Check out this guest blog I wrote for BrassChicks.com about jazz improv and women in jazz. Brass Chicks is all about brass—not necessarily jazz. Follow their blog!
Check out this guest blog I wrote for BrassChicks.com about jazz improv and women in jazz. Brass Chicks is all about brass—not necessarily jazz. Follow their blog!
When I started Sonoma Jazz Girlz, I emailed every high school band director in the county asking if I could come tell their band students about the class. Three directors responded. Maybe that’s about a quarter of the schools. We managed to add a fourth, and off I went to talk to the students.
I told the students how few women there are in professional jazz, and I told them what we’d learn in class. Organization and recruiting are not strong suits for me, and I was pretty proud of myself for doing all that. Ha! Not one girl signed up because of my visits. All my students came from their private teachers telling them about the class.
One problem is that high school band directors are ridiculously busy. I know that. Another problem is that there aren’t that many girls in their jazz groups for me to recruit. But I think another problem exists. I think that anyone who isn’t seriously focused on women in jazz can’t possibly understand why something needs to be done.
Here’s when it hit me. I have a friend. She is a professional classical musician. I’ll call her Nina. Nina has been incredibly supportive of my jazz class for girls. Classical music has plenty of problems with sexism. You’ve probably seen the stories about how many more women suddenly made it into orchestras when blind auditions were instituted. You may have seen recent stories about women suing to make as much money as men in comparable positions in orchestras. Nina has experienced plenty of frustration. I thought that if anyone understood, it was Nina.
Not long ago, Nina happened to get a glimpse of the jazz world. In the interest of anonymity, I won’t give details, but suffice to say, she IMMEDIATELY texted me and said “WE NEED TO GET MORE GIRLS IN JAZZ! I GET IT NOW!” If Nina, who had experienced being a woman in music and probably THOUGHT she knew the problem I was trying to address was so floored by a month or two in close quarters with jazz guys, how can I expect a high school girl to understand, or her male teacher, or her nonmusician parents? I’m afraid we all have a vague feeling that things are getting better, but numbers and anecdotes in the higher levels of jazz do not support this feeling.
My friend Tami, who is part of the angelic group of volunteers who come once a month to sight read with the Girlz, brainstormed with me recently. “How can I get them to understand the need?” I asked. Tami didn’t come up with an answer to that, but she did give me a great idea for recruiting. Last time, I only told the students about my class. Tami suggested I actually give a clinic. She, a former band teacher who knows me fairly well, was surprised by the quality of the class when she first came to help us out, and she thought the students and teachers would be more likely to get excited about signing up if they heard me play and experienced my teaching.
And so here’s my offer to every junior high or high school teacher in Sonoma County. I would love to come to your school one day this year and either work with your jazz band on the songs they’re learning (with an emphasis on any improv solos) or work on chords and improv in general. If your school has a budget for clinicians, great! If your school doesn’t have a budget for clinicians, I will come anyway.
Hit me up! See you soon!
Last year, when I started the Sonoma Jazz Girlz, I thought I’d better whip myself back into shape, and twice I attended the monthly jam session at the Aqus Cafe in Petaluma. Both times were low key. I came, I played, I left. I hardly talked to anyone.
A year later, I returned with my daughter. I was so excited that she wanted to go! We both wore our hot-pink Sonoma Jazz Girlz shirts. I had prepared her for exactly what happens. You put your name and desired song(s) on the list. They call you up, and then you solo when someone looks at you. It’s okay if you play at the wrong time or don’t play at the right time. It’s all casual!
It was almost over before it started; they didn’t put out a list. This was enough to make my daughter sure that everything I’d told her was wrong. (Typical mom!) She wasn’t sure she wanted to play anymore.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. I got out my trombone and knew they’d come ask me if I wanted to play. Some friends of ours were there with their saxes, and I knew the house band knew them and would ask them to come up. I didn’t know if they’d recognize me with my short hair and long absence.
But now she was nervous. Isn’t everyone at their first jam session? It’s so different than any of our other musical experiences. People you don’t know, songs you may or may not know, and zero written notes!
I told her she could wait until next time if she wanted, but she was determined. One of the guys from the house band did come by, and I told him that my daughter wanted to play piano, and I recommended C Jam Blues. I went up with her.
She played a short, melodic solo, acing the changes. The group didn’t coddle her—in fact it was really hard to tell when to play what. But at the end, we got a lot more attention than when I’d come by myself the year before. The guitar player wanted to know what Sonoma Jazz Girlz was. He has a daughter, see?
So thanks, daughter of mine, for letting me pretend your perfect pitch had anything to do with my jazz teaching. Thanks for being brave. We’re getting the word out, and you are going to be a first call pianist before very long at all.
The Sonoma Jazz Girlz have been meeting for nearly five months, and they have a good grasp of chord extentions and following chord changes. It didn’t really hit me until tonight, but they do.
What happened was that my daughter had a writing catastrophe right before class. Wattpad, where she writes her fiction, changed its layout and she accidentally deleted an entire prologue. This put her in a very bad mood.
