Women in jazz still face many obstacles to success

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It is a cliché that music is a meritocracy, in which success is seen as the result of a combination of talent and effort. It is likely, however, that some musicians find the work environment hostile. In recent years, we have seen numerous reports on sexist assumptions in the jazz industry, as well as reports of sexual harassment. Obviously, changes will be needed from both the public and the industry side, as explored here by Paul widdop and Siobhan McAndrew.


There are relatively few female musicians in jazz. Female-led recordings made up only a fifth of the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll’s 50 Best 50 albums from 2017 to 2019, and that seems to be a long-term trend: A survey of British jazz musicians in 2004 suggested that 14% were women.

Rather than having explicit barriers to entry, researchers’ attention has focused on gender differences in preferences and socialization: men see concerts as a male space, and male musicians are more likely to be encouraged to continue to follow a first playing experience with others – especially in terms of learning improvisation and taking a solo from an early age.

It is a cliché that music is a meritocracy, in which success is seen as the result of a combination of talent and effort. If women are not present in jazz, it is often because they do not know how to play well enough, that they play bad instruments or that they simply prefer other musical genres and the cultures that surround them. .

It is likely, however, that some musicians find the work environment hostile. In recent years, we have seen numerous reports on sexist assumptions in the jazz industry, as well as reports of sexual harassment. Clearly, changes are still needed on the industry side. But what about the public? Do they help shape the sexism that is reported in jazz?

Query the numbers

Our new research paper combines analysis of John Chilton’s Who’s Who of British Jazz, an archive of career stories from 2004, with data on recordings made by each of these musicians from the continually updated Lord Discography. . We also examine the jazz audience via the 2016 Taking Part government survey on cultural participation.

Chilton gives a rich picture of the history of British jazz careers – there is no better single source giving such detail on the career histories of a large number of jazz musicians. Careers are typically lifelong, so we wouldn’t expect dramatic changes to have occurred within the professional music community since the publication of his book. Taking Part provides more contemporary information about the jazz audience.

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Among the public, government survey data showed that more men than women report attending jazz concerts, and that the gap is larger for jazz than for rock. In comparison, women are more likely to attend classical concerts than men. Female jazz performers therefore face a predominantly male audience and also rely on them to purchase recordings.

For musicians, our analysis suggests that men tend to play with men, and women – shown in yellow in the network diagram below – tend to play with men as well. Although there have been famous initiatives led by women and all-female groups, women still depend on men for their careers. Our longer-term perspective also supports the findings of the analysis of the representation of women at jazz festivals published in December 2020.

Part of this lack of women reflects the history of the genre. The jazz world before WWII was predominantly male. It was a time when it was almost taboo for women to perform professionally in nightclubs and dance halls, at least outside of female-only groups. In the previous decades, many jazz musicians honed their craft in the armed forces. The expansion of jazz classes by universities made a difference: Jazz programs run by universities were more open to women than informal or military training paths, providing access to networks and degrees.

Choice of instruments and audience preferences

There is also some evidence that women are categorized as singers: 60% of musicians in our data set are singers, compared to 2% of male musicians. Additionally, female musicians in our data set play slightly fewer instruments on average than male musicians. Our analysis reveals that this lower versatility is in turn associated with the creation of fewer records. Learning less instruments in the first place can therefore be one of the reasons for recording the gender gap.

In terms of recordings, there is a clear and constant gap between male and female musicians in the number of records made, even taking into account training, choice of instrument and period of birth. This suggests that women face structural constraints in registering, whether due to shorter careers or a tendency for male musicians to be preferably selected.

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Our triple focus on audiences, collaborations and recordings gives us a new perspective on gender inequalities – one that encourages us to rethink how things could be different. Jazz audiences tend to be older and predominantly male. Ultimately, they fund festivals and recordings that provide opportunities for women artists: their musical preferences and preferred concert experiences matter, and festival planners need to take these into account.

Assumptions about what audiences want tend to replicate the male-dominated world of jazz. The public can play a role in challenging these assumptions. They can do this by being open to different live musical experiences and, most importantly, by supporting and investing in talented jazz musicians.

Paul Widdop, Senior Lecturer in Sport Business, Leeds Beckett University and Siobhan McAndrew, Senior Lecturer, Quantitative Social Science, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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