I’m Just a Girl, Standing in Front of a Jazz Band…

Twenty-five years ago I was in the California State Honor Jazz Band. I was a senior in high school and the first chair trombone. There were, undoubtedly, more talented high school trombonists who didn’t send in audition tapes (yes, tapes) but there’s no proof, when you think about it, that in 1991 I wasn’t the best high school jazz trombone player in the state of California.

I was one of three girls, if I recall. One girl played either bass or saxophone, and I wish I could remember her name. The other girl I remember very well. The pianist. I’ll call her Bella*. Bella was only a sophomore, and she was the star of the group. She was already winning international competitions.

17 boys and three girls didn’t seem like a big deal to me. My own high school jazz band teacher and the boys in my class treated me as an equal, and I still assumed that was the case in the rest of the jazz world. I guess I hadn’t noticed that I was one of a very few females who performed in the Sacramento Dixieland Festival. Old drunk men from other bands hitting on me at said festival when I came off the stage was just part of the deal. So what if I was only 15?

After an indecisive year at a junior college, I entered Cal State Hayward as a freshman music major. Still 18, I was naive as the night is long, and generally unaware of how small phrases affected me in big ways. One day, a few men and I were sitting around the band room. I wish I could remember who the men were. Maybe I don’t wish. At any rate, one of them implied that I had gotten into the top jazz band based on, shall we say, nonmusical qualities. He wasn’t kidding.

I have so many questions about that moment. Why didn’t one of the other guys stand up for me? And more importantly, why didn’t stand up for me? Why didn’t I stand up for myself, even if only in my own mind. I’d been first chair in the state of California, damn it! Why did I defend my professor in my mind (he would never!) but not myself (I am qualified!)?

I should mention in passing some of the other things that happened during jazz band and jazz theory and improv classes over the next two years. I was told by an older male perennial student that women only go to college to find a husband. I was slapped on the butt by a mediocre drummer. I was called “The future Mrs. Smith,” by Chet Smith*, who never asked me out.

Six out of 20 of us were women. Not bad for a jazz band. Many of the men treated me like a real person, including my now husband. (I swear I didn’t go to college just to meet him.) But I think that subconsciously I never quite felt like I belonged. And then, after two years, one of the other women told me something that had happened to her in our group, and it was the last straw for me. It’s not my story to tell, but the point is, I quit.

I quit jazz.

Fast forward 22 years. 20 years of teaching private lessons, 10 of those years also teaching band to 4th-8th graders. I take full responsibility for not “making it” as a jazz performer. I didn’t have to let the atmosphere of the jazz world stop me. I sure didn’t practice enough, and not only because girls were told not to come to the music building alone because there was a rapist on the loose. (Though that certainly didn’t help.)

But after all these years, all these little moments along the way have finally crystallized in my mind in the form of a conclusion. There is an atmosphere in the jazz world. There is a reason I never felt like I fit in. How did I look at list after list of famous jazz instrumentalists to emulate and go to concert after concert and not wonder why 99% of them were men? I love what Geena Davis says. “If she can see it, she can be it.” I couldn’t see it, and I think that subconsciously I didn’t think I could ever be it.

This year my college professor won a DownBeat magazine award. No one deserves it more. But when I clicked to peruse the list of awards and saw that not one of the high school student instrumental awards had gone to a girl, my heart nearly stopped its slow, steady swing beat. I emailed the editor. He said that the judges hadn’t known which recordings were girls and which were boys, and that he lamented the inequality, too. He said he understood that change must seem “dreadfully slow” to me.

When I relayed this to a male trumpet player friend of mine, he told me that this year the California State Honor Jazz Band had only had one girl in it. The junior high band hadn’t had any. That does not seem “dreadfully slow” to me. The little engine didn’t make it up the hill, and now it is rolling backward.

