Jazz and its women instrumentalists

9th November 2018 | Musings, Travel | 3 comments

In my new book Speaking the Piano, there’s a chapter about the time I went to America in the 1980s to learn jazz piano.

I loved learning about jazz, but didn’t find a way into the jazz world at that time. One of the reasons was my feeling of discomfort at being a female instrumentalist in a macho jazz world. Women have long been familiar to jazz audiences as ‘songbirds’, but not so much as pianists, despite the achievements of a few women such as Carla Bley, Diana Krall and Norah Jones.

In my jazz chapter I wrote:

‘In 1999 the Open University ran a radio series of ‘Gender and Music’ for which they interviewed leading jazz players such as saxophone player Barbara Thompson, who formed her own group Paraphernalia, and American jazz lecturer and pianist José Bowen. Almost twenty years after I went to Boston, their opening question was, ‘Why are there so few women jazz players when there are so many women singers?’

‘Answering this question, Bowen referred to the ‘very male’ competitive atmosphere among jazz musicians. He mentioned the ‘cutting competitions’ of the 1940s and 50s in which jazz musicians (male) would try to play faster, louder, higher than anyone else on the platform. This was called ‘cutting’ other musicians, an interesting choice of word in itself. (It reminded me unpleasantly of the jazz word ‘axe’ for a musical instrument.) …’There is built into the art form a tendency towards aggression’, Bowen commented, going on to comment (perhaps sarcastically) that ‘in some ways the field was wide open for women if we can get past the social difficulties involved, the hours, and the attitude on the bandstand.’ ‘

Yesterday, several decades after I studied jazz in America, I was startled to receive an email about the upcoming programme in The Jazz Bar, a respected Edinburgh jazz venue which runs an intensive programme of events throughout the year, often with several different artists or groups appearing on a single night. So they know what they’re talking about.

Programmer Edith Kyle wrote in her email:

‘I feel that it is important to celebrate the accomplishments of women in jazz (instrumentalists in particular) as it is still something of a rarity, and with so many accomplished older male musicians on the scene, it can feel like an intimidating atmosphere for women and young musicians to join. I’m making an active effort in the programming to include more and more of these incredibly talented female instrumentalists to showcase as, not only are their performances a fantastic addition to the programme, but representation and visibility is hugely important in inspiring future generations of musicians.’

Good for you, Edith! And absolutely right. But how frustrating to hear that – despite the efforts of the #MeToo generation – women jazz players are still grappling with the same issues I grappled with in the 1980s!!


  1. Ivan

    Currently we have ‘The Shake ‘Em Up Jazz Band ‘ – based in New Orleans, but they toured this year in England and Scotland. Six fine lady players from the USA, Canada and Japan. You can sample their work on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjvABe9Mvns

    • Susan Tomes

      Ivan, thank you, I didn’t know about this band. They sound great. But I do notice that everyone who’s contacted me about female jazz players has said ‘Didn’t you know about so-and-so…..?’ – mentioning one person, which kind of underlines my point.


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