Op-Ed: Sammy Stein on Women in Jazz.

Written by | News, Opinion, Opinion Editorial

Editors note: Sammy Stein offers her opinion on the ongoing challenges she believes women still face in the UK Jazz music industry. It is now vital that a societal attitude-shift for gender equality must replace lingering elements of outdated dogmas. Atlantic Records chairman/COO Julie Greenwald recently named as executive of the year, shares that working together facilitates workable solutions to address this imbalance.

Recently we have seen some dreadful instances of men who have used their positions of power and influence to abuse women. From sports coaches to actors, producers, household names and musicians. It is a terrible indictment of our culture that in so many cases it has taken one very brave woman to voice a complaint before the floodgates open.

Many women remain silent, possibly because there is an element of self-blame or perhaps because for too long it was almost acceptable that men treated women in a certain way. The ‘Me Too’ campaign, along with a growing recognition that things need to change in terms of equality, has had a remarkable effect, and one which is largely positive, from actors wearing black dresses at the Golden Globe Awards red carpets to activity across media highlighting the deplorable liberties some men of influence have taken over women. The music industry has had to take a close look at itself and many women are now openly speaking out about situations which simply should not have been allowed to happen. The music industry is still male dominated and it has to be said, there still pervades a certain chauvinistic attitude in some quarters, but that is changing – it is going to have to change more and both men and women have their part to play.

March 8th is International Women’s Day and for much of that week, especially on the day itself, BBC Radio 3 will dedicate its entire schedule to influential women in music, mainly focusing on composers and performers from different countries and eras. I have also written 3 shows which will be aired on Jazz Bites Radio highlighting the importance and influence of women musicians and singers. The BBC programmes concentrate on the achievements of women and their struggles in a male-dominated industry – and it is still very much male-dominated.  There will be live concert performances of works by well-known female composers like Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, as well as specially commissioned works by today’s most exciting female composers.

And all this is good, although perhaps good music, composition and performing should be acknowledged regardless of gender, age, origin or any other defining label. At the same time, it is vital to acknowledge that the music industry still contains people who categorise and effectively discriminate on the basis of one or more factors, not just gender, often without considering they are doing so. Some of this is down to marketing because understandably some music will appeal to different age groups, even ethnic groups and gender.

The ’Me Too’ campaign has empowered women (and men who advocate for them) to be able to speak out and say how they have felt discriminated against. It has also had the benefit of highlighting the power which women have and that this is growing. The fact that inappropriate behaviour is less tolerated, that people are called to account for predatory behaviour and offensive comments on social media or elsewhere has led to a gradual realisation that women have power and, it is arguable, they always have had. Women are becoming more confident of their abilities and more accepted, sometimes a little grudgingly by men who may feel threatened, but generally they simply prove themselves to be capable and this, regardless of gender, is increasingly the way to success.

Women hold powerful positions in record companies – women are heads of departments, with all the influence that holds. Radio stations are run and programs hosted by women. Two I connect with are; Jazz Bites Radio and Louche Life Radio. Hosts include Annie Nightingale, Anthea Redmond, Jenny Green and Claire Martin. In fact there are so many women in positions of influence and power in music now it is ridiculous to even try to list them. From authors, columnists and reviewers, radio, PR companies and managers of venues and musicians, women are everywhere, though not nearly as prevalent in the music industry as men. Many agents and representatives I talk to are women and I find them no different to dealing with a man professionally.

There are also the supportive women. Those such as wives and partners who make life that bit easier so their partners can perform every night, week or be in the studio. There are also a few men now who support their women doing the same. Increasingly women are unafraid to speak out, both politically and to highlight the fact there is still some discrimination and they can do it with no fear of reprisal, at least not directly.

The vital roles of and injustices dealt to women has been highlighted by the campaign but actually the influence has always been there. It is just now it is acknowledged and some men – the bullies and the perverts – have apologised or been shamed. The sad truth is these men probably would be bullies wherever their power lay, getting their way however they saw fit. The only thing is now they will be held accountable (though some bullies will always find a way) but people are no longer afraid to name and shame.

