Years ago I sat in on an undergraduate jazz improvisation class. Week after week, a collection of non-majors stretched themselves as they learned the art of small ensemble jazz playing. On the whole, they had a lot of fun – listening, collaborating, and experimenting. But I was surprised by how quickly this group of novices adopted the cult of masculinity so prevalent in jazz. This class was clearly a boys club. A hierarchy emerged with the loudest, most confident voices – both spoken and played – on top. Virtuosity was king. And since this was a class on improvisation, the students valued originality and innovation, what they perceived as new and experimental, above all else. The young men in this class carried themselves with a certain swagger, clearly enjoying their newfound freedom and challenges.
The lone woman in the class, however, had a hard time of it. She was a singer in a room full of instrumentalists and a sophomore in a group dominated by upperclassmen. She usually sat in the back of the class, not too close to the action. While her classmates were never overtly unkind or aggressive towards her, the atmosphere, so steeped in testosterone, was intimidating nonetheless. After weeks of watching the boys, she finally got up and sang, coincidently enough, a rendition of “Lullaby of Birdland” inspired by Sarah Vaughan. This took a lot of guts, and I was impressed by her conviction. Performing is always hard, and vocalists, so often dismissed by the boys in the band as untalented eye candy, don’t have an instrument to hide behind. Their body is their instrument. And the sound they create is an intimate expression of that body. In short, singing can be very unsettling and vulnerable.
Yet the young men in the class must have felt terribly vulnerable, too. Improvising, especially at first, takes you beyond your comfort zone. It’s like flying on the trapeze without a net, and things can go badly very fast. When discussing the risks of improvisation, one student likened it to putting his balls on the table for everyone to see. It’s almost as if the table were a chopping block, and creative failure – dependent upon both his technical and mental prowess – placed his masculinity at risk.
Such a proclamation prompts the question: what do women musicians put on the table? What did that young vocalist put on the line when she got up to sing in class? What about Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, or Billie Holiday back in the day? Though the answer doesn’t lend itself to strikingly gendered balls-on-the-chopping-block style imagery, I’d argue that female musicians put the same things on the line as their male counterparts: their pride, ego, and creative vision. But they do so in an environment that has, historically, been stacked against them. They must fight to be heard, show that they are as capable as the boys – possess the same brilliance, creativity, and chops – all while maintaining a guise of respectable femininity. It’s not an easy task.