Musicians are People, Too: An Introductory Guide to Improving the Scene

Most musicians will tell you that plenty of us need to work on our people skills. (Kind of funny, since our lives revolve around networking.) We like being on stage, but we aren’t always good at subtlety or tact or comforting or the things that remind your friends that you’re a pretty okay human. As a result, most music schools feature a crop of nineteen-year-olds who make jokes about women (and men) that are tasteless at best and downright offensive at worst. This happens a lot in the jazz world; lots of guys just don’t put a filter between their brains and mouths. And somehow that’s okay, because the jazz stereotype is that you’re supposed to be your raw, unfiltered self, and everyone else is supposed to think that’s the greatest thing since the iPhone.

More than a couple well-meaning jazz people have danced around the question of how to make women feel more included. I’d like to introduce my suggestions on how to not only invite women into the space but improve the interpersonal relationships in our scene as a whole:

  • Be nice whenever possible. This should absolutely be a no-brainer, yet there are plenty of dudes out there who start a pissing contest whenever they see another bassist/saxophonist/insert-your-instrument-here. If your peers, friends, and collaborators bring you joy (or even if they just don’t piss you off), show them that.
  • Make a habit of playing (nicely) with others. Ideally with as many musicians as you can. Jam and practice and gig with everybody (this will inadvertently include at least some women, unless you have zero female jazz musicians in your scene, in which case you should probably recruit some). If you’re used to jamming with the same three people, you won’t call anyone else for a gig. [To borrow from this Wired article that quotes Atipica founder Laura I. Gómez, hiring from within your pool of friends isn’t a meritocracy, it’s cronyism.] If you regularly play with twenty assorted musicians, regardless of who’s your best friend, you’ll have a lot more variety to choose from. And that goes much further than gender.
  • Learn to read the room. This one is important and often overlooked. That joke you’re making about sleeping with some random girl will probably sound a lot less funny to the only woman in the room, and you don’t know if she’ll roll her eyes or leave in tears. Be aware when a new face in your audience lives a noticeably different lifestyle than the rest of your crew, and do your best to create an environment that’s welcoming for everyone.
  • Listen. If you gain a woman’s (or a man’s) trust, eventually she may talk to you about issues she’s facing, both within the scene and relating to other topics. You don’t have to act like it’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever heard, but be polite. And ask questions if you need clarification! You might find yourself faced with a new perspective.
  • If you’re going to be an asshole, choose your moments wisely. Lots of people in the jazz scene—or maybe just lots of people—decide to be assholes for little to no reason, and doing so in front of the wrong individual can completely ruin someone’s day. Refer back to my first suggestion for a good alternative. If you must be the most hated person in the room, do it for good reason. For example, I was once leaving a gig when I was accosted by a drunk man demanding my cell phone and invading my personal space. A friend of mine noticed what was going on (despite that I was outside and he was indoors), stepped out to check on me, and wasted no time in sending the man on his way. Even though that guy probably thought my friend was being the most inconvenient person in the world at that moment, it made a lasting impression on me (and kept me from being further harassed, with potentially dire consequences).
  • When you screw up, apologize for the right reasons. Nobody is perfect. We all have and will continue to hurt others, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. When that happens, make sure you’re saying sorry for what you did to screw up. Another good example comes from a heated exchange I had with a colleague; this was a relatively normal mix-up about personnel for a gig, but instead of apologizing for the lack of professionalism I’d been shown, I got an “I’m sorry your feelings got hurt.” GUYS. Women will be reduced to crying, screaming, bitchy, hormonal pains in the ass more times in our lifetimes than we’d care to name. Do. Not. Add. To. That. Be the shining individuals you are and just give it to us (and everyone else) straight. Usually it involves a comparable number of words and a lot less anger directed at you in the long run.
    [One more note on this subject: many people in this day and age seem to be under the impression that just because they didn’t intend to say something sexist/racist/homophobic/mean, they don’t have to apologize. Just remember that when you were learning to ride a bike and accidentally ran into that kid on a scooter, you still had to say you’re sorry.]
  • Remember that history is not on our side. Women in jazz have historically been belittled, harassed, excluded, swept aside, passed over, and insulted, simply because of gig culture and stereotypes about “feminine” instruments. The tradition so many of you bow down to would rather we sit in a corner, pay for your music, and stay away from the stage at all costs. We deserve better, and most of you know that, but at the end of the day, it’s your job to set the wheels in motion.
  • BONUS: Educators: be the best example you can. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from many professors and mentors who strive to be great examples for their students. Though the occasional off-color comment will still be made, people who are not nineteen years old are far better at identifying these moments and apologizing for them. That’s great! Just remember that oftentimes, it’s good to acknowledge to the class when you said something unkind or jarring to a student in front of their peers (even if you’ve apologized to that student privately, which we do appreciate). Your nineteen- and twenty-year-olds who are still learning how to handle these situations will now have another moment in which you were a great example—otherwise, they’ll just see you say something off-putting and never mention it again (and you know they’ll adopt that into their own behavior).

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but together with some good old-fashioned discussion, it’s a decent start. Be sure to keep the conversation rolling with the people around you, especially the folks you don’t agree with. And at the end of the day, if someone tells you that you’re doing something to make them uncomfortable, don’t jump on the offensive. Take the opportunity to learn about someone else’s perspective—it’ll make your life easier, and probably a little more fun, in the long run. ♦