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Women in Jazz

Women in Jazz Today, for Women’s History Month

Charlotte, NC – March, 2019 – During National Women’s History Month, the Jazz Arts Initiative celebrates the overlooked women heroes in the art world of jazz.

Before jazz even had a name, the earliest images show women as part of the bands. During World War II while the men were off fighting, women were able to make their mark. Full blown big bands like the International Sweethearts of Women, were born. Singers Ella Fitzgerald and Bill Holiday made their mark on the history of jazz. Lil Hardin Armstrong was an incredible musician and composer. You may know her songs under another name, her husband Louis.

Today’s women in jazz are a part of this ongoing national conversation empowering women. Not very often do you see a full ensemble of jazz women. When you do, it’s a different experience. Women bring a different energy to the music: more smiles, joy, and laughter. This month’s JAZZ ROOM features a stage of the most talented jazz female musicians in the region.

As a featured addition to this month’s special JAZZ ROOM, our quintet of talented female jazz musicians spent an hour speaking to us about the world of jazz from their perspective.

What is your experience as a female in jazz?

Cross: our entire experience is always through the lens of being a woman. I can never just be a saxophonist. You can choose to ignore it but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s there. My husband, also a saxophonist, has a radically different experiences.

One panelist: I played a gig where I was asked to look “hot”, required to wear a specific dress and then asked to dance. High heels and an instrument doesn’t work for me. In future similar situations, I have politely pushed back, and was never called again.

Another panelist: My professional knowledge and musicianship are grilled like I don’t know what I’m talking about. I have to prove myself, and often I see an expression of surprise after I play. For male, nobody’s first thought is they probably can’t really play.

Pocock: When I go into any interaction that involves an older male colleague or teacher, I always have to be on guard. And why does that need to be the case?
Each woman shared several specific experiences. From social media bullying, to lower pay, to unwelcome personal advances, we could hear how exhausting this environment can be.

Why is it necessary for us to focus on hiring and supporting women musicians?

Briceno: It’s relevant. A priority to support more diversity. Jazz is a small community. These conversations can empower the next generation. I want to give my female students the opportunity to have a different experience.

Coss: There were 10 middle school girls in the audience last night. Maybe one will now grow up to be a musician because she saw role models she could relate to.
What keeps you in it? Why is it worth it?

Tsugawa: Our love of music.

Briceno: Rather than focusing on the victim, I like to celebrate strong women. As an artist, I feel the responsibility to be honest and excellent, to reflect and tell my story, and to create change. But not for me: for the girls that come after.

Colis: The passion for the music I love, and a stubborn nature. In my school, I was discouraged to play the music I wanted, so it took me a long time to get there. The only person who didn’t was my mom. Its not easy, so either you give up or not. I try to inspire others.

Coss: The music is an outlet. It gives me a way to express myself in a way that people will listen. People love the emotional journey of music. Whereas they might not want to listen to my words.

Pocock: Shows like this demonstrate we’re not a novelty or a token. Your music stands for itself.

Thoughts on evolution of women in jazz from history to current day.

Coss: You have to understand the history. In WWII, women’s groups were the only option because women typically weren’t allowed in, but men had gone to war. When the men returned, they lost their jobs. Jazz is different from other professions in that it is passed along like lineage from older musicians. The culture is passed down along with the music. The broader women’s movements is helping break out of these older cultural behaviors.

Greatest inspiration?

Tsugawa: My mom is a housewife and told me you cannot have a family and be a musician. I have two kids. Keiko Matsui, the jazz pianist from Japan is doing it and showed me it is possible.

Coss: I met and studied with Ingrid Jenson, who had a kid and I knew it was possible.

Pocock: Dawn Clement, in Seattle, was the only female role model I had at that age pianist. When I saw her I felt hopeful. I often worked with female vocalist, rather than pianists, male. That way I didn’t have to always be on guard.

Colis: Every musician I play with, because they all have amazing experiences. To me you don’t have to be famous. As Esperanza Spalding said, there are many amazing musicians, they are just not signed to a record label.

Briceno: My family. My people in Venezuela. I am an immigrant and playing here with these musicians is a victory.
This environment makes it dramatically harder for women. What can we do to support other women?

Coss: Show they’re not alone. It’s not you. Don’t put up with it. But do keep following your passion.

Colis: Protect female freelancers. Seek them out. Don’t just look for famous names, because many women haven’t been given that exposure. Find good musicians and give them a platform.

Take the female seriously. Intentionally balance. Downbeat did a great female story recently, but will they continue to cover diversity or go back to the usual.

Donate to arts and women’s organizations like this one and give them a voice.

Briceno: Women supporting women is great. But we need men to be involved. Diversity is not only a women issue. Whenever it is an issue of equality, we should all stand together.


Performers and Panelist: Karina Colis on drums; Roxy Coss on saxophone; Ingrid Jenson on trumpet; Ariel Pocock North Carolina native on piano; Kuriko Sugawa on bass.

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