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Female jazz musicians raise their voices against sexism

At this year’s Winter Jazzfest in New York, one of the world’s biggest jazz festivals, women took center stage in more ways than one. In a year when more than a third of the festival’s acts had female bandleaders -- the highest in its history -- it also joined 44 international music festivals to sign onto Keychange, a European music industry initiative for gender parity. Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Composer and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington is a three-time Grammy award winner. Perhaps the most prominent female drummer in jazz, Carrington was a child prodigy.

  • TERRI LYNE CARRINGTON:

    I started playing the drums at 7 but at 10 I got my union card and started working. My dad was a saxophone player and drummer and my grandfather was a drummer, so I had music running through my blood.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    After four decades in the music business, Carrington gives credit not only to her family, but also her mentors, who are living legends: drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock.

  • CARRINGTON:

    As my career moved forward there weren’t so many female peers on the instrument as well, so I just felt like I was you know in a bit of a boys club but I felt like you know somebody they let into the club you know somebody that was an exception. And then I started you know realizing the older I got that, wow, this needs to change. There should be more women that feel ownership in the music.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    When Carrington won a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album in 2014, she was the first and is still the only woman to win in that category. Her win defied the traditional stereotype of women in jazz: they are often seen as vocalists, but not instrumentalists. But women were a bright spot at this year’s annual Winter JazzFest in New York City, one of the biggest jazz festivals in the world, more than a third of the acts had female bandleaders, the highest number in the festival’s 14 year history. Just this week, the festival made a commitment to furthering gender equality in jazz. It became one of 45 international music festivals that signed onto a European music industry initiative pledging to implement a 50/50 gender balance in its lineup and conference panels by 2022. It’s called “Keychange.”

    At Winter JazzFest, Terri Lyne Carrington was joined by another Grammy-award-winning artist, the bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding. They also took part in a panel on jazz and gender. there, the conversation was not just about the need for better female representation, but the sexist culture that female instrumentalists say they regularly face.

  • TERRI LYNE CARRINGTON:

    Esperanza, I just wanted to ask you too, how you feel sexism has impacted your career specifically as a bassist?

  • ESPERANZA SPALDING:

    You know maybe it doesn’t bother everybody who walks into that room and has to say oh like no I’m not somebody’s girlfriend or a singer but like I’m here to play. You don’t notice that you’re bracing. You don’t notice that you’re, you’re sending verbal, behavioral message: I am not accessible to you in any way except for the music can’t touch me. You can’t kiss me. I don’t like you. Don’t get near me energetically cause it’s not that game. And believe it or not, that takes a lot of energy to maintain. So for the first time being in a group of all women, I personally know accessed aspects of my musicianship that I never got to because I was in a battle. And you know you’re not free in defense mode, you’re in survival mode and the music needs more than survival energy.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    One of the youngest bandleaders at the festival was 19-year-old percussionist Sasha Berliner, a sophomore at New York City’s New School. In her newly assembled quintet, she plays the vibraphone.

  • SASHA BERLINER:

    There’s just nothing else that sounds like it. And I like that it can be melodic and also harmonic and also percussive.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    While in high school, Berliner started taking professional gigs in San Francisco and often found herself the only woman performing at a show.

  • SASHA BERLINER:

    It was a bit uncomfortable at first because not only was I the only woman but I was by far the youngest person there.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    She recently wrote an open letter to the jazz community, in which she decried the staggeringly small number of women in jazz and, she wrote of the sexism endured by “even those few women who have been deemed some of the utmost skilled musicians in the jazz community.”

  • SASHA BERLINER:

    I think the majority of people are not deliberately sexist. But they may not know about their actions or sort of tendencies in terms of hiring people, in terms of representation are just a product of this culture that’s never really supported women.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    She wrote of male players and teachers who she believed held low expectations of her because she was a woman, and made sexist comments about female players. Berliner also described a history of sexual harassment by an older, would-be mentor.

  • SASHA BERLINER:

    It actually you know went a lot farther than just like being touchy or giving hugs and stuff and I just got really angry at myself for that. And I think that ruined a lot of my confidence. I had trust issues with a lot of teachers going forward just because I didn’t want that to happen again.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    For Terri Lyne Carrington, one way to help end sexism in jazz is to involve more women: including recruiting more female teachers at music schools. as a professor at the Berklee College of Music for over a decade, she sees the positive effect of being a female role model for her male students.

  • TERRI LYNE CARRINGTON:

    That’s why I love teaching because I really feel like I can make a difference in somebody’s life. And often, it’s a young man’s life.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    In the meantime, both Carrington and Berliner have signed an open letter, started by a group of female jazz musicians inspired by the “MeToo” movement — declaring, in part, “We will not be silent. We have voice. We have zero tolerance for sexual harassment.” The letter calls on institutions and the music community to take on a greater role in creating a safe and equitable environment for not just women, but people of all different backgrounds. The letter has more than 800 signatures.

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