The idea that jazz is one of the most male-dominated genres of music is “totally not true,” pianist-composer Diane Moser said Nov. 28, just before she moderated a panel discussion on the issue at Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians’ Manhattan headquarters. There are plenty of women jazz musicians, she said, even if “they don’t get the press.”
Even raising the subject is problematic, Moser told the audience. Some people feel that “it’s really important to celebrate women in jazz,” she said, while others “just want to be known as a musician” instead of being categorized as a ‘lady saxophonist.’
The panel, part of Local 802’s Jazz Mentors series, featured five musicians ranging from 24-year-old saxophonist Grace Kelly to Moser and saxophonist Carol Sudhalter, who have both been playing professionally since the 1960s. Two bassists rounded it out: Australian-born Nicki Parrott, who performed with electric-guitar pioneer Les Paul for ten years as well as cutting 15 albums as a lead singer, and Kim A. Clarke, who toured with Joseph Bowie’s Defunkt in the 1980s and also played with the late Yusef Lateef.
All five stressed the importance of finding mentors who encouraged them to believe they were good enough and hooked them up with opportunities. For Parrott, they included the late bassist Bob Cranshaw and Les Paul, who “just liked the way I played. For Clarke, one was pianist Barry Harris, who ran jam sessions at his Brooklyn loft where she got to play with the legendary drummer Art Blakey.
Women’s main traditional roles in jazz have been as singers or pianists. Sudhalter, who started out on flute, recalled that when she began doubling on saxophone in the early 1970s, a trumpeter she played with questioned her motives for wanting to play a “man’s instrument.” Both she and Kelly said it vexed them when people told them they’d never seen a woman play sax before. But Kelly believes that’s changing, as the men of her generation are more used to being around female musicians and to women being more equal in society in general.
For millennials who’ve grown up seeing musicians like bassist Esperanza, said Parrott, “it’s not a big deal.”
Still, while the proportion of women in high-school bands is now much closer to equal, the number going on to professional careers in jazz is much lower than it is in classical music, the panelists said. One complication is motherhood: It’s a lot harder for women to get out of child-care responsibilities to make a rehearsal or a gig. Moser recalled carrying her son to gigs in a Snugli, but “once he could walk, it was all over.” She had to switch to gigs that she could do during the day. Clarke said she was lucky she had a bandleader who didn’t mind her performing when she was “out to here” pregnant, and afterward, she had a good network of babysitters.
The more girls see women playing, the more they’ll feel that they can do themselves, Kelly said: “It’s important to see somebody who looks like them.” “If a young woman walks into a band and sees women, that’s their permission,” said Sudhalter, whose first big gig as a saxophonist was in the all-female salsa-jazz band Latin Fever.
That’s why we really need women’s jazz festivals, Moser said, “even though it separates us.”
Economics are a major obstacle to that. Barry Harris, Clarke said, lost his jam-site loft when the rent was doubled. She’s had problems finding stable venues for the annual “Lady Got Chops” festival she’s organized for 15 years.
Musicians forming co-ops might be one answer, she posited. “If you can have a food co-op, then why can’t you have a jazz or music co-op?” she asked.