We joked about taking it out on the music, and then, and I’m not kidding you, her solo went from her usual clean, inside, proper little melody to freaking Thelonius Monk. With her perfect pitch, she doesn’t realize that it’s not easy for everyone to play the melody in one hand and the melody in a different key in the other hand. She was playing trills as fast as her little fingers could go and waiting patiently and then striking a chord to scare the bejeezus out of you. I walked over to her during the next person’s solo and said “That was the most professional sounding solo you’ve ever played.” The funny thing is, she had no idea. I think she thought she was being downright disrespectful!
This led to my changing our listening time from what I had planned to an introduction to Thelonius Monk. Thanks to Youtube, I was able to pick Straight No Chaser so that they’d be able to hear familiar chords and know that the solo did not always stay within them. We talked about playing “outside” and how maybe they were good enough at “inside” to purposefully branch out. Some people might not take this route in jazz teaching, but that’s how I’ve gone about it. You have to know the rules before you break the rules. I just didn’t expect to make such a big leap yet. One of the trombone players, who usually sticks with the root or the melody, said she was going to try an E natural over a B flat chord, and I said “Go for it! See what you think.”
I didn’t ask her what she thought of the E natural, but I know she learned something tonight. And I hope my daughter learned that sometimes it’s not disrespect, it’s just jazz.
Band teachers, as soon as your students know a major scale, you can teach them to read simple chord changes. By showing them how to put a melody over chord changes instead of just giving them a B flat blues scale and letting them have at it regardless of the changes, you can change their future! Yes, it’s easier to just teach them a blues scale, but they’ll plateau. Give them a good foundation now!
I did this with my beginning bands at the end of their first year. I would even walk around to each student and point at the measures as they went by. Below is a video demonstration using the first few bars of Freddie Freeloader. Beyond just switching to E flat 7 after four measures of B flat 7, I have the student choose which two notes they’re going to play as the chord changes. It’s imperative that they experiment with melodies as they move from chord to chord instead of thinking of each chord as a separate entity on which to improvise in that key.
During our first four jazz classes, four moments have made this whole endeavor worthwhile. Even if it all ended today, I’d be glad I did it.
I started by going to four high schools and speaking to their band classes. I didn’t see a lot of interest, and indeed, no one has signed up based on those visits yet. The local paper did a story on the class, and we haven’t received any calls from that, either. Three of our four students who have signed up were already taking private lessons at Music To My Ears, and their private teachers recommended them. The other student is my daughter. Two more plan to join us when the school year starts, and I’m hoping for even more!
One of the moments that has made this worthwhile was the first time I heard my daughter improvise a solo. She’d never showed an interest in jazz, and it was clear that she was hooked. My heart was full.
Another moment I loved was when one of the girls left class telling her mom how well she’d played. I wish I’d said that about myself at her age! Go girl!
The other two moments were both statements that one of the pianists made. The first night, our first activity was to name all the notes in all the chords of Freddie Freeloader. Then we started our irealpro app* Freddie Freeloader background. The girls each had to tell me what note they were going to play at the end of the measures of B flat and what note they were going to play first in the E flat measure. Otherwise they could play whatever they wanted. The pianist had played in high school jazz but had only played written parts. After all the girls had completed their task, she said quietly, “I’ve never done that before.”
Really, even after that moment I felt the class was a success. That one little instruction set her up to be able to learn just about anything.
Over the next couple weeks we worked on soloing on Freddie Freeloader and I Got Rhythm, and we worked on sightreading on Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Things Ain’t What They Used to Be. We even did a little transcribing of Bugle Call Rag. We watched clips of famous jazzers on Youtube.
I told the girls on the very first night that I wanted the group to not only be a place to learn, but a network for them to keep forever. When they graduate from college and one of them gets a gig from someone who says, “Hey, do you know a trumpet player?” They can get another Sonoma Jazz Girl a gig.
But I didn’t want to lecture them too much about how few women there are in jazz. I didn’t know if my students were there for the jazz part but not the girl power part. I didn’t want to turn them off. So while I did tell them that a network of women would be important because some men won’t think of women and some men will consciously not hire them, and I did challenge them to find a few women on Youtube, I didn’t say much beyond that.
Here’s the fourth moment that has made it all worth while. This week I was telling the pianist that I’d gone to a jam session twice recently, and she, this girl who had seemed so shy, said, “I should do that.” “Yes!” I exclaimed. “You should!” My daughter told her that I’d been the only woman and the pianist’s eyes grew wide. “Really?” She said indignantly. “That’s not right!”
No, it’s not. And now I know there’s definitely some interest in girl power within the group.”Next time, you’re coming with me,” I said. “Then I won’t be the only girl.”
It. Is. On.
*GET THIS APP!
I came prepared to my second jam session. This time I had three songs in mind, and although I hadn’t actually practiced them, I’d listened to the chords go by on my irealpro app. The men in the band said “Hi!” like I was a long-lost friend. Things were going to go better this time!
