Women in jazz – it’s not just about the band

The jazz audience we want? Monterey in 1958, captured by Nat Farbman.

The jazz audience we want? Monterey in 1958, captured by Nat Farbman.

Jazzlines, the Birmingham promoters, have recently launched a new initiative to try to right the gender imbalance among jazz musicians. Women in Jazz is part of Jazzlines’ educational work and it’s a three-year project aimed at helping young women aged between 16 and 25 to pursue careers in jazz. And hurrah for that! (There is more about their project here.)

That announcement was much on my mind as I was standing in the upper room at the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath last Thursday in between sets by Gonimoblast and Polar Bear. It was a Jazzlines gig, as it happens. Now I’m not going to question the fact that the nine musicians on stage that evening were all men – they all fully deserved to be there and there is not a quota system operating so far as jazz music goes. Most jazz musicians are men – fact. That’s the point of the Women in Jazz initiative.

But as they were moving stuff around on the stage and I couldn’t see anyone I knew I had a few moments to look around me. Well, anyone who thinks there might not be an audience for jazz in the 21st century, would certainly have had their view confounded. It was rammed to the gunnels, as I believe the expression is.

There was also a healthy range of ages. There have been a few gigs over the past years where I have looked around and it’s like looking into a composite mirror. As a scenario for a horror film, it might work. Balding Greybeards anyone? So far so good for the Polar Bear gig, though. Of course the BGs were there, but so were the full heads of richly coloured hair, and if we hadn’t all been jammed together I could no doubt have spotted a decent number of skinny-jeaned legs as well.

However. It was dark, I admit, and my brief survey was in no means scientific, but a reasonable guess would have put the male to female ratio in the room at about 9:1. No surprise there, you might say, and I would agree. But you see that’s where this Women in Jazz initiative is already doing its work: it’s got me questioning the status quo.

So, what I’m suggesting is that Women in Jazz shouldn’t just be about getting more women playing jazz; it should be about getting more women listening to jazz too, and going to jazz gigs.

Now I understand that the monthly Hare and Hound sessions that Jazzlines puts on – they used to be called Jazz Club and were at the Rainbow when the organisation was called Birmingham Jazz – are about appealing to a younger audience with more cutting-edge bands, and they do this very well. But you would think therefore that there would be a healthier gender balance at them as well. I haven’t been to many but I’m not sure that’s the case.

Now I’m both the wrong gender and the wrong age to suggest why this is. And if you are reading this you are probably equally disqualified. I suspect that seeing a group of thejazzbreakfast’s regular readers all in one room would be like watching Balding Greybeards 2.

But nevertheless, I would love to hear your views. There must be a few women who read this blog… and it has been known for men to have good ideas – occasionally. Whoever you are, please offer your answers to this question: How can we attract more women to become part of the jazz audience?

Comment below, please. I’d be most grateful.



Categories: Opinion

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6 replies

  1. Seen Polar Bear, Troyka and Portico Quartet in the past and rate them all highly. Had a gig of my own to do last Thursday so couldn’t go – but would I?
    Probably not at the H&H.
    Seen all the above – and more – at the Tin Angel and Taylor Johns – always found it a far more friendly venue – maybe because FOH is often run by women.

    H&H is very ‘trendy’ and doesn’t have the all welcoming vibe of the Tin&TJ. Seeing Efterklang there a few years back one of the regulars – who seemed to know everybody – stood right in front of me -he’d come in late and positioned himself right in front of the stage – and as the place was packed there was no way of avoiding him – he was most put out to be asked to move – and didn’t… And I’m no shrinking violet. There are also some sound guys who think that if the internal organs of the audience aren’t resonating with the bassline then they need to turn it up. My ears earn my wages – I don’t want my hearing wrecked.

    There’s an attitude among some of the musos and their hangers on that if women turn out for a gig they’re there for the ‘social’ side – not because they’re interested in music or maybe even be musicians themselves… And that’s a bit of a pain too.

    Having said all that I haven’t been to a pub gig for a while – feeling the financial pinch like everyone else – but that doesn’t mean I’d be an advocate of free gigs if the band weren’t going to get paid. They need to eat…

  2. I introduced my husband to jazz music and was lucky enough to see Hiromi live at The Blue Note in NY. I adore listening to jazz but have been slightly shy of going to hear live jazz although was really lucky to see Gregory Porter when he appeared with Jools Holland at Warwick Arts Centre.
    I am not sure what the answer is-perhaps women listen to jazz more in the privacy of their own homes or prefer being part of a bigger crowd. There were certainly plenty of women at The Spa Centre in Leamington Spa when Stacey Kent was playing there.
    Good luck with your quest and I hope you find some answers

  3. I guess, my impression of it anyway, any scene that’s often thought of as “boys club” can be off-putting and intimidating. To get more women involved in these scenes certainly takes time but I am noticing a progression. The increase of talented female instrumentalist role models can only be a good thing (even if the potential female gig-goer isn’t a musician), to show its not “boys club” onstage is certainly an encouraging start, especially as there are many talented players already out there.

  4. For me something that has really helped is the London Jazz Meetup which has a healthy number of female members. The meetup is a group that has created a non-threatening platonic social space to meet up with other people who are into jazz. For anyone just getting into jazz – you may well be the only person you know who likes jazz – and it’s not necessarily easy or obvious to find like minded people even in these days of the internet. It can be quite daunting going to venues like pubs or small jazz clubs on your own and at first I was apprehensive.

    Now several years into my jazz obsession I make a conscious effort to seek out and go to jazz gigs where there are women playing/ women promoting – because that’s how as a female jazz fan I can help build a more equal future for jazz. Not that I don’t go to all male gigs as well – but I have limited resources of time and money and do choose actively to be a bit feminist about how I use them. It takes a little research – a little more of an active use of social media – to start finding out about them. I also actively ask venues to programme more women. And venues are slowly doing that.

    There is also a big silence around women instrumentalists in the history of jazz. I don’t entirely know what’s to be done about that or it’s relationship with people going to gigs. But even great musicians like Mary Lou Williams, Vi Redd, Lil Harding Armstrong and the many others I have not yet managed to find out about…. are seldom mentioned among the greats or discussed in the same revered tones as the men. There’s a whole history there that needs reclaiming and celebrating.

  5. Great to see some new initiatives about to try and create a little more of a gender balance on the whole of the jazz scene. I agree whole heartedly with you Peter, it’s not just about the players but about the audience, the writers. There have been so few women reviewing or writing about jazz, and sometimes it seems to me that men were just not that excited or bothered about seeing women playing. That in turn creates another spiral where it’s hard to get reviews, so get overlooked for festivals and higher profile work etc etc.
    In the Twitter world last week, there was a discussion where Soweto Kinch said there had to be a massive sea change; we needed much more women playing so it just wasn’t an issue anymore. Now that would be nice!

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