It's no secret that jazz is a male-dominated art form - it has been since the beginning. The jazz world has made many strides to include more female instrumentalists in the past twenty years or so, but even though we've come a very long way in terms of inclusion, we still have a long way to go. In my experience, I've seen that many middle school jazz bands are almost equal parts male and female, while high school jazz bands most often are maybe 1/3 female (at the very most), college bands and jazz programs have only a few female students at the most, and female students are almost non-existent in graduate jazz programs. What's more, even when female students participate in jazz band, they are much less likely to take solos. How many times have you heard a middle school or high school band that has a fair number of female students participating and then none of them take solos? I've witnessed this many times, and I believe there are a number of reasons for this.
1. Societal conditioning that girls and women should not to take risks
It is a generally accepted fact that girls are conditioned not to engage in risk-taking behaviors. This comes from antiquated views that females are "weaker" and "more delicate." Without even thinking about it, most people will not so much as bat an eye at little boys running around climbing trees and scraping up their knees but will continually urge little girls to be careful and tell them to make sure they doesn't hurt themselves. I'm not saying this is the fault of the parents or anyone else, it's simply how we've all been conditioned to think and it's really hard-wired.
Where this comes into play with jazz is that improvising is inherently a risk-taking behavior. You are standing up and playing something on the spot that you haven't rehearsed before - you don't know how it's going to turn out. Plus, especially when someone is young and are just beginning to learn how to improvise, it's probably NOT going to sound good, and that prospect terrifies girls. Many more girls have perfectionist tendencies and have been taught that it's bad to make mistakes, so the thought of mistake-making being an integral part of the learning process is totally foreign to them.
2. Societal conditioning that girls and women should not to draw attention to themselves
This comes from the antiquated idea that women should be seen and not heard. Think about the fact that in the United States we have never had a female president, and have only ever had one female presidential nominee backed by a major party. ONE. Also, think about the way people talked about that particular nominee. Your personal political opinions aside, it can't be denied that people were saying much harsher and blatantly mean things about the female nominee than any male presidential nominee. Next, think about female celebrities. Think of all of the nasty things people say about female celebrities. Do they say that kind of stuff about male celebrities? Sometimes yes, but oftentimes, no! People are much harsher with judging the choices and actions of women in the public eye than they are with men. And this is how children learn that girls and women shouldn't draw attention to themselves - because there are consequences!
This is a big reason that girls are afraid to stand up and take a solo. The other part of this is that boys are also conditioned to believe this, so in a jazz band environment they are much more likely to pick on female students who do call attention to themselves by taking solos. I've experienced this myself, as a student and a teacher. In high school, I was the only female student who regularly took solos, and I was also one of the students in the band that was featured most often since I worked really hard and practiced a ton. There were boys in my jazz band that were jealous of this (despite the fact that they didn't put in the work), and I heard from a number of people that several of these boys in the jazz band would say mean things about me behind my back. Thankfully I didn't let it discourage me, but it might have discouraged others in the same position. The other example is in a jazz group that I work with - there's one girl in the whole group who takes solos, and she actually is a flute player who started learning saxophone. I witnessed one of the male students continually picking on here and telling her she sounded terrible on sax (despite the fact she sounded better than him and had only been playing a few months). I talked to her about it and thankfully she had a good attitude and wasn't bothered by it. These are just a couple of examples though, there are likely lots of things like this happening that teachers aren't aware of!
3. Genderization of instruments, and the lack of inclusion of "feminine" instruments in jazz bands
Because they're seen as "feminine instruments", many girls still will choose flute or clarinet over just about any other instrument. That's definitely improving, but when you look at most school bands there are still flute and clarinet sections that are almost entirely female and other sections with much lower numbers of girls. Now, consider the fact that most jazz bands don't allow flute or clarinet players and it's really no surprise that the number of girls who join jazz band is so low!
