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Andrea Keller on Jazz and Gender

Andrea Keller on Jazz and Gender

Ingrid Monson, Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music at Harvard University, says many women in jazz feel 'caught between their love of jazz and the way their gender is often considered out of place within it.' It is frequently argued that the world of jazz has traditionally been one dominated by men, rife with a potent and entrenched sexism.

To mark International Women’s Day, we asked Andrea Keller, one of Australia’s leading jazz musicians and composers, to share her thoughts on the gender imbalance within the local and international jazz community.

Despite my good fortune as a female working in a male dominated industry, when first I sat down to write these words, I couldn’t help but purge all my frustrations, and as such listed the many comments, actions and mistreatments I’ve received that are directly connected to me being a female jazz musician. It’s not my intention to reveal the details of these publicly, but rather to just say that I have received my fair share that have caused me great irritation, upset and insult. No woman escapes them, they vary in severity, but (sadly) none of us are exempt.

Disclaimer: Men AND women are responsible for the biased attitudes towards the potential of women in jazz. I have received almost as many jaw dropping and insulting comments and decisions from women (of all ages and persuasions) as I have from men.

The gender disparity came as a shock to me after a childhood spent in the classical world where it wasn’t so apparent. With a growing interest in jazz as a teenager, I was hit with the glaringly obvious presence of the gender imbalance in the jazz world. As a young musician I didn’t find this off-putting, rather a challenge. I was however incredibly aware of my enormous feelings of insecurity and perceived inability in the realm of improvisation, and was envious that my male counterparts didn’t display (or let on) any of these same feelings. It’s only now with age, experience and the wider and more public conversation on women in jazz, that I’m realising my behavior and feelings aren’t exclusive, and that in fact many women in my field tell similar tales.

The important things that stood out in my experience during these formative years, the things that I believe kept me in the game and are largely responsible for my successes, are:

Mentors and Role Models
As a teenager I drew great inspiration from local Sydney figures Judy Bailey and Sandy Evans, plus a bunch of tertiary female jazz students at the Sydney Conservatorium, where I attended high school, who went on to become established and respected jazz musicians, such as Jann Rutherford, Cathy Harley, and Nicki and Lisa Parrott. In hindsight it is clear how vital these role models were for me. Moving to Melbourne in my late teens, it was musicians Sonja Horbelt, Lisa Young and Sue Johnson who paved the way and nurtured me. Many of these women continue to be an amazing support and source of inspiration for me.

Don't put all your eggs in one basket
I was fortunate to have multiple avenues and opportunities to pursue music. If one became shrouded in negativity, there was another occurring concurrently that was more positive, therefore even by closing one door, there were others open where I could remain connected to my path of learning. From these, further opportunities emerged. 

Proportions of biased to unbiased attitudes
Luckily for me, my experiences have held a higher proportion of unbiased attitudes and actions towards me than biased. There are so many men and women to thank for these positive and supportive experiences. They are people from all generations and areas of the industry (musicians, venue owners/managers, artistic directors, arts workers, teachers, radio producers, reviewers/bloggers, the list goes on). Worthy of mention is the late Brian Brown and the all-inclusive philosophy and learning environment he created in the jazz & improvisation course at, what was then known as, The Victorian College of the Arts. Brian’s unbiased approach, which reverberated through his staff, could be the reason Melbourne has celebrated such a strong output of creative female musicians and improvisers.

Opportunities for women
Quotas and overt efforts to increase female participation/inclusion, and highlight the work of women leave me with mixed feelings. These aside, it’s obvious that we need to behave consciously in order to change the situation history has served us. Festivals such as the Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival and the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival have been vital platforms for me and my colleagues to present new works and ensembles. Programs such as the Young Women’s Jazz Workshops in Sydney, and the Girls Do Jazz and YoWo programs in Melbourne are crucial – they build community and they provide a forum for young women to explore improvisation and new musical pursuits away from the often confronting situations dominated by men and teenage boys. 

Caught in a stream of viscous circles 

As Emma Grace Stephenson suggests in her illuminating article What’s Going on With Women in Jazz? 'the under-representation of women in the Australian jazz scene might be a self-perpetuating cycle where biases cause self-imposed limiting beliefs, which impinges on artistic progress. These limitations then translate to under-performance, which validates existing stereotypes and associations, motivating further bias and stereotype formation, and thus continues the cycle.'

In a male dominated industry whose freelance system centers largely on booking ‘who’ you know, along with the effect of accumulative experiences, women are often overlooked. In this scenario, men are more likely to reach their full potential whilst women are unable to reach theirs. This in turn leads to women being more likely to be overlooked in the booking process. Due to under-representation in the mainstream, women create their own opportunities for presentation and development. Consequently they can be largely ignored in mainstream programming because they appear to be ‘doing fine’. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

If being a woman in jazz can be seen to put you on the back foot, motherhood produces a double whammy. Having 3 children whose births span 14 years, I can say without a doubt that motherhood has created more missed opportunities for my career as a freelance jazz musician, than solely being a woman (and I’m not referring to time away from the job to fulfill parenting roles). Men don’t experience parenthood in the same professional way. Biases towards mothers often escape unaddressed.

Being a creative artist of any sort is arduous and demanding. It’s an intricately complex balance of hard work, grueling schedules, self-doubt, small successes and minimal support. It’s incredibly difficult for everyone pursuing this sort of life. As a woman the successes can be somewhat soured by speculation that they are due to gender over merit. This never fails to feel like a slap in the face. On the flip side however, it is important not to jump to conclusions that all missed opportunities occur because of gender. This would of course be untrue, unrealistic, and a gross exaggeration, but nevertheless the under-representation of women in Australian jazz is inarguable. Australia’s leading jazz reviewer, John Shand (in his book Jazz: The Australian Accent), has written chapter after chapter highlighting male bandleaders and all-male bands. Although there are smatterings of women mentioned throughout the book, including under a section titled Afterthoughts, the biggest insult appears in a chapter titled Missing Women (which inhabits 2 of the 228 pages in the book). The fact that it is there at all, the title, the brevity – left me reeling. (UNSW press published this book in 2009!)

When I was an undergraduate studying jazz and improvisation in the mid-nineties, I assumed that the jazz world would look vastly different in terms of gender equity 25 years on. My youthful optimism and glass half-full attitudes have been steadfastly worn down by the day-to-day reality of the industry; the progress of gender equity is unremarkable.

A major benefit from current platforms and forums that provide interactive and open conversation on this topic is the realisation that I am not alone in any of it. I constantly learn important lessons about my broader community and myself. For now (at least), we cannot afford to stop asking questions, sharing experiences, and talking about ‘it’. However, I’d be beyond excitement if I were never asked another question about my experience as a female jazz musician, or what it’s like to be a woman in jazz, I find the topic laborious to say the least. I’m a musician – full stop. 

Andrea Keller

Andrea is a regular performer at Melbourne Recital Centre and was the 2017 recipient of the Merlyn Myer Music Commission.

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