Twenty-five years ago I was in the California State Honor Jazz Band. I was a senior in high school and the first chair trombone. There were, undoubtedly, more talented high school trombonists who didn’t send in audition tapes (yes, tapes) but there’s no proof, when you think about it, that in 1991 I wasn’t the best high school jazz trombone player in the state of California.
I was one of three girls, if I recall. One girl played either bass or saxophone, and I wish I could remember her name. The other girl I remember very well. The pianist. I’ll call her Bella*. Bella was only a sophomore, and she was the star of the group. She was already winning international competitions.
17 boys and three girls didn’t seem like a big deal to me. My own high school jazz band teacher and the boys in my class treated me as an equal, and I still assumed that was the case in the rest of the jazz world. I guess I hadn’t noticed that I was one of a very few females who performed in the Sacramento Dixieland Festival. Old drunk men from other bands hitting on me at said festival when I came off the stage was just part of the deal. So what if I was only 15?
After an indecisive year at a junior college, I entered Cal State Hayward as a freshman music major. Still 18, I was naive as the night is long, and generally unaware of how small phrases affected me in big ways. One day, a few men and I were sitting around the band room. I wish I could remember who the men were. Maybe I don’t wish. At any rate, one of them implied that I had gotten into the top jazz band based on, shall we say, nonmusical qualities. He wasn’t kidding.
I have so many questions about that moment. Why didn’t one of the other guys stand up for me? And more importantly, why didn’t I stand up for me? Why didn’t I stand up for myself, even if only in my own mind? I’d been first chair in the state of California, damn it! Why did I defend my professor in my mind (he would never!) but not defend myself (I am qualified)?
I should mention in passing some of the other things that happened during jazz band and jazz theory and improv classes over the next two years. I was told by an older male perennial student that women only go to college to find husbands. I was slapped on the butt by a mediocre drummer. I was called “The future Mrs. Smith,” by Chet Smith*, who never asked me out.
Six out of 20 of us were women. Not bad for a jazz band. Many of the men treated me like a real person, including my now husband. (I swear I didn’t go to college just to meet him.) But I think that subconsciously I never quite felt like I belonged. And then, after two years, one of the other women told me something that had happened to her in our group, and it was the last straw for me. It’s not my story to tell, but the point is, I quit.
I quit jazz.
Fast forward 22 years. 20 years of teaching private lessons, 10 of those years also teaching band to 4th-8th graders. I take full responsibility for not “making it” as a jazz performer. I didn’t have to let the atmosphere of the jazz world stop me. I sure didn’t practice enough, and not only because girls were told not to come to the music building alone because there was a rapist on the loose. (Though that certainly didn’t help.)
But after all these years, all these little moments along the way have finally crystallized in my mind in the form of a conclusion. There is an atmosphere in the jazz world. There is a reason I never felt like I fit in. How did I look at list after list of famous jazz instrumentalists to emulate and not wonder why 99% of them were men? As Geena Davis says, “If she can see it, she can be it.” I couldn’t see it, and I think that subconsciously I didn’t think I could ever be it.
This year my college professor won a DownBeat Magazine award. No one deserves it more. But when I clicked to peruse the list of awards and saw that not one of the high school student instrumental awards had gone to a girl, my heart nearly stopped its slow, steady swing beat. I emailed the editor. He said that the judges hadn’t known which recordings were girls and which were boys, and that he lamented the inequality, too. He said he understood that change must seem “dreadfully slow” to me.
When I relayed this to a trumpet player friend of mine, he told me that this year the California State Honor Jazz Band only had one girl in it. The junior high band hadn’t had any. That does not seem “dreadfully slow” to me. The little engine didn’t make it up the hill, and now it is rolling backward.
Unlike so many problems in this world that I am not qualified to help solve, this is something I can work on, what with a music degree that involved classes in jazz band, combos, and theory and improv. After I got the ball rolling to start a jazz band for high school girls at the music store where I give trombone lessons, I got nostalgic and decided to track down Bella from honor band. I’d always wished I’d kept in touch, and she was a glimmer of hope for me. A girl who I felt sure would have made it. Inspiration.
Bella did make it. She toured with a couple famous groups and wrote television and film scores. And then, at the age of 29, she took her own life. This time my swing beat heart really did feel like it stopped. The article in the L.A. Times mentioned chronic pain, and I have no right to project my lamentations about gender inequality onto her, so I can’t say that the atmosphere in the music world contributed to her decision. But I can say without a doubt that the jazz world losing one of its brightest female stars is a blow to me and a loss to every girl who won’t get to emulate her. A devastating loss that the girls will never even know about. And so each one of them who can’t “see it” and therefore decides not to “be it” is a loss for every girl after her.
What can we do? I can start my jazz band for girls and make sure they are so prepared that nothing anyone says can make them feel like they aren’t good enough to be in the top group. School band directors can do blind auditions even if they think they aren’t subconsciously hearing girls as less talented than they really are (see research on demographics changing in major orchestras after implementation of blind auditions). They can keep their ears open for any negative talk within the band. They can bring in women guest artists. Teachers and parents can encourage girls to audition for honor bands and awards and the top schools.
I’m just a girl, standing in front of the whole jazz world, asking for respect for the girls I’m about to send you. They have some beautiful things to say.
* Names changed
This blog originally appeared in my writing blog, mlmillard.wordpress.com.