One or two people have commented they no longer feel able to make any comment for fear of offending someone but actually you just need to give thought to what you say and how it may be perceived, say it with respect to everyone and offence to no one.

Human nature being what it is, people are still judged on gender-based double standards in society rather than pure talent. We are at heart creatures of Nature (though it is easy to try to forget that) and it is in some ways natural to notice and highlight the physical attractiveness of women. It is a sophisticated and intelligent being who would deny their base nature in favour of pursuing total equality, regardless of any natural bias they may feel. It would also be wrong to assume there are not many wonderful men in the music industry. Many consider performers on their merits and not on their gender and behave in ways which can never be taken offensively. However, it is also a mistake to look forward any time soon to a Utopia where everyone is considered equal and judged purely on their talents and ability.

The role of women in music has long been a difficult area for some because it is hard to quantify and to decide exactly what discrimination is. Whether that discrimination is perceived, actual, deliberate or just thoughtless and unintentional. I have heard perfectly respectable musicians talk about their mums being ‘typically wifey’ whatever that means and I have heard musicians discussing the physical merits of both performers and audience members.

In music there are female musicians and vocalists with very long careers. Ruby Turner has been performing for many years, as has Barb Jungr, Claire Martin, Carmela Rappazzo and many others and these are examples of how talent rises above everything to ensure continued success. Gg, Julia Biel and a list longer than I could ever write, offer further proof.

There is a point though when it becomes important to remember that most people are learning not to discriminate, bully or take advantage because not only have expectations shown signs of change but also society has shown time and time again that discrimination, where proved and raised, is not acceptable. People will speak out – slowly at first and then others join them to take down the tyrants and bullies – because that is what it is really, to discriminate because of gender is just one facet of bullying.

We do have to be careful however that we do not make people afraid to comment at all; differences are there to be noticed and should be celebrated. After all, it is these differences which make one musician different from another; that attract some to engage with one performer and not another because we are individuals and human and, whilst sexual harassment and assault must not be tolerated, differences and individual characteristics should be acknowledged rather than being an obstacle to anyone’s success – and I would include gender, colour, origin or any other difference here. After all, the music itself knows no boundaries. It is what binds us together and in music we all have more in common than separates us.   Celebrate and enjoy differences but never get so cosy with yourself that you use something as base as gender to belittle talent.

Some women do little to prevent the more solicitous of musicians using their power over them. I have been at gigs where young women and girls have, literally in some cases, thrown themselves at the male members in the band; often these men looked old enough to be their fathers. Yet I have also been present where men have acted in lovely ways, gently steering women away from danger. At one gig I attended where a fight broke out, I was shielded by a ring of men and I appreciated it. After an interview with Peter Brotzmann where he invited me to stay for the gig I ended up on my own but a ‘phone call was made by someone and a friend turned up who offered me his company for the evening and I appreciated the friendship. I have been shown utmost respect by men and women and shown disrespect by both too so, in my experience; behaviour has little to do with gender on a general level.

Women are stronger than they perhaps think and have a powerful voice and especially via the expressive platform of music. Importantly, today a new younger group of female Jazz musicians are once again are freely expressing the important message of gender equality.

My caveat is the recognition that any danger of going overboard and in a bid to appear politically correct, appointing women to positions of power who really should not be there but one day the hope is it will be OK to appoint the right person for the job, not simply the right person to fill a quota and this will be regardless of any factor other than ability.

Music is vulnerable to labelling just like any industry, it is evolving and music knows no bounds. We have made a start; the stone is rolling and momentum is being gained. One issue is on the way to being resolved in small steps – maybe. (Now, we just have to work our way through the rest on the list).

YT Video: BillBoard

Photo credits: Carmela Rapazo – Ryan Beddingfield.  Barb Jungr – Steve Ullathorne.  Claire Martin – Lisa Wormsley. Gg – Billie Lapworth photography. Julia Biel – Jenna Foxton

Last modified: July 15, 2018