Sexism, Jazz, the Gendered Brain, and a Love of Music

In 2005, Larry Summers, then President of Harvard University, said that the reason women were underrepresented in the math and science departments was because women’s brains don’t do math. I, along with many others, was highly offended. My great-grandmother was a physicist for the Navy, the Department of Energy, and NASA. At the time, my daughter was in middle school, yet taking pre-calculus. (She decided not to pursue math or science, but that decision had nothing to do with her abilities.)

Fast-forward to last week. A prominent jazz musician was interviewed and made some pretty awful sexist comments along the way:

“I’ve seen what that does to the audience, playing that groove. I love making the audience feel that way. Getting back to women: women love that. They don’t love a whole lot of soloing. When you hit that one groove and stay there, it’s like musical clitoris. You’re there, you stay on that groove, and the women’s eyes close and they start to sway, going into a trance.”

While the way he said it was exceptional, this jazz musician was unfortunately reiterating an often repeated trope that “women don’t dig jazz”. Like Summers’ proclamation about women and math, there is a thought out there that women can’t handle the complex music that is jazz. Also, like Summers’ comment, I take this personally. I am not a musician — by any stretch. But I am a jazz aficionado. I have loved the genre for my entire adult life. Now that I have been in a relationship with a jazz musician for several years; people frequently assume I like the music because I like my partner. But my love for the music pre-dates my love of my partner by a couple decades. Indeed, we met and started to date because of our shared interest in music. So, again, I take this issue personally. As both a jazz lover and a feminist, I think it is important to rebut these assumptions with some facts.

So, I dug around for some facts. I couldn’t find extensive documentation on gender and jazz audiences; but there are some studies that have been done. In 2002, there was an NEA Study entitled “Music Preferences in the US”. That study found that the percentage of people who said they liked jazz was evenly split between the genders (28% of men and 27% of women said they like jazz). Once one figures that there are more women than men in the population in general; the jazz audience that is women is actually slightly larger than those who are men (30 to 29 million in the U.S. respectively).

More recently, the National Endowment for the Arts, 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, found that live jazz audiences consist of 48% men and 52% women. So again, the studies out there have not found significant gender disparity among jazz audiences.

An interesting side note, is that the 2002 study found that women were more likely than men to say they like big band and swing music (subgenres of jazz), classical/chamber music, and opera. If there were a gendered difference in our brains about not being able to appreciate the complexity that is jazz; why would more women than men appreciate the complexity that is big band music or classical and chamber music? If women are hard-wired to prefer a relentless groove, wouldn’t women like reggae or hip hop more than men (there is an equal gender split for those genres)?

A more extensive analysis of the same survey done in 1992 (Scott DeVeux, Jazz in America, Who’s Listening) found that men were slightly more apt to like jazz more than women (54% men, 46% women split). That same split was for those who liked jazz most of all. Where the difference becomes more pronounced was when one looks at frequent attendees. Those who said they went to 9 or more shows in a given year were split 59% men, 41% women. However, I think that part of the frequent attendance difference can be explained due to the venues. Most jazz performances are in bars. Most bars tend to skew male — for a variety of reasons, none of which have to do with the music. It has been my personal observation that performances in concert-type venues tend to have a better gender balance than those in bars. (I could find no studies pointing to gender differences by performance venue.)

All that said, while women and men both claim to like jazz in equal numbers; there is a big difference in the representation of women in jazz. Women performers are grossly underrepresented — especially as instrumentalists. I think this has to do with a variety of reasons — from institutionalized sexism to overt individual sexism. When children who are lucky enough to get to pick an instrument to learn; societal pressures frequently steer girls to different instruments than boys. And the instruments girls tend to not pick, are some of the most popular instruments in jazz (for example, bass, drums, trumpet, and trombone). (There is a great essay on children’s instrument choice and what one music teacher in Baltimore is doing to achieve gender balance here.)

Those girls who still want to pursue jazz, find themselves in the minority in their school bands. If they continue their studies into college (as most jazz musicians do), they become an even smaller minority. Add to this experience that some of their peers seem to think women don’t even appreciate a jazz solo — one would be shocked to have that same peer hire a woman to play on a gig that would require the woman performer to solo.

There is a need to grow the jazz fan-base. I would love to see more women (and more men) at jazz performances, buying jazz music, and supporting the musicians and the venues that host them. We do know from the 2002 study that jazz listeners are more apt to be engaged in the arts.

“Arts engagement also plays a role in explaining who likes jazz. In particular, the type of individual who attends live arts is likely to be a jazz fan. What might the characteristics of such an individual be? In this report, it is hypothesized the arts engagement captures a number of unobservable characteristics such as a general interest in and enthusiasm for the arts, creativity, artistic omnivorousness, and artistic curiosity.”

The 2008 study had similar findings, that about a third of opera, ballet, or classical music attendees also attended jazz performances. And one in five adults who say they write poetry, novels, or plays also attended jazz performances.

Enthusiasm for the arts isn’t gendered. In order to grow the audience for jazz — and for all of the arts — let’s work to protect and expand arts education and access to arts offerings. Given that jazz listeners tend to be omnivorous in their arts consumption, perhaps one way to reach more potential jazz fans would be to work with other arts organizations to schedule jazz performances interspersed with other arts offerings (more jazz in galleries, or a shared bill with a jazz combo and a chamber music group, or more jazz performances at visual arts schools, or jazz at a writers retreat?)

But one way to limit the jazz audience is to be condescending to half of the population. So, let us stop trying to make obnoxious generalizations about gender and musical taste.