There’s no doubt about it: Jazz has a gender problem. “Women in Jazz” as a classification is experiencing a widespread shift to “Jazz and Gender,” which recognizes the expansion of gender identities in today’s society and frames it as an issue for everyone to be concerned about — removing the burden on women to fix the problem. To accomplish this in jazz, or other fields that remain patriarchal, would be a true sign of a pivoting society.
I’m unfortunately reminded of this disparity every day when I turn on the radio, see a concert advertisement, or look at my own music collection. Nearly everything I see or hear says that I, as a woman who plays the drums, shouldn’t be here. But women were always here, just underacknowledged and underarchived. This established “norm” that men were the players and women were the vocalists (or occasionally pianists) remained prevalent far too long, including the buy-in from many women artists who perpetuated that unspoken rule. (Even the brilliant jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln told me when I was well into my career that I should sing!) Instruments were gendered and the predicted sound was qualified with masculinity. You had to hit hard and kill it.
Jazz is intellectual freedom music rooted in the blues. Women and the gender-expansive community also have their freedom songs and the desire to express them in the art form. The good news is that the collective work of socially conscious educators, presenters, and performers is creating a groundswell of change in our field. Progressive youth are demanding it, and together we can make sure that access and apprenticeship are available for all who show promise — if we want the art form to reach its fullest potential.
Selections highlighting a few of my favorite women artists. (You can listen to these songs and more in the Spotify playlist below.)
1. Geri Allen — “Dolphy’s Dance”
The jazz world still mourns Geri Allen, who passed in 2017. Fortunately, she left us so much amazing music. The melodic mastery of her Eric Dolphy tribute makes it a standout and an etude fit for any serious musician to tackle.
2. Alice Coltrane — “Turiya and Ramakrishna”
The maestra merges deep blues with free and swinging jazz, acknowledging the ancestors by utilizing the African musical traditions of repetition and progression, along with inflections of bebop and other forms.
3. Nicole Mitchell — “Center of the Earth”
An innovative flautist-composer whose sound knocks your socks off, Mitchell’s music resides in freedom dreams and Afro-futurism. No wonder the DownBeat International Critics Poll has voted her tops on flute every year since 2010. She is truly connected to something deeper.
4. Terri Lyne Carrington — “Pray the Gay Away”
From our band Social Science’s Grammy-nominated album, Waiting Game, it’s our response to hate speech and hate crimes against the LGBTQ community. The Afro-Brazilian maracatu rhythm dominates, infused with jazz, R&B, hip-hop, and operatic vocalise.
5. Kris Davis — “Sympodial Sunflower”
A calming meditation written and performed by a powerhouse pianist, effortlessly covering bass, melody, and harmony with just two hands. The drum rhythm is inspired by Ahmad Jamal’s “Poinciana.” A song that brings a sense of peace to your soul.
6. Esperanza Spalding — “Rest In Pleasure”
A great example of how jazz musicians push the boundaries of the music and themselves, consistently challenging our notions of jazz. While embracing tones and grooves of rock/pop/folk/funk music, her signature jazz comes through in her singing and writing.
7. Anna Webber — “Dan:Ce”
The album captures curiosity, humor, provocation, freedom, and most importantly, a danceable rhythm. An artist who’s emerged as an original voice in composition, matched with her woodwind playing, her music is clever and creative, yet engaging and enjoyable for novices.
You can listen to these songs and a few others on this Spotify playlist compiled by Terri Lyne Carrington:
Terri Lyne Carrington is a Grammy Award-winning drummer, producer, and composer, and the founder and artistic director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.