Talkin’ all that jazz: Unsilencing gender in music

By Dr. Clare Hall and Robert Burke*

People are more happy to talk about gender when it’s just gender on its own. But when you put it into the context of music, a lot of people would just be like, no, that’s not a thing, it’s not real. Like we’d start a problem.

Female jazz music student, Monash University

Gender in music is indeed a problem, but talking about it continues to be risky business, as this university jazz students point of view above suggests.

Changing gendered norms isn’t easy, especially entrenched behaviours and attitudes like those in jazz music that are known to historically marginalise female and non-binary musicians. The more culturally revered and elite a musical practice is, the more sanctioned and durable are its gendered norms. This is evident in recent sexual crimes against women jazz musicians despite renewed calls for jazz as the last boys club of the music business to change.

Persistent gender injustices in jazz music are an indicator of an industry struggling to evolve. Despite calls for more disaggregated data about the gendered make-up of the music industry, there are no statistics currently available about female-identifying and non-binary musicians participation in the Australian jazz and improvised music sector.

Why are women still not counted in Australian jazz?

Jazz violinist and vocalist Fem Belling | Photo: Kevin Peterson

Turning the tide of gender injustices in jazz

Diversifying jazz and improvisation appears to be a non-issue in Australian culture. But addressing the exclusionary and harmful practices ingrained in jazz can inform the social change puzzle for other aspects of Australian culture where prejudice also prevails.

There’s a recent plethora of voices from the next generation of activist musicians refreshing the call for change through action, including Monash University alumni such as Claire Cross, Holly Moore, Attaboi, All In Melbourne and YoWo. Their work builds on the legacies of Australian artists who have been leading gender justice causes in jazz for decades, such as Judy Bailey, Judy Jacques, Sandy Evans, Andrea Keller and Sonja Horbelt.

Read more: Raising voices: Leadership from women in music benefits all

The problems regarding gender in music stem from a complex interplay of factors, including representation, sexist attitudes and behaviours, sexual misconduct and power relationships.

Our initial response to this complexity is to research the experiences of tertiary music students as inheritors of the past and the leaders of the next generation. Their voices are surprisingly also absent in Australian research.

Bassist Claire Cross | Photo: Kevin Peterson


Changing gender norms

through tertiary music education

Over the past three years, there have been major interventions in gender equity at the Monash University School of Music as the means to reshape structures for inclusion.

Working from the outside-in with the systems that reproduce gender bias is an essential first step towards a more just sector. Combined with work on the inside through reflective teaching and learning, the students and staff have begun the difficult and critical second steps of talking about gender in music.

Beginning the educational work to challenge gendered expectations for young musicians needs to occur as early and as often as possible.

Trombonist Ellie Lamb | Photo: Kevin Peterson

At the structural level, Monash is the only higher music education institution to intervene in gender equity through committing to the international KeyChange Pledge. This commitment, initiated by Professor Cat Hope in 2018, aims to propel change in practice and cultural norms through 50% representation of female-identifying artists embedded across visiting artists, staff, curriculum and repertoire. For instance, all ensembles aim to increase repertoire by female composers to 50%, and students’ third-year recitals must contain a composition by a female.

These initiatives were originally met with some levels of resistance to change. The backlash against quotas, by both males and females, harbours fears about women’s advancement at men’s cost, and women’s promotion based on gender before merit.

I feel like the solution is finding a way to increase representation of women without men feeling that they’re missing out, or without men feeling like their position is threatened … They just feel like they’re losing their place, their currency, their validity, their purpose, and this is an associated consequence.
Male jazz music student, Monash University

Such gender threats are influenced by a zero-sum mentally that overlooks improvements for women driving success for the whole of society. Our research indicates young jazz musicians, regardless of gender, have a raft of fears associated with their identities. But it’s young women who are expending far greater emotional labour to negotiate the gendered spaces of the music scene.

Beginning the educational work to challenge gendered expectations for young musicians needs to occur as early and as often as possible.

Bassist Tamara Murphy | Photo: Kevin Peterson

Partnership promotes a gender-balanced program

The Melbourne International Jazz Festival (MIJF) Take Note program is one educational initiative that promotes emerging female and non-binary jazz leaders by working directly with secondary school music students. Monash University’s alliance with the MIJF has resulted in a gender-balanced program of visiting artists working with Monash students through the Jazz Futures program and the Monash Art Ensemble. This has included award-winning female artists such Terri Lyne Carrington, Kris Davis and Carla Bley, who are leading the turning tide.

Post-COVID-19 will see a range of practices that we once thought inconceivable become the new norm. How might we reboot gender in music in a similar way?

Research, education and music practice can align to ensure diversity in jazz is a new norm where the domination of white, middle-class, hetero, cis males is a historic moment in time, and an oddity of the past.

* Dr Clare Hall is a Monash University Lecturer in Performing Arts
*Robert Burke is associate professor of Jazz and Improvisation Studies at Monash University’s Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music
This article was first published on Monash Lens(and reproduced here – with additional photos- under the Creative Commons license).

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