Unlike so many problems in this world that I am not qualified to help solve, this is something I can work on, since I have a music degree that involved performing in big band, combos, and taking jazz theory, improv, and arranging classes. After I got the ball rolling to start a jazz band for high school girls at the music store where I work, I got nostalgic and decided to track down Bella from honor band. I’d always wished I’d kept in touch, and she was a glimmer of hope for me. A girl who I felt sure would have made it. Inspiration.

Bella did make it. She toured with a couple famous groups and wrote scores for television and film. And then, at the age of 29, she took her own life. This time my swing beat heart really did feel like it stopped. The article in the L.A. Times mentioned chronic pain, and I have no right to project my lamentations about gender inequality onto her, so I can’t say that the atmosphere in the music world contributed to her decision. But I can say without a doubt that the jazz world losing one of its brightest female stars is a blow to me and a loss to every girl who won’t get to emulate her. A devastating loss that the girls will never even know about. And so each one of them who can’t “see it” and therefore decides not to “be it” is a loss for every girl after her.

What can we do? I can start my jazz band for girls and make sure they are so prepared that nothing anyone says can make them feel like they aren’t good enough to be in the top group. School band directors can do blind auditions even if they think they aren’t subconsciously hearing girls as less talented than they really are. They can encourage girls to audition for honor bands and awards and the top schools. They can keep their ears open for any negative talk within the band.They can bring in women guest artists.

I’m just a girl, standing in front of the whole jazz world, asking for respect for the girls I’m about to send to you. They have some beautiful things to say.

*Names changed.

Update: One year later, 2017, zero girls in the California State Honor High School Jazz Band. 😦 I will be emailing to ask about blind auditions soon.

If you want updates on my class, Sonoma Jazz Girls, or want to read guest blogs by women jazz musicians, please follow my new blog, halfthatjazz.com

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26 thoughts on “I’m Just a Girl, Standing in Front of a Jazz Band…

  1. I’m a jazz flutist here in MA (although, I have to say, I am not famous). I wrote a picture book featuring a flute named Windy (a girl character) that also has two other girl characters – Ebony Piano and Kitt Drums. I want young girls to know that it’s more than OK to go out there and play jazz.
    I have stood my ground telling people that if they don’t like the way that I play after one song, then I will sit out the rest of the session (or jam session) and if they do like the way I play, then I will need to sit in the session the rest of the night.
    You really need to keep the spirit of Jazz going and I encourage you highly to keep it up!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for writing this! I am a Mexican American female trumpet player and I can empathize with many of your experiences. Reading this has further inspired me to keep following my dreams. If nothing else, I can forge a new path for younger generations of female musicians.

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      • ML Millard,

        Theresa Chen (from the comment below) and I go to the same school and were wondering if you have any ideas of what we can do to help with this issue? I thought maybe holding a meeting with more of the women at our school to talk about these issues would be a start. I would appreciate any ideas.

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      • I think meeting to talk is a great idea. Recognizing that subtle (and not so subtle) sexism IS happening and it’s not all in your head is the main thing. Then you can talk about persistence and build each other up. You can remind yourselves that just because most big name jazz players are men doesn’t mean you won’t be generation where that changes. I saw a comment on Facebook from a woman who didn’t like the attitude that women have to be better soloists than men so they get chosen, but I think it might be true. I don’t know. I’m on the fence about that one. The main thing is that if I would have told other women what some of the men had said to me, they would have told me it was a bunch of crap and I might not have let it weigh me down. If I would have told them what’s-his-name slapped my butt in the darkness of backstage they would have come to my defense and lectured the whole class. No single seriously terrible thing ever happened to me, but it all adds up. Then maybe when you meet to talk you’ll come up with more ideas, like helping each other get gigs or asking teachers to do blind auditions or passing out info on the statistics of women in jazz. I’ll write more if I think of anything.

