Bringin’ it Back: Don’t Tell Enters the Jazz World

When prepping a senior recital, most music students stop working on anything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, I’m not most music students, so despite scheduling myself into three sets of rehearsals and overseeing two more, I’m still on a creative kick. That’s really helpful when I need a break from thinking about logistics, but when I run into a musical quandary, I find it even more difficult to overcome than I usually would.

Take last week’s dilemma: I’ve been invited back to the Nash Composers’ Coalition (yay!) for our spring showcase of new works.

Our first rehearsal is tonight, and right now I’ve got scraps of a piece. (Surprisingly, that’s not the issue.) Despite telling myself I would wait to do more with Letters from the Aftermath until after my recital, my composer brain decided that the Nash would be the next great place to test the project on a new audience. It’s a good point, but I can’t help my skepticism, for jazz’s gender problems extend far beyond what most people encounter in the modern classical world.

Like many other facets of music, jazz has long been considered an old boys’ club (for my thoughts on that, see my last post about the isolation of women in jazz). However, the powers that be in the jazz world haven’t done as much to actively facilitate the inclusion of women as classical musicians have. The orchestral world has been holding blind auditions, in which the judges cannot see (and therefore know the gender of) auditionees, since the 1970s and ‘80s. Meanwhile, the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, arguably the most prominent American big band, has never had a permanent female member. NEVER. Most women who share the stage with JALCO are guest vocalists, there for one concert—maybe two—and then sent on their merry way. It’s arguably one of the most significant problems with Wynton Marsalis’ bandleading—though JALCO’s education initiatives are excellent, girls often will not envision themselves as jazz musicians unless they see women like them onstage. After a widespread effort, Lincoln Center announced a new hiring policy, featuring blind auditions and formal job postings. While this progress is great, the fact that it didn’t happen until August 2016 tells you a little about how jazz as a whole treats its women. (As one of my classical friends aptly put it, “if the Vienna Philharmonic is beating you at diversity, you’re doing something wrong.”)

As such, I’ve had more than my fair share of awkward conversations with the jazz musicians I see regularly. When it can be an uphill battle just to receive something akin to fair and equal treatment, it becomes even more daunting to insert something personal into an ensemble that contains eight men and only one other woman. Though the guys in the group will likely be supportive of the work I’m creating, I learned from writing Don’t Tell that a project about sexual assault is an enormously heavy thing to carry with you, even if you’re used to the burden. It’s a lot to ask of someone who isn’t as closely involved. Thankfully, I’m confident in my ensemble—not only in their skill and willingness to play difficult things, but in their faith in me—and while I’m nervous, I’m excited to see what we can do with this new work. ♦