4. Fewer role models
When we talk about "the greats" of jazz history, unfortunately not many of those people are women, and even fewer are female instrumentalists rather than vocalists. Even though there were female jazz instrumentalists through the 30s-50s, most of them weren't taken as seriously as they deserved to be and didn't receive many, if any, opportunities to record. Because of this most of them didn't become trailblazers (even though they could have if given the same opportunities as men) and we don't learn about them when learning jazz history. There has been a gradually increasing number of women in jazz through the 60s to today, and thankfully today it is much less uncommon to see female jazz instrumentalists. However, take a look at the Downbeat Critics Polls - you'll see many more female names now than in the past, but it's still closer to maybe 1/4 or 1/3 of the musicians that are female (depending on the category). Also, depending on where you are located, there may not be very many female musicians on the scene - Cincinnati, for example, has a shockingly low number of female jazz musicians for a jazz scene of its size. Some areas are better and some are worse when it comes to female representation.
How to Take Action
So what can you do as a jazz band director to combat these issues ? While the prospect of taking on societal conditioning is a pretty big task, I believe that there are definitely things that band directors can do to create a culture in their own band program of doing things a different way and hopefully shift the narrative over time.
1. Include flute and clarinet players (or encourage them to learn saxophone)
I believe that flute and clarinet players should be included in jazz band! Clarinet has been an instrument integral to jazz since the art form was created in the 20s, and flute has been included in jazz since the 30s! These aren't instruments that are "abnormal" to the jazz tradition in any way, so why are we stifling the potential of young flute and clarinet players by not giving them a place in the jazz band? I know a lot of this is because traditional big band calls for five saxophone players who often double on flute and clarinet, but is there a reason we can't change that? I'm sure it's possible to find big band arrangements that include flute and clarinet parts as well as saxophone parts. Or, if you're willing to do a little extra work, you could transpose the alto parts for the flute players and have flutes double the altos and clarinets double the tenors. Alternatively, if you just have one promising clarinet or flute player, find some clarinet or flute features to put in your repertoire. There are many ways that it's possible to include these students!
The other option would be to encourage flute and clarinet players to learn saxophone (and that way you get built-in doublers too!). Saxophone is a pretty darn easy instrument to learn compared to flute or clarinet, so most students picking up sax as a second instrument have a fairly easy time learning it. When I was in high school, our saxophone section included three clarinet players who picked up sax as a second instrument. This enabled us to do a lot of music that called for doubling, which is very abnormal at the high school level and definitely set us apart from most of the other bands in the area.
2. Don't just ask "who wants a solo?"
Especially when students are just beginning to learn how to improvise, male students are much more likely to just jump in and give it a try, while female students are probably not going to volunteer themselves. They often won't give it a try unless you force them to. One way some band directors approach this is to go around and have everyone take a solo. I don't know that I would recommend that, however - gen Z seems to be much more prone to anxiety than former generations and I've found that some of them will go into full blown panic mode if they are forced to stand up and take a solo. A good way around this is - as an exercise to start - to have everyone improvise, but all at the same time so you can't hear any one individual person. This is a good way to start to get them comfortable. Then maybe have them improvise in pairs or groups of 3 or 4. Then finally ask if anyone wants to try a solo on their own. Try to read the faces, if some of the girls seem interested but maybe a little doubtful and aren't raising their hands, ask them directly if they want a solo. Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of prodding.
Sometimes this method still won't be enough for girls who are unwilling to volunteer themselves. The other thing I would urge directors to do is just to really pay attention to their students and try to read who may be ready and willing to solo if given a bit of a push. If there is a female student who you think will rise to the challenge, just give her a solo - don't ask, just tell her she's going to take a solo on something. This is a huge reason I am where I am today. My first high school band director, Gene Power, clearly saw something in me that I didn't know was there. In my freshman or sophomore year of high school, he gave me a Johnny Hodges alto sax feature tune and basically just said "learn this, we're going to play this on the concert." It was just the push I needed to start soloing. I owe a lot to him for that - band directors, never underestimate the influence you can have on the course of someone's life.
