‘WOMEN IN JAZZ’: AN UPBEAT ATTITUDE PREVAILS : Despite Undercurrent of Sexism in the Music Business, Most Conference Participants See Better Days Ahead

Times Staff Writer

Big band leader Ann Patterson had to stop and think about it. Pianist Ellyn Rucker was philosophical about it. Recent college graduate Penny Watson preferred not to focus on it. Veteran trumpeter Clora Bryant couldn’t wait to talk about it.

The subject was “Women in Jazz,” the topic of four days of analysis and debate as one of the major themes of the 13th National Assn. of Jazz Educators (NAJE) conference that concluded Sunday at the Anaheim Marriott Hotel.

Why the need for attention? After all, such musicians as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Cleo Laine and others have been highly visible proof that throughout its history, jazz has had a place for women. But for much of that history, the trouble has been that women were expected to know that place and stay there, a point made clear in the various seminars and concerts.

Except as vocalists, and to a much lesser degree as pianists, women have received little credit or attention in jazz.


“Everyone knows about Louis Armstrong, but who knows that Lil Hardin Armstrong (his wife) played piano, ran the band for several years and wrote a lot of his songs?” asked Jan Leder, a New York-based jazz flutist who has written a discography of women jazz instrumentalists from 1913-1968. “I’ve got 250 names in this book. Women have been there all along.”

Yet, even the names of such highly regarded performers as pianist-composer Marian McPartland, who received the jazz educators association’s 1986 Hall of Fame award, pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm big band remain virtually unknown outside jazz circles.

Therefore, the association’s “Women in Jazz” theme was devised. “Part of my mission in this last couple of years has been to provide parity where inequities exist,” said association president Herb Wong. “If jazz and education are presumed to be reflections of life, then the full fabric of life should be represented.”

Because it was an educators’ convention, discussions often focused on schools as the best place for changing social attitudes about women in jazz.


“I didn’t start playing jazz seriously until I was 28,” said saxophonist Patterson, leader of the all-woman big band Maiden Voyage and one of the most visible role models for aspiring women jazz instrumentalists.

“I’d never seen a woman play jazz until I was an adult,” she continued. “I don’t know where I might be now if I’d started at 12.” As a result of her own lack of exposure to women musicians, Patterson now tours Los Angeles-area grade schools with a woodwind quartet, of which she is the only woman, offering everything from Bach to jazz. “I get these little girls coming up afterward and saying things like, ‘I didn’t know a girl could play saxophone.’ ”

Role models are particularly important for young musicians, yet nearly all women musicians said their early idols were men. “One of my biggest concerns about the issue of females in jazz is that I can’t think of a major innovator in the development of this music that was female,” said Arthur Dawkins, director of jazz studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C. “I think that’s only because of the (small) number of women involved in jazz in the past and I think it will happen--sooner than most of us think.”

Added Thom Mason, director of jazz studies at USC: “I’m still looking for a female Duke Ellington to emerge, and with all due respect to (band leader-composer) Toshiko Akiyoshi, that hasn’t happened yet.”


But even though most association members agreed that acceptance for women instrumentalists has grown dramatically in the last decade, the news for women at the conference wasn’t all good. Less than 15% of all professional musicians are women, sexism hasn’t been eradicated in the professional world and young women too often aren’t taken seriously as jazz musicians by school music directors.

“We have to get the entire music education community to stop identifying instruments by gender,” said Warrick Carter, dean of the faculty at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and a past president of the jazz educators association. “When we start a young girl on an instrument, we can start her on saxophone or drums or whatever and not always give her those ‘safe’ instruments like flute and clarinet, which continues to happen.”

Perhaps the most discouraging news of the convention concerned the annual Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival, a widely respected showcase that has been dissolved after eight years because of insufficient funds to hire a staff. “It’s ironic that the festival has folded the same year NAJE is honoring women in jazz,” said the festival’s acting president Mary Hodges. “But all of us volunteers are just worn out.”

Considering the difficulties and reduced opportunities for jazz musicians discussed elsewhere at the conference, some wondered whether women are merely winning a larger slice of an ever-shrinking pie. “We’re getting to the point where women are as accepted as men and now none of us has jobs,” said a half-joking Dennis Lynch, international representative for the American Federation of Musicians.


Yet, some said that women aren’t helping themselves as much as they could. A representative for USC’s jazz studies program said the school recently received 125 applications for a full-time faculty position in the jazz department. “There wasn’t one from a woman,” she said.

Ironically, perhaps, some among the 2,000 who attended the convention weren’t convinced even that the association’s formal salute to “Women in Jazz” should be seen as an unqualified victory for its women members.

“I think there is still a large amount of tokenism going on,” said Denver-based saxophonist Laura Newman, who performed Saturday with the Rucker-Newman Quartet and organized the women’s jam session. “But you can be in any kind of minority situation and find a lot of prejudice, or you can turn it around and use it for all the advantages that there are.”

Some women musicians simply objected to the theme itself. “I felt a little defensive at first, thinking that the only reason I was asked to play was because I was a woman,” said soprano saxophonist Watson, a guest soloist at the convention. “I know a lot of women want to make a statement about it, but it’s kind of absurd to me. I’m glad to get the opportunity to play.”


Yet, women who have been musicians for many years felt the attention was long overdue. “It’s about time,” said trumpeter and vocalist Bryant, who began playing professionally during World War II, when women instrumentalists were considered novelty items. “Either that or they wanted you to be B-girls and sit at the bar and hustle drinks,” Bryant said. “I wouldn’t do that--I got a union card.”

Others said it’s not necessary to look back that far in jazz history to find hostile attitudes toward women musicians. One of the founding members of NAJE Women, a networking group for women members, recalled, “When we wanted to start it, there was a lot of resistance from within the organization that we were separatists.” After the group’s first meeting in 1984, Kimberly McCord said, “One of the comments from a prominent person in the organization was, ‘I hope what you talked about in your meeting was limited to sewing and babies.’ ”

Pianist and vocalist Rucker suggested that the best course for women pursuing careers in jazz is the same as for those in any other competitive profession. “You’ve got to keep focused on what it is you like. That’s got to be the music. That’s the key. All this other stuff is the same thing that happens to ladies who work in insurance offices.

“If you don’t start dealing with it . . . by golly, it’s going to interfere with your art. So a good attitude--about yourself, about your sexuality . . . about the human race--is not a bad thing to have in your bag, right there along with all the scales. And I daresay that stuff takes as much practice as the scales do, if not more.”


Added McCord: “All we want to do is play music. It takes a lot of energy away from just playing music when you have to get on your soapbox and try to campaign for rights of women in the jazz business. We all want to get there, and I think it’s getting a lot closer.”