Jazz’s Sisterhood: Regina Carter, Renee Rosnes, and More Women Transforming the Genre
July 9, 2019
For a century, jazz was a men’s club. Now a vanguard of women virtuosi—including these 16 standouts—are reshaping this most American of art forms.
IN THE KEY OF W Artemis, the all-woman supergroup, features a septet of jazz giants: Allison Miller, Noriko Ueda (with bass), Melissa Aldana, Anat Cohen, Ingrid Jensen, music director Renee Rosnes, and Cécile McLorin Salvant.
Half a century ago, the acclaimed music critic George T. Simon said everything you need to know about sexism in jazz: “Only God can make a tree, and only men can play good jazz.” This gender bias has deep roots. Jazz has always been a boys’ club, a macho art form reserved for brash, fast-fingered men living on the road, in cramped quarters, hustling from gig to gig. And despite playing a pioneering role in integration and the civil rights movement, jazz has had an abysmal record on gender.
The pantheon of jazz giants is overwhelmingly male, comprising musicians who even neophytes know on a first-name basis: Louis and Duke, Dizzy and Miles. Women, meanwhile, have long been celebrated as exceptions. Nothing reinforces this fact better than the Village Vanguard, the legendary club in Manhattan’s West Village, where the photos and posters on the dark-green walls constitute a de facto Jazz Hall of Fame. Amid the dozens of male faces there are exactly seven women: Dorothy Donegan, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, and Shirley Horn, all pianists and singers; pianist and composer Geri Allen; bebop guitarist Mary Osborne, whose poster hangs in an unenviable spot opposite the ice machine; as well as a poster of experimental guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson, the only woman on this list who is still alive. “I’m so embarrassed to say it, but with female performers at the Vanguard, I barely need two hands to count them,” admits Deborah Gordon, who since 1989 has been comanaging the club (founded by her father, Max, in 1935, and later run by her mother, Lorraine). “It’s so hard being a jazz musician anyway. Why wouldn’t it be harder being a female jazz musician? It’s one more strike.”
IN THE GROOVE
Bassist-composer Linda May Han Oh, photographed at the Manderley Bar at New York City’s McKittrick Hotel, Home of Sleep No More.
THE FAIRER SAX
Roxy Coss, foreground, founded the Women in Jazz Organization to promote professional female and gender nonbinary jazz musicians. Tia Fuller is the second female solo artist with a Grammy nomination for best jazz instrumental album.
But hold off, just yet, with that sobbing trombone. Every decade or so, a new crop of artists emerge, seemingly on cue, to make their mark on jazz. And today, it is women at the vanguard, shattering what’s left of jazz’s so-called brass ceiling.
The musicians pictured here offer proof of the innovation and leadership coming from an unprecedented number of women in the field, a snapshot of the freshest faces of 21st-century jazz: women instrumentalists who have sizzle right now.
Jane Ira Bloom.
Back in the day, women typically found their sweet spot as vocalists: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day, Lena Horne, Betty Carter, and many, many others. (Their descendants, including Diana Krall, Dianne Reeves, and Cassandra Wilson, are among the most revered voices in jazz. And women, in fact, have dominated the recent cabaret revival.) Standing at the mic was long considered the “natural” place for women—they could perform while still being seen as adornments, as objects of romantic or sexual fantasy. “There’s a lot of history that could have happened,” says drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who, in 2014, became the first woman to win the Grammy for best jazz instrumental album. “We don’t know who had the potential to really be great. If Ella could scat any man under the table with her voice, who’s to say she couldn’t have done it on an instrument?”
Pianist-composer Kris Davis photographed at the Manderley Bar at New York City’s McKittrick Hotel, Home of Sleep No More.
Female players have always had it harder than singers, fighting for the spotlight in a nocturnal genre that couldn’t quite reconcile their perceived femininity with the image of them blowing into horns or pounding on drums. “I’m in a book called Trumpet Kings,” says Canadian horn virtuoso Ingrid Jensen. “I’m honored! But why the hell is it called Trumpet Kings? ‘Cause that’s what jazz is: It’s kings. If you look at all these jazz books, you’d never see a cool picture of a woman sweating with a scrunched-up face like mine when I’m playing.”
