Jazz knows no boundaries (mostly)

Here is a blog post about #International Jazz Day which was this week. The headline and accompanying narrative that “jazz has no boundaries” caught my eye. The history of jazz indisputably was founded on many boundaries, and in the early music the musicians and audiences were segregated. I’m not a historian but that jazz was founded that way needs to be recognised when we think about the music that we love. Google “jazz knows no boundaries” then you’ll find pages and pages of items telling us just that. But really?

Jazz Day








Looking back through the various hashtag timelines it seemed clear to me that even in 2018 it doesn’t cross all boundaries – not gender.

I’ve been playing for over 30 years. I can’t tell you the name of a single female trumpet or trombone player. I never studied music so know my education is lacking, but even as a regular player, few names spring to mind. In all my jazz playing days I’ve never experienced another female musician in the band (apart from singers). Today in my more informal jazz jam circles, there certainly are a few more which is awesome.

How many female jazz musicians can you name who aren’t singers?

I’m struggling apart from some of the early piano players like Winifred Atwell, and the inspirational band leader of the all female band in the 1940’s, Ivy Benson.

The Wikipedia page on “Women in Jazz” lists 20 instrumentalists.

The Wikipedia page on “Women in Jazz” lists 20 instrumentalists.

Part of the challenge we have is in providing an accurate and unbiased account of females in jazz history in the first place.

I had a Tweet in response from someone who seems a really nice man which helped point out to me what might have been limiting me all these years. Someone else thought I was talking about jizz. I genuinely hope the next generation of musicians is having a different experience, but I’m not sure as other replies mentioned misogyny and shameful attitudes even in young male players today. So sad.

Aside from the blatant inequality of perhaps not being offered a gig in the first place due to being a woman, attitudes could be quite subtle and some male players would comment on my appearance (and those who know me know how little I give a *stuff* about that). Comments like “you need large lungs to play the saxophone” were making an obvious reference. Thick skin and rapid retorts were called for (nicely honed from a career in science I might add).

There is more subtlety that I see around me even today – particularly when I lived in a nearby city, but I must add not at all in my new-found jazz and music circles where I live now. Those guitarists who can only play in E loudly (you might know the ones I mean) would provide me with entire gigs often where I was left without a solo. It was a good reflection of their personalities I used to think.

So I do think #jazz has a problem, although I’d say I’ve never been professional and on balance would say I’ve had an amazing experience playing the most wonderful music on the best musical instrument in the world. I love jam sessions now where I can pick and chose which lovely folk I wish to play with. But sadly it is just like any other work environment, you will always meet a few pieces of detritus along the way.

But more females please. And if you are male and in a band, or your sister / daughter / niece plays in a band, just ask how they are finding it. And let’s create a better account of awesome females in jazz.

If you share some awesome jazz lady instrumentalist names on Twitter I will personally try to research them all and update Wikipedia. (Hopefully one of my Wikimedia pals will help me learn how to do this)!!!!!


Sax Keilworth