[The following was written by a friend of mine, a freshman in college. My initial thought (after “this is good; people need to see this”) was to recommend replacing the word “jazz” with “science fiction” because of the subject’s prominence in our field. Upon reflection, however, I believe that the word “jazz” could be replaced by the profession or fandom of your choice, and remain unfortunately relevant. This is reprinted by permission; the author’s name is withheld.]
To the jazz community (especially male jazz musicians please read on):
A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of talking to a woman, around 50-60, who was a jazz vocalist. During the conversation, she brought up the difficulties of being a woman in the jazz community, especially an instrumentalist, and asked me if anything had changed since she had been in school. Without any hesitation I told her it had not.
As a tenor saxophonist in middle school and high school jazz bands, I have been verbally, emotionally, and sexually harassed. Some of the things said to me were so disgusting that I, as a sheltered 15-year-old, could not even comprehend. But, as with any systemic issue, this is not really about me.
Throughout every summer camp or high school group, every woman I have met in the jazz community has felt at best excluded and at worst terribly harassed. Of the 6 women I have played in high school with, all were good if not great musicians. However, jazz culture pressures instrumentalists to be the absolute best, and the more men feel that pressure, or fear that a woman might usurp them in skill, the more men harass women in an attempt to push them out of the competition. Women in the jazz community are not seen as equal competitors, but rather threats to the toxic fragile masculinity of men.
And the harassment works. I told myself after my senior year of high school I would never play in a jazz band again. I had lost all motivation to practice years before. The only way for my emotional health to survive jazz band was to give up and not care. I saw other women find similar paths: letting men know that you are not good is met with laughter, asking for help is met with condescending smiles. Trying your best is met with anger and misogyny. In a school setting, I learned that my gender was not welcome, that giving up is healthier, that improving is futile.
Misogyny in jazz does not only exist in my high school, or in the summer music camps I attended. Misogyny, as well as racism, in jazz is historically rooted. Watch movies like The Girls in the Band, a documentary about the struggles of women from 1930s jazz bands to the present. Look no further than Whiplash, where a white man tells the only girl in a band in the entire movie she is there only because she is cute and then kicks her out after one bad note. Even try to think of the names of three female jazz instrumentalists.
The competitiveness within the jazz community cannot be conducive to learning or creativity if it violently attacks 51% of the population. Toxic masculinity and its consequential harassment must be eradicated. If you are a male jazz musician, I recommend you keep these things in mind:
1. Women deserve respect the moment they are born. Men have proven that women will never be good enough to earn their respect. Whether they are new or veterans, whether they are terrible musicians or great, all women deserve your respect.
2. Pushing people out of the jazz community will not make jazz better. If you love jazz music, you will encourage women to join and encourage them to practice and encourage them to be great and let them be great. Misogyny cannot be tolerated in any society that wants to grow and neither can fostering this toxic competitive spirit.
3. Women owe you nothing. Not when you think you need a reason to respect them. Not if you don’t harass them. Not when you apologize for harassing them. Not when you ask for forgiveness.
Finally, to the women who have ever played in jazz bands, whether you quit or you still play: I admire you infinitely. You are stronger than the men who harassed you. You are more talented than they led you on to believe. You are incredible and wonderful and I wish you the best in whatever you are currently accomplishing.