Is there gender inequality on the global jazz scene?

Musician and doctoral student Rebecca Zola looks at jazz gender blues.

 REBECCA ZOLA: ‘You have to put up with a lot of sexual harassment in jam sessions, or in club spaces.’ (photo credit: Avivi Aharon)
REBECCA ZOLA: ‘You have to put up with a lot of sexual harassment in jam sessions, or in club spaces.’
(photo credit: Avivi Aharon)

We all have our biases, don’t we? However enlightened we may wish to believe we are, we are inescapably burdened with the weight of accrued baggage. Societal conditioning, media brainwashing, parental messages conveyed to us subliminally or openly in our childhood, and peer pressure – all of these inform who we are and how we relate to others.

That also applies to artists. Yes, we might expect people of a creative bent, particularly in the more improvisational walks of artistic life, to be more open-minded, and open-hearted. But the cold reality is that we generally lean toward the more familiar, and what we perceive to be less threatening to our way of life and perceived welfare and tend to shun, if not actively repel, those we consider to be beyond our comfort zone pale.

As surprising as it may sound, according to Rebecca Zola, that is exactly and painfully the case in the jazz sector too. Zola is about to embark on a PhD, at New York’s prestigious Columbia University, which looks at gender and jazz. She knows what she is talking about and, unfortunately, has troubling firsthand experience.

Zola hails from the US and has been living here for a number of years. During that time she completed a master’s degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in what was loosely labeled ethnomusicology. It is, she says, very much about getting down to brass tacks, at street level. 

“What is important about ethnomusicology is the field research and really talking to people on the ground and getting their oral history, learning about their experiences,” she explains.

 YUVAL DRABKIN was one of the few male musicians who supported Zola’s efforts to break into Israeli jazz.  (credit: Avivi Aharon) YUVAL DRABKIN was one of the few male musicians who supported Zola’s efforts to break into Israeli jazz. (credit: Avivi Aharon)

That means getting the bigger picture, and taking a horizontal and vertical look at the way things work in the music scene. “Throughout my research, it’s been extremely important to try and learn from as many different perspectives as possible,” Zola adds.

“Throughout my research, it’s been extremely important to try and learn from as many different perspectives as possible.”

Rebecca Zola

That also means examining the dynamics of what makes the music market tick, and how professionals go about their business to market the end product and bring in the big bucks, come what may. Zola feels the Machiavellian ethos is still very much alive and kicking, even in this PC-conforming day and age. 

“My master’s thesis was tying in the idea of women in jazz as a branded concept. How people have used women in jazz in order to sell tickets.” 

That, presumably, involves the objectification of women. “Of course,” Zola concurs before, inevitably, moving into more political climes. “That is very much connected to neoliberalism in the United States. 

“That is something I am very passionate about, to continue on with my research – how capitalism, economics and neoliberalism push a very specific agenda in the music industry, and how that affects gender representation, how it creates issues and prevents open and honest conversations about what those issues really are.” 

WHAT IT all boils down to, in words of one syllable, is the old marketing adage that sex sells. Take, for example, the cover of trumpeter Herb Alpert’s 1965 records, suggestively titled Whipped Cream and Other Delights. And, just in case you music consumers didn’t quite get the salacious innuendo, the female character in the picture is attired in what appears to be an evening gown made of the eponymous frothy dairy substance, naturally, with plenty of cleavage in evidence.

It is more than likely that, and with no disrespect to Mr. Alpert’s musicianship, at least some of the buyers were drawn in more by the exterior aesthetics rather than by the musical content.

That, it seems, is part of the general lay of the land in jazz to this day, over half a century on. “I think that women in jazz are often pigeonholed into very specific categories,” says Zola. “The women who are present in jazz are kind of forced to become this representation of what all women in jazz are.”

It is, she feels, down to the paucity of female artists which, in turn, is a result of the crass discrimination which is still the woman’s lot on the jazz scene. It is a matter of survival of the fittest. 

“There are so few women who have gotten to a certain level of success in their careers, and they end up having to represent all women. They have been forced to become this symbol, and you need to behave in a certain way in order to cooperate within the structures of jazz that already exist.”

Zola’s research indicates that it is not about aesthetics, and it is not just the money men who cause the grief. “You have to put up with a lot of sexual harassment in jam sessions, or in club spaces too,” she says.

This is not a theory for Zola. She has been through the mill herself a few times. “I lived in New York for six years, before I moved to Israel, for my undergraduate degree and I worked as a performer. I was a jazz vocalist and I also play guitar and clarinet.”

She endured some trying situations right across the academic and professional board. “I experienced some discrimination both in the classroom space at the conservatory, from my teachers, and also in jazz clubs.” 

It wasn’t personal, it was a gender-bias thing. “I can only speak for myself but, from the other people who I’ve interviewed in my own field research, I can say that is definitely not a unique perspective. I think women of all ages, and also gender nonconforming people and trans people, have also experienced that.”

I expressed my surprise that the musicians themselves also dish out the bad vibes toward women, female members of their very own community. Zola didn’t see that one coming either when she got onto the gigging scene. “That’s what’s so confusing about it,” she exclaims. “In so many ways.”