The tune is changing, in large part, because there are more points of entry for women. Jazz’s primary system of tutelage—the clubs and jam sessions where young people learn the trade by trial and error, under the watchful eye of their elders—is far more inclusive. So, too, are the formal jazz-study hubs for aspiring musicians, such as the Juilliard School, Berklee College of Music, the University of North Texas College of Music, the Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts, and the University of Michigan, which have opened the music to women and other students from all backgrounds. “Discontent at the way women have been treated in jazz has been bubbling up for so long that it’s reached a boiling point and the lid’s popped off,” says music critic David Hajdu. “Some fearless women plowed through with machetes so that another generation can say, ‘This is possible. Maybe there’s a place for me.’ Women as performers, composers, and innovators is the story in jazz today.”
Five-time Grammy-winning composer and orchestra leader Maria Schneider received this year’s NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship, the highest honor in American jazz.
Guitarist-composer Mary Halvorson is known for avant-garde performances that push the edges of 21st-century jazz.
CLARION CALL Grammy-winning saxophonist-composer Jane Ira Bloom. One of her most recent inspirations: Emily Dickinson’s poetry.
WORLD ON A STRING
Regina Carter, a MacArthur genius fellow, is her generation’s premier jazz violinist.
Those assembled here are among the most in-demand jazz musicians in the business. They perform as bandleaders and sidewomen, produce concerts, and teach at leading music schools. Each of them says she would prefer to discuss her music, not her gender. Few have had the benefit of female mentors. And most didn’t realize there was anything exceptional about being a woman in jazz until they got to college or started playing in the real world. “I think I had blinders on,” recalls saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, “because I was so busy trying to prepare myself to be the best professional musician I could be.” All have, at some point, been told a variation of the backhanded compliment “You play good for a girl” or “You play like a man.” They’ve arrived at shows only to have microphones waiting for them (the assumption being that they’re singers) or people asking them where the bass or brass player is (their reply: “You’re looking at her”).
These days women are headlining at concerts and clubs, at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, and at festivals from Newport to New Orleans to Chicago, from San Diego to Monterey to Portland. In December, sax standout Tia Fuller became only the second woman in 60 years to land a Grammy nomination for best jazz instrumental album. Last year, women nabbed a record 12 Jazz Journalist Association Jazz Awards (Maria Schneider took home three—for best composer, arranger, and large ensemble), and for the first time ever, the Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award went to a woman, Patricia Willard. Vocalist Jazzmeia Horn has amassed a shelfful of honors, as has vocalist-bassist-composer Esperanza Spalding (the first jazz performer to land a Grammy for best new artist), who is very consciously shedding her jazz identity, tipping further into art pop and funk.
At the same time, important contemporary jazz artists—by embracing the avant-garde movement and borrowing from hip-hop and other genres—have given their peers a safe space, less tethered to the macho roots that have characterized traditional jazz. “It’s not uncommon for me to play in bands where women outnumber men, or where men and women are equal,” says guitarist Mary Halvorson. “The more women out there doing it, the more it encourages young women to start.”
Drummer-producer-educator Terri Lyne Carrington, photographed at the Manderley Bar at New York City’s McKittrick Hotel, Home of Sleep No More.
A true watershed came last year, when seven of the best jazz musicians in the world—hailing from the U.S., Canada, France, Chile, Israel, and Japan—performed together at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, receiving two standing ovations. Devoted jazz followers in the audience said they couldn’t remember ever witnessing such a scene. That’s because the ensemble, Artemis, was composed entirely of women. As the audience roared, the band members turned toward their music director, pianist Renee Rosnes, and applauded her. Those ovations were as much for Rosnes as for the group she helped mobilize—and the pivotal jazz moment she helped spark. (Artemis, which went on to perform at the fabled Newport Jazz Festival, will play one of the great stages in American music later this year: Carnegie Hall’s Isaac Stern Auditorium.)
“I’m hoping for a future when people don’t look at it like a novelty act,” says Rosnes, “and people will laugh at articles like this and wonder, ‘Can you imagine? They had to write like that about women in jazz?’ ” Imagine that.
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