Women in the UK jazz scene face discrimination and sexual harassment, from requests to “sex up” their album covers to tokenism, maternal discrimination and skepticism about their musical skills, according to a new report.
Keychanges at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, compiled by Dr. Sarah Raine, presents results from interviews with 10 anonymized female jazz musicians of “remarkable success” who performed at the event in 2019.
Thirty percent said they had experienced sexual harassment in their career, while 90 percent said they had experienced gender-based discrimination. The majority of respondents indicated that the British jazz scene – currently in the middle of a renaissance – is dominated by men.
One respondent said they were turned down by an agent who “already had a woman on his books” who played the same instrument. Another was dumped by her agency after becoming pregnant and they assumed she wouldn’t return to performance after giving birth. Received unwanted sexual advances from a venue owner. Many of the women had been asked by men in technical positions whether they knew how to set up their equipment.
“There’s a requirement for dexterity when a man is recording an instrument,” aspiring singer-songwriter Amahla tells the Guardian. “When a woman does, there is not the same transfer of competence.”
“When a woman does it, there is not the same transfer of competence” … Amahla
Acclaimed trumpeter and composer Yazz Ahmed recalls receiving comments about her body and being praised for “playing like a man”. She says jam sessions, a staple of the jazz scene, can be especially anxious for women. “They’re very competitive by nature – people who try to play faster, higher, and louder than the rest of the world. Women have these skills, but it’s scary again because we’re being ridiculed all the time. [Some men] don’t understand – many become defensive ”.
Respondents to the Keychanges report indicated that music education, in which the teaching is dominated by men, is an early barrier to equality. Raine found that in seven UK jazz conservatories only 11% of the staff were women and the vast majority taught singing.
The picture does not deviate far from the roles of women in jazz in the 1940s, as historian Sherrie Tucker examined: At that time it was to be expected that “men skillfully operate instruments and women play privatized popular versions of femininity with their voices and bodies” .
Gender equality at music festivals has been discussed as a possible fix for these barriers. The PRS for Music Foundation launched its Keychange initiative in 2015 with the aim of registering festivals that advocate gender equality on stage by 2022. The Cheltenham Jazz Festival and events in Glasgow, Hull and Manchester have joined the promise. In 2017 there were 22 musicians on the program in Cheltenham, which rose to 63 in 2019.
Inspiration for the next generation … Nubya Garcia. Photo: Burak Çıngı / Redferns
However, data from the Keychanges report revealed the program’s limitations of requiring a woman to be on stage for an act to be counted as a mixed group. At best, women made up a third of the musicians planned for the four events, with instrumentalists being particularly underrepresented. Women and mixed ensembles made up more than half of the Cheltenham Jazz Festival’s program in 2018 and 2019: 44% of women were singers.
Saxophonist and band leader Tamar Osborn believes the Keychange initiative needs to find better ways to measure the visibility of women on festival stages. “I’m the only woman on stage sometimes so it’s great to be counted, but isn’t it sad that one woman is enough to say there is a female presence?”
Raine told the Guardian that overall, her respondents said that “the number of negative experiences was fewer than the number of positive ones.
“The most positive responses in the study came from musicians who were members of different collectives: networks that offer supported“ ways in ”, introductions and knowledge sharing. I’ve worked with a number of inspiring jazz musicians who are committed to making change in the industry. “
The organization Women In Jazz wants to promote female performers by organizing events and workshops. Co-founder Louise Paley is optimistic: “Keychange may not solve the problem of gender equality in jazz overnight, but we do support initiatives like this. You are actively trying to bring about positive change in the music industry. “
Representation is a key issue, Paley said. “Often the artists we work with give their reason [getting into] Jazz was because they were inspired by artists like Yazz Ahmed, Nubya Garcia and Emma-Jean Thackray who are at the forefront of British jazz. Women’s visibility is so important in inspiring the next generation. “