We Can All Bop: Lessons from the Preschool Set


I recently signed my four-year-old up for WeBop jazz classes, an early childhood education program developed by Jazz at Lincoln Center. I wanted to share my love of jazz with my son, with the hope that someday soon he’ll want to tag along as I go to concerts and clubs. So right now, he’s learning the fundamentals of jazz—blues form, improvisation, scat singing, and time—while singing, dancing, and drumming his way through a collection of jazz standards. The classes are wonderful, in large part because they feature musicians performing live. Each class has a pianist and every four weeks a band joins him. And our first class with the band was very exciting for the children. They saw and heard the music they had been learning in an entirely different way.

We are having a great time. Yet, as a cultural critic and historian who studies women in jazz, I can’t help but analyze (and perhaps over analyze) the gender dynamics of our class. Pictures of young people, including plenty of girls making music, cover the walls of our classroom, which is the home base for the organization Seattle JazzEd. (I also spotted a flyer for an all-girls jazz sleepover party.) Our class leader is a woman and vocalist. The band, a rhythm section plus trumpet, included three men and a woman. Given jazz’s long history as a male-dominated art form that often relegates women to the sidelines, this is, comparatively speaking, a more inclusive vision of jazz, and this made me happy.

I also noticed, however, that my son is in a class full of little boys, all brought there by their mothers or grandmother. I assume that this is a coincidence and that little girls do, in fact, attend other WeBop sessions. But this got me thinking about society’s larger assumptions about who listens to and enjoys jazz, and where I, as a woman, mother, and scholar, fit in. Am I simply a nurturing presence, there to facilitate the more serious pursuits of boys and men, the true connoisseurs of jazz? Of course not. But I understand that there are some who still see me this way.

My thoughts turned to the jazz world’s most recent controversy: comments made by pianist Robert Glasper during an interview with fellow pianist Ethan Iverson in March. Their conversation took an unfortunate, sexist turn when Glasper discussed his beautiful female fans, who clearly adored him, but in his mind weren’t capable of following or understanding his longer, more complex solos. (NPR’s Michelle Mercer provides an excellent recap and analysis here.) It is a familiar, well entrenched line of thinking and a variation of that old mantra: women can’t play jazz.

Despite the more inclusive vision of jazz coming to life in our WeBop classes, and despite real progress that is being made, jazz is still very much a boy’s club. Women, both fans and musicians, struggle to belong. They must constantly battle stereotypes and assumptions. There is a long history, for example, of female musicians being told that they lack the intellectual prowess, creative spark, and even the physical fortitude to excel in jazz. They are often told that they play pretty good, for a girl. They are mistaken for girlfriends or fans of the boys in the band. Entry into the world of jazz remains difficult for aspiring jazz women.

“In my 30 plus year career, I should have had more female peers than I’ve had,” drummer and composer Terri Lyne Carrington wrote earlier this month in the Huffington Post. “I would like to spend the next 30 years helping to make sure this conversation [about sexism in jazz] becomes a moot point for the young women just embarking on their careers.” Her essay, aptly titled “Sexism In Jazz: Being Agents of Change,” is a compassionate call to action, reminding musicians, both male and female, not to hide behind their instruments. She asks that male jazz musicians acknowledge their privilege and consider how they might contribute, often unwittingly, to sexism in the jazz community. And she reminds fellow women in jazz that in order to educate others and defy stereotypes, they must be aware of what these stereotypes are, all while keeping their sexist colleagues in check.

Carrington’s remarks are part of a long, ongoing dialog about jazz and gender. It’s a conversation that seems to come up each spring. April is, after all, Jazz Appreciation Month, and this year’s theme happens to be “women in jazz.” In recent weeks, I’ve seen articles that define the problem, like this overview of Harvard University’s year “Celebrating Women in Jazz.” In another, drummer Tina Raymond discusses her experiences as a role model and burgeoning activist. I’ve seen this inspiring video of young women talking about their love of playing jazz. There is also this well-intentioned list of “10 Female Jazz Musicians You Need to Know,” although some friends thought that the list, which included canonical figures Toshiko Akiyoshi, Mary Lou Williams, and Carla Bley, should remove gender from the equation all together and simply be titled “10 Jazz Musicians You Need to Know.” Period.

This brings me back to WeBop and my son’s first class with the whole band. That night at dinner, he talked about it a lot. He told me and his dad how he got to sing into a microphone during the opening tune, “Good Morning Blues,” which is also his favorite song. The band had four people. A boy played the piano. Another boy played the trumpet. The drummer played with both his hands and feet. And a girl played a giant guitar—his way of describing an upright string bass. (Importantly, he did not comment on how our class leader seamlessly reworked the text of the book This Jazz Man, a jazz-inspired retelling of “This Old Man,” to make sure that our jazz gal, the bassist, was included in the story.)

I was moved by my son’s enthusiasm and struck by how he discussed his experience. While he noticed gender, he didn’t bring a lot of the baggage and preconceptions that many adults bring to their listening. He didn’t question the bassist’s musicianship or her ability to play such a large, unfeminine instrument. He didn’t dismiss her as an exception or anomaly, “the chick” in the band. She was simply a girl who played the bass (and did so very well). As far as my son was concerned, she belonged there.

It was one of those moments when my personal life and role as a mother coincided with my intellectual world. And it was a powerful reminder that kids, jazz’s future, are paying attention. They notice everything. It’s not easy changing the assumptions and mindsets that come along with a century of jazz history. But if we want to change the face of jazz, to stop having this annual conversation about the absence of women in jazz, one important step is to take great care, as Seattle JazzEd so clearly is, when deciding what jazz’s youngest fans see and hear.