Why There Are No Women in Jazz

Or, “How Globalization Has Changed U.S. Music Diplomacy”

Madeleine Albright playing drums at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz gala at the Kennedy Center, which carried the theme “Women, Music, and Diplomacy.” Photo/ Steve Mundinger

Yes, I know there are many successful jazz musicians who are women. But I’ve been in enough music schools and jazz festivals to know that women are sadly underrepresented in the profession. I’m not bemoaning this fact. Women musicians in the U.S. now have, to my knowledge, equal opportunities to study jazz. In most cases, they simply choose not to.

My interest in this situation comes not from feminism but from what jazz means to U.S. culture and the vision of America it has presented to the rest of the world for the past 60 years.

I spent last evening in the company of seven extremely talented young men. Well, ok, me and a UCLA audience of about 50. These men comprised the inaugural class of the new Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz, and they were introduced to the UCLA community in a mini-concert. I took mental note that there were no women chosen for the 2-year master’s program–slightly irritating but by now not surprising–and prepared myself for a lovely evening of music.

The students were truly impressive. Bassist and living jazz legend Ron Carter had been working with them all week. But the real treat of his presence this evening was hearing his generous answers to audience questions. We listened rapturously to his soft tones as he told us stories about his vigorous training in the 50s and 60s–not at the Eastman School of Music, where he got his performance degree, no. He got his real training from years of dedicated practice and playing with many of the masters, including Eric Dolphy and Miles Davis. (He has appeared on over 2,500 albums.)

The inimitable Ron Carter.

Competition, which was at least as fierce back then as it is now, honed Mr. Carter’s chops. Tunes at jam sessions “were played at a quarter note at 96” (pretty darn fast) to effectively get rid of any poseurs. He admitted, “I was just determined to be the last one standing.” He made it clear that the virtuosity required in (and developed by) those sessions shaped him as a musician and made him great. Read the biographies of the older jazz masters and it becomes clear why women rarely made it to the top of the profession–few got invited to boys’ club jam sessions. I’d take a poll among female jazz musicians to see if the same holds true today…but I don’t know any personally. Is this insularity also the cause of jazz’s waning impact as a tool of public diplomacy abroad?

It’s this insularity, as well as the institutionalization of jazz and its intellectual culture (appealing as it does almost exclusively to a highly educated elite) that makes me wonder if it’s still appropriate to cite it as the most democratic of musical genres. Is it still “the most important cultural gift the U.S. has given the world,” in the words of UCLA Ethnomusicology department chair Timothy Rice? I think what lies behind these assertions is a fundamental belief of mid-20th-century Americans in meritocracy; a belief that persists, if not quite as strongly, today.

Jazz’s use in diplomacy corresponds to American Exceptionalism. The jazz ambassadors showed the world what was possible in America for someone with dedication and drive. Jazz, like Bach’s counterpoint, is a learnéd genre. Taking decades to master, it contains its own grammar, syntax, and idiomatic expressions known to all serious jazz musicians. (One learns to improvise in the same way you would learn a language–by repeating key melodic phrases until they become natural–“Hello.” “Nice to meet you.” “Lovely weather we’re having.”–and eventually stringing them together effortlessly into a “conversation.”)

And then there’s hip hop. Mr. Carter recorded a track on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 album The Low End Theory. The audience last night–mostly young-ish college students–chuckled as he recalled showing the hip-hop group some new harmonies: “Those guys, man, were just starting to think about changing up something other than the drum beat.” Here I think he missed the point. Hip hop, in contrast to jazz, is arguably more about the poetry, the socio-political message and the rhythms of language than the harmonies or melodic thematic material. That makes it much more accessible to audiences around the globe; in a world of mashups, it’s easy to change out the language over the same beats.

That’s why hip hop is popular almost everywhere. Is there a music for export that better exemplifies both active participation and freedom of expression? Not to mention the fact that it’s easy to listen to and it moves people. Youth in Tunisia don’t have to learn a complicated new language like jazz. They have a template of ready-made beats over which to paint their message–in their language.

Anas Canon, founder of Remarkable Current, a collective of American hip hop artists, recognizes that, “what jazz was for earlier generations, hip hop is for today’s generation.” In 2006 he launched Hip Hop Ambassadors, a musical diplomacy project designed to encourage mutual understanding “and share a message of universal peace and unity.” A young Tunisian activist said recently that the Hip Hop Ambassadors have “more of an impact on Tunisia than Secretary Hillary Clinton.” [1] It’s easy to see why in a clip from the reel below, which shows a few Hip Hop Ambassadors crowdsurfing off a stage at a performance in front of 18,000 boisterous students at an Islamic boarding school two hours outside of Jakarta.

‘Hip Hop Ambassadors’ Reel from anas canon on Vimeo.

After the Hip Hop Ambassadors’ Indonesian trip, Stanley Harsha, U.S. Consul General to Sumatra, recounted how relieved he was to be able to present cultural ambassadors that truly engaged youth in remote Islamic boarding schools. He says, in a video on the Hip Hop Ambassadors website, “I’ve been waiting for a long time for this type of cultural exchange to occur. After September 11th there was a whole new dynamic of mistrust and misunderstanding about the fact that Muslim Americans are patriotic and just like other Americans. Remarkable Current brought this message in a way that no one else could. It was much more effective than bringing Muslim scholars.” Emotional connection – 1; Learnédness – 0.

Which brings me back to women. There are many women who buck the trend and become outstanding jazz musicians. Likewise, jazz still has many adherents in the world, and from a public diplomacy perspective it still presents a heritage that offers an attractive narrative and is fully American. But to reach youth around the globe, the immediate future of music diplomacy belongs to hip hop.

[1] Maytha Alhassen, “Remarkable Current: Music as Public Diplomacy” PD Magazine “Innovations in Public Diplomacy” September 17, 2012.

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