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Feminism: Sex & gender discussions

Jazz Musicians - why are they all men?

38 replies

ageingdisgracefully · 12/05/2011 19:08

I'm not sure if this is a silly question or not, so apologies if so.

I've just taken up jazz piano. I took piano as a child, as did many of my (girl) friends. Most of DD's (girl) friends are learning whilst the boys seem to be doing other things.

I do a lot of background research, listening to and watching music on youtube. With the exception of Diana Krall and maybe one or two others, they are all men. There's Duke, Louie, Benny, Oscar, Jelly Roll, Fats, Jamie, Jules, Keith etc but hardly any women at this level. Why do you think this is, given the amount of girls learning music?

I'm not talking about singers here, incidentally, but musicians, and particularly pianists.

OP posts:
southeastastra · 12/05/2011 19:56

cause men seem to have time to noodle unlike women probably

InmaculadaConcepcion · 12/05/2011 20:00

Nina Simone?

But yes, jazz is massively male-dominated - even compared to some of the other musical genres.

Chil1234 · 12/05/2011 21:03

There were some terrific women on jazz piano like Lil Hardin and Sweet Emma Barrett but, like a lot of fields in the past where men dominated, they didn't get the publicity or recognition. Exception was Mary Lou Williams

Lio · 13/05/2011 11:00

Also Carla Blay, but yes, these women are in the minority. I can't think of reasons beyond expectation, lack of role models, being passed over etc.

CogitoErgoSometimes · 13/05/2011 13:03

I think the 'boys club' problem extended also to the lifestyle. Seedy venues, copious drug-taking, organised crime connections.... could have put off women in the 1920's - 40's heyday.

Thomas1969 · 13/05/2011 13:18

Not completely true. The pianist Barbra Carol. Also, if you take the human voice as an instrument, which it certainly is, then women dominate. Sarah Vaughan, Fitzgeald, Carmen McRae; and all the others. A jazz song is worth nothing without a competent singer.

Thomas1969 · 13/05/2011 13:24

Goodness me. Of course Nina Simone. A fantastic pianist who could write a damn fine tune too. How could i forget her. Saw her at South Bank a while back. Just the kind of f??k-you-I-know-I'm-fantastic woman i adore. Just perfection!

Thomas1969 · 13/05/2011 13:26

Who says women can't cope with seedy venues. Miss Holiday, we're talking about you!

gramercy · 13/05/2011 13:27

Bil is jazz musician.

Your bog-standard jazz musician is not trendy - more like grizzled, food stuck in beard, polyester trousers... only a quarter of a millimetre up from trainspotter, really.

Added to which most of the music is turgid, self-centred crap.

That is why it is man-dominated.

CogitoErgoSometimes · 13/05/2011 13:51

Billie Holliday was certainly a lover of the seedy venue, coke-fuelled lifestyle and paid for it eventually. Would hope women generally have more sense. Remember seeing a docu-drama about Ray Charles, I think it was, and wondering just how on earth any of them made it past 30.

Thomas1969 · 13/05/2011 14:07

Excuse me but Ms Holiday, even though i dont like her voice that much, was a fine woman who was at liberty to frequent any place she wanted; colour-bar permitting, seedy or otherwise. Her talent for interpretation outstripes her fondness for coke any day in my book. Too much is said about her drug taking.

Bumperlicioso · 13/05/2011 14:40

There was someone lovely on women's hour the other day who is a jazz musician (though I don't think she defines herself that way). She is releasing an album of reinterpreted covers.

Bumperlicioso · 13/05/2011 14:42

Clare Teal

Butterbur · 13/05/2011 14:47

It isn't just jazz thought, is it? The whole musical sphere outside the realms of classical seems to be male dominated. There are few female rock musicians, and few women in popular music, apart from singers.

InmaculadaConcepcion · 13/05/2011 14:48

More than in the jazz field thought, I suspect Butterbur

Clare Teal is ace, but isn't she a singer, Bumper? (I could be wrong - she may be an instrumentalist too...)

HandDivedScallopsrgreat · 13/05/2011 15:31

Butterbur - I would also say that the classical music sphere is also hugely male-dominated if you look at composer, conductors and orchestra ratios (especially the first two).

Butterbur · 13/05/2011 18:29

I agree HandDivedScallops. For some reason I was only thinking of instrumentalists, and while it's far from 50:50, women are not the hens' teeth they seem to be in other genres.

quiddity · 14/05/2011 15:24

There have been lots of great women jazz/R&B singers. They all came through the church, which was at one time the only place that women could learn/perform.

MortenHasNiceShirts · 15/05/2011 00:36

Yes, it's true that there are very few women conductors. The number of composers is improving gradually though, although still a long way from 50:50.

NacMacFeegle · 15/05/2011 08:13

I play a lot of music, not jazz though ( Wink) - at the sessions I go to, I am usually outnumbered about 5-1, and am regularly the only woman.

You have to work twice as hard to get half the respect, IME. There is always an expression of surprise from new men in the group - they start off patronising, then there is grudging support, and eventually we get on an equal footing.

There is a lot of banter, and I don't challenge everything (due to not having the time!) But the music is the important thing, and people (male or female) who don't get that don't last long in the group.

One thing I do think - I am an OK pianist, to be an excellent pianist you need hours upon hours to practice. Most women I know don't have the time. I struggle to get a couple of hours a day (single mum, 3 kids) and have to sacrifice other stuff (TV, sleep etc) in order to get it done. The men - even those with kids - don't seem to struggle in this way, they generally have a willing woman in the background who picks up the slack.

InmaculadaConcepcion · 15/05/2011 09:58

quiddity you're quite right about the profusion of female singers in the Jazz/RnB field, but the OP was specifically interested in examples of instrumentalists.

Good point, Nac about the practice time and the undivided commitment necessary to reach the level of excellence required in jazz/classical fields. The best female musicians I know are single and child-free.

InmaculadaConcepcion · 15/05/2011 10:02

...apart from those who started young and were dedicated/encouraged enough to reach a very high standard before leaving the parental sphere...

ageingdisgracefully · 17/05/2011 18:10

I'm an OK pianist, too, and just taken piano up again because suddenly I've got the time!! I was wondering if it's a cultural thing - a bit similar to most high-profile cooks being men despite most cookiing being done by women - or perhaps more of a combination of committment/ application/ time? I also wondered if there could be something about jazz music that attracts men on an intellectual level? a bit like the argument that men are likely to be better at maths and physics? (not saying that I agree with these views, incidentally!).

Thanks for your thoughts (says she pulling some crumbs out of her grizzly beard...)

OP posts:
orsinian · 19/05/2011 21:02


The greatest saxophone player this country has produced in recent decades is Barbara Thompson MBE, and she's a jazz musician. I can't therefore agree with the generalisation 'all men'.

I would certainly suggest that 'most' jazz musicians are men; and the reason is simply - if you are obsessed with playing, then that means playing anywhere, at the drop of a hat, for little money. And that means you will have to put up with a dingy guesthouse or hotel and endless hours on a coach or train (jazz musicians don't run cars). The drummer Bill Bruford provides an insight into the nature of jazz musicians in his autobiography, written just before he retired.

orsinian · 19/05/2011 21:28

Sorry, hit submit too soon.

...quite simply a life 'on-the-road' for female jazz musicians (or even a lone folkies for that matter) probably isn't a safe prospect. And jazz musicians by definition are solitary creatures. As well as the potential for rape and assault, the environment and tradition for jazz musicians is to consume vast quantities of alcohol and (up until only recently) breathe-in vast quantities of cigarette smoke. All of this make for a less-than-enticing career option for women.

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