Are Christian Women Bloggers a Crisis for the Church?

I debated before writing this. For one thing, the answer is so obvious to me that blogging about it seemed a waste of time. For another, if people didn’t already know about the series Christianity Today was doing, I wasn’t sure I wanted to draw attention to it. Nonchristians already view Christians as less tolerant of women in authority, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to give them more reason to dislike Christians, and by extension (sadly) Christ.

But after seeing the reaction to Christianity Today’s series on Christian women bloggers and who’s in charge of them, I couldn’t keep quiet. Thankfully, I did see many replies on Twitter defending women’s right to blog without someone with a degree in theology checking in on them, but many people, including women, agreed with the first essay in the series which implied that women should be held accountable by their denomination—that there needed to be some sort of guidelines for these rogue Christian bloggers.

The essayist threw in a quick statement that men were to be held accountable, too, but let’s face it. Christianity Today’s Twitter headline said “especially women,” and the only blogger mentioned by name was Jen Hatmaker. I guess she got too popular and then made a statement that did not please the powers that think they be.

Crisis! Crisis! Who’s in charge of Jen? Who will control the blogosphere, they wonder. Well, I have three thoughts about all this.

1. If there’s a crisis in the church, I would argue that it might be something like how to help refugees or who is in charge of well-known pastors who shill for sexist, racist politicians.

2. If bloggers are a crisis, there is no way for the church to hold bloggers accountable even if it wanted to. Sorry!

3. If you have a problem with a blogger’s theology, you can blog about why they’re wrong. The blogosphere patrols itself. Get with the times.

Christianity Today had the gall to use the hashtag #AmplifyWomen, which came out of the women’s march. They may be amplifying women writers, but the first one they amplified in their series had a clear message—that women should only be amplified if they are saying what they are “supposed to” say.

If the women in the New Testament’d had the technology, they’d have been blogging their fingers off. “He’s alive! I saw him!” And good gracious, I hope Peter wouldn’t have said, “I know I just denied knowing him, but let me see that before you hit publish.”

I’d like to say that I won’t even read the other articles in the series, but I’ll probably get swept up in it. Someone needs to hold them accountable, after all.

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy

A follow-up to I’m Just a Girl Standing in Front of a Jazz Band

So I made myself go to a jam session. I had played approximately one improv solo in the last twenty years, but I wanted to put a flyer for my girls’ jazz band on the cafe’s corkboard, and I also thought I should probably dust off the old chord extensions before teaching them.

I walked in as the band (five men and no women) was setting up, and I took my trombone out of its case. Is that how these sessions work? Do you just show up and take out your horn? I didn’t remember, but I’m old now and didn’t care if I was doing it wrong. I took out my horn and waited for someone to tell me what to do or at least introduce himself. No one did. Of course, I didn’t introduce myself, either. Finally I went and sat at a table by my mom. Four of my husband’s (male) high school students had come with their instruments, too, and I overheard another patron tell them that there’d be a sign-up sheet out soon.

When the sheet appeared, I went and signed up, writing “any” under the “song” category. I’m indecisive, and I also figured that “any” might seem impressive while also covering for me if I sucked. How terrible would it be to suck on a song that you chose as the one you’d most like to play in front of an audience?

And there was an audience—a small but friendly one. After the house band played two tunes (loved the bass player) they called me up and the drummer said to the other band members, “Caravan?” I could have misread the body language, but at least one band member seemed to think Caravan was a poor choice, and I thought it was because they had no idea what level player I was. The drummer asked me, “Do you know Caravan?” “Yep,” I answered. At least I used to, and I hoped it would be like riding a bike. Well, not exactly like riding a bike, as I haven’t gotten on a bike since an accident landed me in the E.R. when I was nine.

I had forgotten about the pain I get in the pit of my stomach as surely as I had forgotten the chords to our second song, “God Bless the Child.” No one seemed too impressed with my playing, and I have to admit I kind of wanted to get on the mic and say, “I’m the girl who wrote that blog. Some of you probably read it? Kind of a poignant moment here.” But of course I didn’t. My playing fizzled, and I went back to my mom. I don’t think she even told me I played well.

My husband’s students played their songs. (Mercifully, I knew beforehand that one of them could play circles of fifths around me.) A man sang “It Had To Be You.” And then my husband’s students and I all went up for the last song of the night, and one of the band members called “Mercy Mercy Mercy.” Now I know the melody of that song, but I didn’t remember the name, so I didn’t know I knew the melody. “What are a few of the chords?” I asked, trying to be funny. Gospel blues. B flat. “You’ll find something out about yourself,” the drummer said.

I wish what I had found out about myself was super dramatic. The drummer’s setup statement sounded so prophetic! “You’ll find something out about yourself!” I thought that I might discover that I had more in my soul than I had ever dreamed over a C minor 7 and the clinks of the dishes in the kitchen. Alas, here’s all I found out. 1) I should have gone pee before the song started. 2) I should have used my new irealpro app at home a few times instead of making my poignant return to improv in public, and 3) No matter how many times I heard “Mercy Mercy Mercy” before it was my turn to solo, I would not notice the very obvious lead-up to the C minor 7 chord.

I left feeling a little sad. The men were not rude, but I was the only woman, and that stirred up old feelings. While I played, I almost felt like I had to force myself to play more than whole notes. “Whatever, here’s a simple lick. Here it is again changed a little to fit the new chord.” I know it’s a form of fear of failure. Don’t let yourself care, and it won’t hurt when you suck. I remember it well. I’m back in the E.R.

Mercy. Mercy. Have mercy on me, Lord, and help me help my students to reach higher than I ever did.

 

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