3. Provide role models
Yes there are fewer role models for female jazz instrumentalists, but there are still plenty. When you give out listening lists to your students, include women. When you talk to your students about jazz history and current jazz artists or show your students videos or recordings, include women. Don't just tell the female students to listen to female players, tell all of your students to listen to them. Don't make the female musicians a separate category, just include them in with the other musicians. You want to make it more normal for women to be a part of jazz, not to emphasize that there are less women in jazz - you don't want to make the female students feel like the odds are stacked against them.
Another thing that would be great to do is, if there are professional female jazz musicians in your community - bring them in to work with the students! It is great for both female and male students to see and hear women who are professionals in the jazz community, this helps to normalize women in jazz.
4. Watch how you talk about female musicians, celebrities, and women in positions of power
This is something that may or may not really come up for band directors, but try to be careful not to make disparaging comments about women who are in the public eye. An example of this could be: your (most likely female) students are super hyped on Taylor Swift and are asking if the band can play something by her. Instead of saying "ew no, her music is bad, we're not going to play anything of hers," maybe say something like "the style of music she plays isn't really what we do in this band, but you can always try to learn some of her songs on your own!" Granted, I don't think most band directors actively try to tell students that the popular artists of the day are bad, but I definitely have heard directors say stuff similar to that before, so I guess it bears mentioning. Especially watch it when it comes to women, but I think in general it's good practice not to discourage students from liking whatever kind of music they're into, even if you have your own personal opinions that it's somehow inferior to the music that you enjoy.
5. Tell them there's nothing to lose and everything to gain
Sometimes, all it takes is a heart-to-heart with your students to change their minds when it comes to willingness to try taking a solo. Earlier this summer, I was teaching at a jazz camp for a week, and I was leading a combo group made up of students ranging from 5th to 10th grade (but all around the same level in terms of musical abilities and experience with jazz), and a fairly 50/50 split male to female. In the beginning, whenever I would ask if anyone wanted to try a solo I would get blank stares, total dear-in-the-headlights looks. I'd try having them solo in groups to get them comfortable but even after that they would be unwilling to solo on their own. I finally had a heart-to-heart with them. I told them that I remember how scary it was in the beginning when I first started learning how to improvise. But I had a band director who just pushed me into it, and even though I was scared, I ended up falling in love with it. I told them that I might not be where I am today as professional jazz musician if my director hadn't given me that push. I might never have discovered this thing that is my career today, that has been such a huge part of my life. I told them that you will never know if you never try. It's just like anything in life, you need to try it and take the risk before knowing if it's something you enjoy or not. The worst case scenario is that you get a little bit embarrassed, but the best case scenario is that you discover a lifelong passion. You have nothing to lose by trying, but everything to gain. The next day when I asked who wanted to solo, half of the group raised their hands, including three of the girls. I had actually gotten through to them!
Depending on your own personal story, you probably won't be able to give this exact talk, but if you were afraid to solo in the beginning, share that with them and tell them how you overcame it! Or if you're able to have a female musician come in, maybe ask them to spend a little time talking about that if that was their experience. I think it helps a lot if there's a personal element to it. But even if you never struggled with being afraid to solo, I still think it would be helpful to talk to them about this and try to get across to them that they're never going to know if they like it or not if they don't at least give it a try, and that they have nothing to lose here but could end up discovering something that they really love.
I sincerely hope that these suggestions are helpful in getting more young ladies involved in jazz band and taking improvised solos!
Me taking a solo with my high school jazz band at Jazz at Lincoln Center for Essentially Ellington 2012
My high school jazz band performing "Flaming Sword" by Duke Ellington - which calls for clarinet doubling on every saxophone part
We were the only band at Essentially Ellington 2012 to have five clarinet doublers in their saxophone section!