When they called me up along with a teenage (male) trumpet player, the band called “Blue Bossa.” I was confused, as I had written “Autumn Leaves, Ain’t Misbehavin’, or Maiden Voyage” on the sign-up sheet. Oh well, “Blue Bossa” would do. Next they called “Cantaloupe Island.” I might as well have written “any” on the list again. If I’d thought that I was at least a little familiar with every jazz song out there, I’d thought wrong. Cantaloupe Island was uncharted territory. I did my best. Unfortunately I didn’t check my irealpro app. (Cantaloupe Island is there, it turns out.)
After a feeble trip to the island, I turned around and said, “Before I go, can we do a song on my list?” I truly thought it was an easy list to contemplate, but no. They liked “Autumn Leaves” best, but the bass player’s book had it in the wrong key. I reluctantly but cheerfully gave up my phone to him. I would remember the chords, sort of.
The good news? My hands shook like they did last time, but my stomach didn’t hurt. This might have had something to do with the 95 degree room we were playing in. Trying not to sweat distracted me. My playing was as good or better than the first time. A guy eating at the cafe even said “Sounded good!” to me when I went back to my seat. My husband came this time, and we chatted with a friend.
The bad news? My playing could still improve, of course. And when I remembered that I hadn’t gotten my phone back from the bass player, I went up to the stage and made the “hang loose” sign by my ear, by which I meant “Do you have my phone?” but which, since he forgot he had it, he probably took to mean, “Call me, Hot Stuff.” Ah well. The dangers of being the only woman in a jazz world.
A follow-up to I’m Just a Girl Standing in Front of a Jazz Band
So I made myself go to a jam session. I had played approximately one improv solo in the last twenty years, but I wanted to put a flyer for Sonoma Jazz Girls on the cafe’s corkboard, and I also thought I should probably dust off the old chord extensions before teaching them.
I walked in as the band (five men and no women) was setting up, and I took my trombone out of its case. Is that how these things work? Do you just show up and take out your horn? I didn’t remember, but I’m old now and didn’t care if I was doing it wrong. I took out my horn and waited for someone to tell me what to do or at least introduce himself. No one did. Of course, I didn’t introduce myself either. Finally I went and sat at a table by my mom. Four of my husband’s (male) high school students had come with their instruments, too, and I overheard another patron tell them that there’d be a sign-up sheet out soon.
When the sheet appeared, I went and signed up, writing “any” under the “song” category. I wrote “any” not only because I’m indecisive, but also because I figured that “any” might seem impressive while also covering for me if I sucked. Because how terrible would it be to suck on a song that you chose as the one you’d most like to play in front of an audience?
And there was an audience—a small but friendly one. After the house band played two tunes, they called me up and the drummer said to the other band members, “Caravan?” I could have misread the body language, but at least one band member seemed to think Caravan was a poor choice, and I thought it was because they had no idea what level player I was. The drummer asked me, “Do you know Caravan?” “Yep,” I answered. At least I used to, and I hoped it would be like riding a bike. Well, not exactly like riding a bike, as I haven’t gotten on a bike since an accident landed me in the E.R. when I was nine.
I had forgotten about the pain I get in the pit of my stomach as surely as I had forgotten the chords to our second song, “God Bless the Child.” No one seemed too impressed with my playing, and I have to admit I kind of wanted to get on the mic and say, “I’m the girl who wrote that blog? Some of you probably read it? Kind of a poignant moment, here.” But of course I didn’t. My playing fizzled, and I went back to my mom. I don’t think she even told me I played well.
My husband’s students played their songs. (Mercifully, I knew beforehand that one of them could play circles of fifths around me.) A man sang “It Had to Be You,” and then my husband’s students and I all went up for the last song of the night, and one of the band members called “Mercy Mercy Mercy.” Now, I know the melody of that song, but I didn’t remember the name, so I didn’t know that I knew the melody. “What are a few of the chords?” I asked, trying to be funny. Gospel blues. B flat. “You’ll find something out about yourself,” the drummer said.
I wish what I had found out about myself was super dramatic. The drummer’s setup statement sounded so prophetic! “You’ll find something out about yourself!” I thought that I might discover that I had more in my soul than I had ever dreamed over a C minor 7 and the clinks of dishes in the kitchen. Alas, here’s all I found out. 1) I should have gone pee before the song started. 2) I should have used my irealpro app at home a few times instead of making my poignant return to improv in public, and 3) No matter how many times I heard “Mercy Mercy Mercy” before it was my turn to solo, I would not notice the very obvious lead-up to the C minor 7 chord.
I left feeling a little sad. The men were not rude, but I was the only woman, and that stirred up old feelings. While I played, I almost felt like I had to force myself to play more than whole notes. “Whatever, here’s a simple lick. Here it is again changed a little to fit the new chord.” I know it’s a form of fear of failure. Don’t let yourself care, and it won’t hurt when you suck. I remember it well. I’m back in the E.R.
Mercy. Mercy. Have mercy on me, Lord, and help me help my students to reach higher than I ever did.