The surprise factor, I suggested, goes up a notch or two when one considers that over the decades many jazz musicians have, themselves, experienced severe discrimination, including on racial grounds. 

“It is a very complicated situation, when the history of jazz overlaps with the history of racism. A lot of the black men coming up in the jazz scene grew up in very, very harsh conditions, and experienced a lot of racism and discrimination of their own. 

“Therefore the entire community and environment that jazz was brought up in included these experiences of black men who had extremely difficult upbringings. So that propagates a very challenging environment, and a lot of generational trauma, a lot of generational collective trauma.” 

That carries through into the art, for good or bad. “The history of the people who made this music contributes to the fabric of the community today,” Zola states. Makes perfect sense.

Some years ago, an all-female quartet, led by drummer Cindy Blackman, played at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat. Most of the column inches about the group, at the time, focused on the oddity of the members’ gender rather than their level of artistry.

 JAN IRAN BLOOM has been a trailblazer in world jazz for over four decades. (credit: Brigitte Lacombe) JAN IRAN BLOOM has been a trailblazer in world jazz for over four decades. (credit: Brigitte Lacombe)

Given the rarity of female jazz leaders – the majority of jazz women are vocalists – perhaps that is understandable but it might have been cool had the journalists related, first and foremost, to the gig itself.

ZOLA WANTS to dig deeper into the core of the exclusion phenomenon, and also try to understand why so few women make it through to the professional level. “Yuval and I have talked a lot about that,” she says, referencing partner and sought-after jazz saxophonist sideman Yuval Drabkin. He is also a teacher at the Ironi Aleph arts high school in Tel Aviv.

Drabkin provides the sorry lowdown in the local high school education arena. “There is a female voice teacher but she doesn’t conduct an ensemble,” he says. All her male counterparts do conduct.”

Zola says the dearth of women teachers is a direct consequence of the meager numbers further upstream. “If there are already so few women who have managed to overcome the discrimination and sexism toward them that, even though they are that caliber, they could be teachers, so few have gotten there. 

“So, how can there be a faculty full of women if the women have been dropping out like flies because already in early education there are already very gendered messages being sent to the students – that this is a man’s music and women have to work extra hard to find a place there.”

And, apparently, we have nothing to crow about here when it comes to equality on the bandstand either. “The conversation is taking place in Israel, about women in jazz, is what was happening maybe 10 to 15 years ago in New York. We are way behind here,” Zola says.

She believes that is also down to simply keeping the wolves at bay. “I think part of it is that this is a tiny country, with a very small [jazz] scene, and there are so many people studying jazz here. And there are very few places to play the music, so it creates a very competitive and cutthroat environment.” 

That, she says, is not conducive to an open-arms approach. “Perhaps people don’t feel there’s enough room to even start a dialogue about including women, because there is not enough space for the people who are already here.”

ZOLA CAME right up against that wall. “When I first came to Israel, I was trying to break into the scene as a musician, and I was coming to the few jam sessions that exist in Tel Aviv. There was a place on Sheinkin Street called Café Rega, which doesn’t exist anymore. That’s a shame because it was a great place.”

It may have had a good vibe about it, but Zola wasn’t making too much headway. “People are just so protective of the community, and there is a lot of resistance to welcoming someone new.” 

There was, however, one beacon of light in the gloom, which led to an enduring musical and personal confluence. “One the friendly faces I met, almost everywhere I went, was Yuval,” Zola smiles. 

“He is someone who has managed to make himself so known in the jazz scene of Israel, not only because he is an amazing musician, but also because he’s a respectful person and he cares about including people, and making them feel comfortable. He is also willing to have these difficult conversations about gender in jazz.”

It is not, Zola stresses, about arriving at a lovey-dovey state of affairs, where everyone is cool on everything. “People don’t have to agree with me at all. But if someone is not even willing to have the conversation, that’s where the issue lies. There’s a lot of resistance here to opening these difficult topics.”

It still beggars belief that, in the 21st century, women have to fight to be heard, and strive to be on an equal footing with their male counterparts. But, as we know full well, that is a universal problem, for example, in areas such as equal pay, or a level playing ground when it comes to career opportunities.

Sadly, as things stand, Zola is not very optimistic about the local scene becoming more amenable to female jazz artists. “We need to open these difficult topics and say, why do we not see venues wanting to talk about gender issues in the history of music? We need to bring that into the performance space.”

There are a bunch of female jazz front runners here, such as internationally acclaimed pianist and educator Anat Fort, and some of the younger crowd like pianist-vocalist Stav Achai, pushing through. 

But it looks like it will take a while before the Israeli jazz scene produces such female jazz artists of the caliber of New York-based Israeli saxophonist and clarinetist Anat Cohen, Grammy Award-winning Canadian pianist-vocalist Diana Krall, and fellow multi-Grammy Award recipient bassist Esperanza Spalding. And even they had to push and shove to get where they are today.

So, let’s just keep our ears and hearts open, and give credit where credit is due, regardless of gender. ■