Women finding their place in jazz scene | Music | DW | 12.05.2017
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Jazzfest Bonn

Women finding their place in jazz scene

This year's Jazzfest Bonn will once again present exciting female musicians - but jazz still remains very much a male domain. DW spoke to music experts to find out why, and whether there is change on the horizon.

"Put on a sexy outfit, give us guys something to look at!" and "We were expecting a man." are quips Shannon Barnett has heard many times over the years. Very much at home in the jazz scene, the WDR Big Band trombonist will be on stage along with China Moses, Rebekka Bakken and many other female jazz greats at this year's Jazzfest Bonn.

Shannon Barnett (Desmond White)

Barnett is the youngest member of Germany's WDR Big Band

But for a long time, Barnett felt she was fighting against the image of the weak, naive woman, she told DW. The Australian-born musician and composer confirms that "women are hugely underrepresented in jazz, in particular as instrumentalists."

A 2016 survey on jazz musicians in Germany showed that four out of five are in fact men - in a genre that is widely regarded as being open and tolerant, said Peter Materna, a saxophone player and creative director of Jazzfest Bonn.

"Jazz is an attitude, a way of life. We are open to everything!" he said.

But, as is usually the case, it's the men who play the drums or electric guitars, while the cliche of the singing jazz lady seems to persist even today: 86 percent of the female interviewees in the German study said they were singers.

Black and male?

Peter Materna (DW/C. Paul)

Peter Materna has been creative director of the Jazzfest Bonn since 2010

Women have found it difficult to gain access to the world of fine arts, painting and music since the Middle Ages, jazz expert Annette Hauber wrote in an article on women in jazz in 1988.

While women finally replaced castrati in opera and concerts in the 17th century, they were still not allowed to play all instruments. Singing, the piano and the harp were deemed ladylike enough, but horns or kettledrums were not regarded as befitting the "fairer sex," according to the expert.

Hundreds of years later, jazz evolved in the US in the early 20th century as a predominantly black and male scene, a means of expression for America's lower classes. The music market was firmly in the hands of white men. Women, and black women in particular, found themselves at the bottom of the list where well-paid jobs or record deals were concerned.

A vicious circle

It would be wrong to say, however, that women played no role in the history of jazz.

Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday are veritable figureheads. But how many music lovers know Lil Hardin, a prominent pianist and the wife of Louis Armstrong? Or trombonist Melba Liston, who shared the stage with jazz greats John Coltrane and Duke Ellington?

Few female musicians in the history of jazz were well-known to the public. Racial segregation and discrimination may have been to blame in 1950s America - but today?

"Young people often start playing jazz music in their teens," said Shannon Barnett, adding this can be a great challenge for girls. "Improvisation, solos, taking risks - that's something many girls avoid, as they don't want to stand out." They also lack role models that might encourage them to choose instruments like the trombone or the drums, added Barnett, who taught music for a long time.

Jasmin Tabatabai (Felix Broede)

German-Iranian actress and musician Jasmin Tabatabai will perform with the David Klein Quartett on May 12

Bashfulness at a young age is one reason to hang back, and hard cash is another. According to the 2016 German jazz study, men are more likely to have an artistic profession than their wives or female partners. Sometimes, jazz musicians get only 50 to 100 euros for a gig, said Materna.

"That's why there are so few women in jazz. Women have children and they often feel more responsible for their families than men do," he said. "They simply can't spend their nights playing in clubs."

Here come the jazz ladies

But things are slowly changing. Among the younger generation, the number of female jazz artists is on the rise.

Today, more women teach and play an instrument and hold top positions in record companies, labels and festivals, Barnett said. "Girls are realizing there is a place for them."

It's a positive trend, but she cautions that it's no reason to sit back and relax because people in general are not very aware of the issue.

For his part, Materna has urged more state financial support for female musicians. "Women musicians are just as good as men - in certain areas, they are even more interesting," he said.

What needs to change is the public perception of women in jazz. The singer in the sequined gown is a jazz artist as much as the ecstatic female drummer with sweat beading on her forehead.

DW is the media partner for the 2017 edition of Jazzfest Bonn, which runs from May 12-27.

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