        Liked by 1 person

      • One more thought. Make sure your professors know your goals. Tell them you want to be the first woman in the jazz at lincoln center orchestra (or whatever) and they may challenge you more, as if before they thought you were just finding a pleasant way to while away four years of your life.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m a Taiwanese jazz pianist and a second-year-DMA-student-to-be. Women in jazz and social culture is the core of my performance/research project during my degree. Your article really reflects upon many women jazz instrumentalists, motivating me to be one of a kind and encourage more girls to stand out, pursuing their musical careers. Thank you so much!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Theresa, I want to make sure you know about my research, done in the late 70s, published mid-80s called Women in Jazz: A Discography of Instrumentalists 1913-1968 (Greenwood Press 1985) so you can see some of the numbers. For instance, half the women in my book were pianists. Also make sure you look up International Women in Jazz for more contemporary players. Good luck to you in your research!

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  4. I was there with you, my friend, in that crazy jazz world as two teenage young girls. I’m still here with you and will stand by you and your mission. Let me know how I can help. This message needs to be shouted from the rooftops!! Love you, M. And I LOVE your writing!

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  5. I was fortunate to (finally) find a way to make my living at this music, and it’s not playing restaurants and nightclubs! Of course I enjoyed doing those for many years, as well as private parties and local festivals, but I found my calling in what I call music wellness (“music therapy” is licensed; what I do is “entertainment”) and have enjoyed a very full performance schedule for more than a decade, playing jazz! If anyone is interested I do give a consultation called “Making a Living in Music Wellness”. Perhaps because many of the directors who hire me are women, sexism is not an issue in that world, thankfully~

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for opening my eyes to an area of making music that was so obvious visually, but the real reason, undefined. I am a visual artist and the same applies here when it comes to gallery and museum dominance of male artists over women artists with very few exceptions.

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  7. Ah, Marie and Tara! I’m not sure whether to be proud of having given you the opportunity all those years ago, or disappointed that things aren’t changing the way I hoped. You were strong players, and yes, part of that opportunity was BECAUSE you are women. I tried to protect you like an older sister – I remember one particular “old” drunk lol. I’ve continued with moderate success in the music world, and it’s my living still today, after 35 years. I’ve toured with big names, played all over the world, and endured some pretty insensitive and ridiculously sexist situations, but all in all, have enjoyed my professional life as a musician. The biggest issue I face is having to prove myself over and over and over, because the mindset still seems to be “she’s female – she can’t possibly be that good”. It’s a different story once I get my foot into a new situation – but I have to earn respect every time. It’s about expectation. That’s what we have to change. I’m still all for a reunion, in fact I have big band charts…

    Liked by 1 person

    • You gave us a huge opportunity, and MOSTLY it was great fun. It’s interesting to hear you also say that things haven’t changed much, since you’ve stayed in that world. I think you were born with the personality to say “screw what they say,” and prove yourself. You go!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Robin! I’ll talk to you more about sponsorship. It would be nice to have a scholarship for someone who needs financial assistance or maybe someone to pay to have a famous woman musician come in for a class or something. Also the store owner was talking about tee shirts for everyone. It’s always easy to find things to spend money on!

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  8. I have been a hairdresser for 57 years have four children I try to instill in customers friends kids hat my parents said if you want it work a little harder believe in yourself never take no and strive to be the best you can ignore those who are not you. My advice look in the mirror every morning like what you see cause you are unique so go forth to do good for the safest persons you see. If not take another look in the mirror till you believe

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    • I’ve started two different ones and just couldn’t get to something I liked. The second one was about art, but the story would have outed a certain person in real life, I think. I am considering a memoir.

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  9. Wow this is such a powerful post! As a young woman entering the performing arts world I have often noticed that men are preferred and girls are often seen as interchangeable and not equally talented. I love your style of writing, it is amazing how you take the reader through your story and make a great point. Will look forward to reading more from you! 🙂

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    • I’m glad you see how things are like I didn’t when I was young. It will help you power through! Thank you for the compliments on my writing. I’ve written many blogs, and I finally hit one people really relate to. (Too bad it has to be about something that’s such a bummer, ha ha.) I don’t know if I’ve checked out your blog. I will!

      Liked by 1 person

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