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!
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.
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!
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.
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.