Gender, Jazz & Education

OK, here we go….

Last week I posted a link on my Facebook page for the Up-Beat Girls Jazz camp, which is taking place August 8-12 at Jazz Night School. I have recently become affiliated with JNS and want to promote this camp, which I think is a cool idea. Shortly after I posted the link, a male musician, whom I like and respect, posed a question in the comments field: “Why an all girls jazz camp?”  Although I quickly pointed out that I could not speak for the director of the school Erik Hansen, I replied that in some playing environments where there are more males than females, it is intimidating for a young girl to put herself “out there” and that the camp would provide a friendly and comfortable space for young girls to explore jazz in the company of their peers. (The camp is for girls between 6-12 grade.) My musician friend responded with “When I came up we all felt intimidated and uncomfortable in playing environments, that’s what made us stronger. I do not think this sort separation is good for music.” He went on to say-and I’m paraphrasing-that this kind of segregated learning environment actually creates and perpetuates more separation down the line. He makes some interesting points that I don’t necessarily disagree with. But I still think an all-girls jazz camp is a good idea. To steal from my own commentary: “ I don’t think anyone would disagree that jazz is, by and large, a male dominated scene. In some playing situations, a female musician receives less credibility and respect from her male counterparts solely on the basis of her gender. As a young woman, this can potentially squelch expression, especially while she’s still learning. Even with Garfield Jazz, I see very few of the girls stepping forward to blow solos. I’m not suggesting all of jazz should be segregated by gender. That’s just plain silly. But I do think that allowing girls their own space to get their musical bearings is a good idea.”

Of course, we can certainly look at this issue outside the context of music. All kinds of camps separate by gender all the time. This is true in other educational settings as well. When I was in middle school, girls were required to take home economics classes while boys took mechanical drawing and shop. My friend Beth and I were the first girls to buck that particular system. We challenged the status quo and were ultimately allowed to enroll in mechanical drawing. As I recall, the boys in my class had no problem with my presence. However, the teacher-Mr. Bright-was a bit of a dick. Still, I can’t say if he was a chauvinist dick or an all-purpose dick. One morning when we showed up for class, a dead deer was hanging from the ceiling of our classroom. Its gut was split open and there was a bucket underneath it to catch the dripping blood. Mr. Bright was a big time hunter and apparently learning how to disembowel a deer was requisite-in Mr. Bright’s twisted mind anyway-to our understanding of mechanical drawing. I think I ended up with a C in that class and the following year, I rejoined the ranks of my girlfriends in home economics. I was no rock star there either. It took me an entire year to sew one garment. Once, I even managed to accidentally sew the garment I was working on directly to the jeans I was wearing. I did even worse in home economics than in mechanical drawing. I don’t know if gender separation made any difference in these particular classes. I might add that my friend Beth went on to become a bit of a rock star surgeon in New York City.

But back to gender, jazz and learning….

In my own development as a vocalist, I have never been in any kind of segregated environment. (It should be noted that I came into jazz as an adult.) Private instruction and clinics aside, much of my learning has been on the bandstand itself, where men always outnumber me. I can happily report that 99% of the time, I have been treated very well by my male counterparts and if there was ever any sense of intimidation or discomfort for me, it had nothing to do with them. As for that other 1%, I don’t know if I was treated badly by virtue of the fact I’m female, or a vocalist or both. I will say that in that particular instance, I felt very shut down and was uncomfortable doing my thing. Needless to say, I don’t call that musician anymore. When we’re on the bandstand, we’re all on the same team. I don’t want to work with anyone who doesn’t get that.

I know I’ve barely scratched the surface here. This is a complex issue, so help me out. What do you think? Should the girls have their own jazz camp? Will this help them gain more confidence and ultimately help them become stronger players? Or does it just reinforce some notion that girls are “weaker” players and, as my friend suggests, create more separation down the line? Conversely, could boys benefit from an “all boys” jazz camp? In a broader sense, is it ever a good idea to separate the girls from the boys in the arts, especially in an educational setting? If our goal is to instruct, inspire and encourage young artists, then what is the best way that we can achieve this?

On a different yet not all together unrelated note, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington recently released a beautiful new CD called “The Mosaic Project.” This CD was recorded by an all-women band and features some of the heaviest hitting women jazz musicians working today including Ingrid Jensen, Esperanza Spalding, Geri Allen, Gretchen Parlato, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cassandra Wilson and many more The CD is outstanding; the multiple voices make for a complex and richly textured musical experience. Although the project easily stands on its own musical merit, the fact that it is an all-women band has added some charge to the buzz. I’m pretty sure that had a male musician recorded a project with an all-male band that this would not be the case; the discussion would be solely about the music. NPR’s Lara Pellegrinelli spoke with some of the musicians involved in “The Mosaic Project.” Predictably, the subject focused on women and jazz. The perspectives were as varied as the women on the project. To read the post, go here.

The Up-Beat Girls Jazz camp will take place August 8-12 at Jazz Night School in the Columbia City neighborhood here in Seattle. For more information, please visit: There are still a few spots available!