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Winter Jazzfest Panel Sheds Light on Jazz and Gender

Ang Santos

Arnetta Johnson, a New Jersey-born trumpeter, was onstage with Beyoncé during the Super Bowl 50 halftime show. But in her last semester at the Berklee College of Music, she had trouble finding other female trumpet players to practice with.

“Ultimately it never happened, unfortunately,”  Johnson said at the New School on Monday, during a Winter Jazzfest talk called Jazz and Gender: Challenging Inequality and Forging a New Legacy.

Percussionist Terri Lyne Carrington was one of Johnson’s professors at Berklee. 

“I hear you on the female instrumentalists at the school,” Carrington said. “It’s hard for me as a teacher there because I rarely get female students.”

Carrington says that 40 percent of Berklee students are women, but when you reduce the singers from that equation, the percentage drastically sinks.

For Johnson, what that meant was that it was hard to gain respect as a trumpet player. “Since I was surrounded by a lot of guys, I knew their approach would be ‘Here comes this chick. I wonder what she does? She probably sings.’  And I would just look at them and smile. There were a lot of times when they would pass me a mic and I would look like, you really don’t want me to sing anything.”

Bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding ran into similar problems while studying music: “We as women creators often are still being kept in check in a zone by the male gatekeepers.”

Spalding argued that male professors, bandleaders and promoters of jazz should lead the rest of the music world by example. “Men in positions of power in the jazz world are influencing what makes it out into the arena of ‘fringe’ music,” she said.  “Which then infiltrates more popular modes, popular aesthetics of commercial music.”

Pianist Vijay Iyer, the only man on the panel, has been a vocal advocate on this issue. As a professor of music at Harvard University, he prioritizes giving women an equal opportunity, but he noted that there’s a long way to go.

“It’s still true that last week I played at Birdland with my sextet which is all men, so I’m also part of the problem,” Iyer said.  “In my small ways here and there, I try to do something about it where it counts and where it can make a difference in somebody’s life.”

Political activist, author, and professor Angela Davis is a long-time jazz fan, and said it has always been at the forefront of activism. “It seems to me that jazz players and members of the jazz community are especially concerned that we figure out ways to guarantee that jazz is not left behind, while the rest of the world moves forward.”

Dr. Davis believes there’s enough champions of women’s rights in jazz to see a groundbreaking movement emerge.