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!
All I wanted when I got to college was to fit in. An 18-year-old woman who felt like a girl, I sat in the top big band between two men in their late twenties and in front of and behind a couple more. The band had four or five women (actually pretty impressive), but I was the only first year.
One day early in the year, one of those men who seemed so ancient to me but probably had a lot of maturing to do and a lot of pain in his heart, looked past me to one of the other older men and made an inside joke about the song “Willow Weep for Me.”
I wanted to fit in.
He glared at me and said, “You don’t even know what we’re talking about.” It wasn’t a joking “You’re my friend and I’m going to call you on that laugh and laugh about it with you,” it was a “You do not belong here.” Lest you think I’m misinterpreting, this was the same guy who had already told me I was in the top band because the director wanted to sleep with me, and he wasn’t kidding about that either. Although I know now he must have had pain in his heart, I still call him Dick Wilton in my memoir.
I always hated the song Willow Weep for Me after that. I’d never played it, but I heard it now and then.
I’ve blogged about quitting jazz before, so I’ll spare you the details. The short story is that after two years of college I quit jazz and finished my music degree just performing in symphonic band and brass ensemble and didn’t get back into jazz seriously until I started Sonoma Jazz Girlz about 20 years later.
In Sonoma Jazz Girlz, we use the iRealPro app (get this app!!!) when we don’t have a rhythm section. There’s a list called “1300 Jazz Standards,” and I chose a few songs from it to work on with the girls. After a couple months of showing the girls Youtube videos of female jazz instrumentalists, I finally thought, “Duh, I wonder if any of the 1300 jazz standards on my phone were written by women!”
There are precious few. One of them is Willow Weep for Me.
I Googled Willow Weep for Me and its composer, the successful and prolific Ann Ronell (1905-1993), and I wrote out lead sheets for that song with a little more pressure on my pencil than usual, thinking “That note is for you, Dick Wilton, and that fucking note, too. No, actually that note is for ME. This is MY. SONG. YOU were the joke. And you didn’t get it.”
In the beloved front yard of the beloved house where I grew up, we had a beloved weeping willow tree. Once, one of the major limbs broke off, and its many branches created a three-room home with green, leafy, walls glowing with sunlight. My dad let me play in it for a few days before getting out the chainsaw and hauling it away. I don’t remember what I did there. I probably brought out a pillow and a snack and a book and walked from room to room wishing I had beaded doorways in my house. Despite the tree’s name, I don’t remember ever thinking of it as weeping for me or anyone else. I thought of it as a secret, magical place of respite.
The beloved house where I grew up has since been sold, the beloved tree now entirely cut down. But I have my beloved jazz back, and I have my song—a place with many secret, magical rooms, and you can have your place, too, whoever you are.
Over the last year or so, many of you have recommended women jazz musicians to me. Sometimes it’s in Facebook comments, and sometimes it’s in person. The problem is, I can never find those names again on my page or in my memory!
So I have a request. Would you please comment on this blog entry with your favorite women jazz musicians past and present? Then I can always share this blog again and people will have a list.
Thank you so much,
Lately I’ve played a few gigs with a band called Awesome Hotcakes. Spike Sikes is the leader, and there are men on bass, drums, and trumpet. I’m the only woman, but it’s been a 100% great experience. (The people, at least. I’m never 100% satisfied with my improv.)
Last week we played at a cool live music venue, and when we were done, a woman came up to me. I’m guessing by the age of her children that she was about 50.
“Are you related to Sean by any chance?” she asked.
I told her that yes, he was my husband. My husband is well known in town for teaching music. He has taught thousands of kids band and choir in town, and everybody knows him. The woman told me who her kids were.
And then she said, “It’s nice that you have your own thing.”
“Yes,” I thought. “It darned well is.”
But later, I thought, “How sad is it to think that those words would never be said to a man?” Can you imagine a popular female elementary school teacher’s husband being told “How nice that you have your own thing?” It’s absurd to even think about, and yet it seemed like a perfectly normal thing for her to say to me at the time, and most women know the feeling of either not having our own thing or feeling exceptional, bold, or lucky because we have our own thing.
There was nothing wrong with what she said. There’s also nothing wrong with women who want “their own thing” to be raising kids or being a good wife. I just think it’s a little sad that it’s something we women have to say to each other. And make no mistake, we do say it to each other all the time in a hundred different variations of “good for you having your own thing,” or “make sure you have your own thing.”
When I got married and moved to my husband’s hometown twenty years ago, it was not easy. I was the woman standing and smiling while her husband chatted with an old friend or a grateful band parent. Then I was the woman entertaining her baby while her husband chatted with an old friend or a grateful band parent. I really didn’t feel like I had my own thing for a while.
I don’t mean to say I’ve had no opportunities. The Sonoma County Philharmonic seemed perfectly happy to have a woman on trombone. When I played with the ska band The Hoovers, they didn’t balk at my being a woman either.
But it’s still seen as special to have your own thing after getting married. Why? This question might seem like no big deal to many people, but I think it gets at something deep in our culture. I’m quite sure I haven’t gotten to my deepest thoughts about it yet. The statement is still simmering in my brain. It’s nice that you have your own thing. It’s nice that you have your own thing.
Women, have you heard this statement? I’d like to hear your thoughts and experiences.
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.
Well, our first summer is over, and although two of the four girls dropped out when their schedule filled up, two more joined, and our current four have four more they want to invite! Most importantly, members old and new have, well, progressed in following chord progressions and listened to a lot of great famous musicians during our chops break.
And we had our FIRST GIG! Music To My Ears had a 10th anniversary party, and we were part of the live music lineup. We played Mercy, Mercy, Mercy and I Got Rhythm, and everyone soloed. I was so proud! Although I never pictured this class to be a performing group, I think the girls really like it and want to get out and PLAY. With our group growing, I’m starting to think about procuring some big band charts.
CONFESSION TIME! Even I, who started this group because of the difficulties faced by women in jazz, and who made sure to introduce my students to female players during listening time, took TWO months to think, “Gee, I wonder if any of the jazz standards on irealpro were written by women.” Enter Willow Weep For Me. Thank you Ann Ronell for your beautiful melody. I’ll be writing more about Ann and my personal history with Willow Weep For Me another day.
I have to admit I worried when we got down to two students, but it appears word has gotten out, and I think the future of Sonoma Jazz Girlz is secure.
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!