Where are all the good (questions about) women in jazz ?

Artist, trumpet player, activist, president of the Jazz Promotion Network and programmer of the Vortex in London, the Scotswoman Kim Macari observes daily the lack of parity in the world of jazz. In this text, she questions the effectiveness of meritocracy in increasing the presence of women in the artistic milieu. According to her, it is rather through the multiplication of clusters of initiatives - be they individual or public - that change can take place.

Artist, trumpet player, activist, president of the Jazz Promotion Network and programmer of the Vortex in London, the Scotswoman Kim Macari observes daily the lack of parity in the world of jazz. In this text, she questions the effectiveness of meritocracy in increasing the presence of women in the artistic milieu. According to her, it is rather through the multiplication of clusters of initiatives – be they individual or public – that change can take place.

All advice is autobiographical. 

austin kleon

Before we start, I’d like to introduce myself and provide a little bit of background that may help to contextualise the views and ideas I’m about to share. My views on gender politics, on the arts, on feminism and just about everything else in between, are fluid. They’ve grown and changed as I have and they’ll continue to do so. There’s so much to discuss here that I barely scratch the surface of many vital issues and ignore others altogether. This piece is a snapshot of where I am now, a document of my thoughts and ideas about women in jazz in 2020. 

Here’s a short list of statements about me that it’s helpful to know – 

I’m an artist and an activist 
I play trumpet, perform spoken word and make graphic scores 
I’m white, middle-class, Scottish and I live in London 
I studied Jazz at a conservatoire 
Aside from performing and composing, I do a lot of other things – I work for Arts Council England, I chair an organisation called Jazz Promotion Network and I programme a venue in London called Vortex Jazz Club. 
I’m often asked to speak on panels or write articles and those are two of my favourite things to do. Often it’s about activism in the arts, gender politics, diversity, arts funding and cultural identity. Sometimes it’s about other stuff. 
I read a lot. A whole lot. 
Aside from music, my favourite things are visual art, politics and video games. 

Alright. That’s that out of the way. Now, onto the good stuff… 

The myth of meritocraty

“The conventional understanding of meritocracy is that it is a system for awarding or allocating scarce resources to those who most deserve them. The idea behind meritocracy is that people should achieve status or realise the promise of upward mobility based on their individual talent or individual effort. It is conceived as a repudiation of systems like aristocracy where individuals inherit their social status. I am arguing that ​many of the criteria we associate with individual talent and effort do not measure the individual in isolation but rather parallel the phenomena associated with aristocracy;​ what we’re calling individual talent is actually a function of that individual’s social position or opportunities gained by virtue of family and ancestry. So, although the system we call “meritocracy” is presumed to be more democratic and egalitarian than aristocracy; it is in fact reproducing that which it was intended to dislodge.​”

lani guinier

The idea of meritocracy is insidious. It’s got all the things the best untruths have – it seduces, it reinforces and most importantly, it exonerates. More than any other argument, it’s the one I hear cited most frequently and by every group within our music ecosystem – artists, promoters, producers, educators, journalists, presenters, managers, agents. It looms large over us all in the arts because we are all driven to produce and showcase the best and most brilliant. 

Which is odd, really, because the beauty of art is that it is subjective. What ignites my soul may not ignite yours and thank goodness; what would life be like if taste and subjectivity were removed from the arts? 

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard this cyclical passing of responsibility to address the gender imbalance in the jazz and improvised music scene – 

‘There aren’t enough female artists to achieve balanced programming and anyway, we only want to book the best acts – it’s their music not their gender that matters.’ say the promoters. ‘Tell the conservatoires to sort it out – they’re responsible for the supply chain.’ 

‘We can only work with the applications we get and we only accept the best applicants. You can’t expect us to offer places to less deserving people just because they’re women can you?’ the conservatoires reply, incredulously. ‘Tell the schools to sort it out.’ 

‘How can we encourage girls to take up instruments and feel excited about jazz when they look at conservatoire courses, jazz festival line ups or venue programmes and don’t see those environments as welcoming or a place for them to flourish?’ say the schools. ‘Tell the promoters to sort it out.’ 

And so it goes… 

And of course, let us not forget the voice of the artist. Many women have voiced concerns about being given opportunities ‘because they’re a woman’ and who feel uncomfortable about targeted funding schemes (Women Make Music being one such example). The message is implicit; we don’t want to be assessed on anything other than our creative output – we want to be awarded things solely on merit like everyone else. 

But here’s the thing. The really, really important thing. Meritocracy does not exist​. Like Lani Guinier says, none of us make decisions in a vacuum – decisions and opportunities are made and given due to a complex web of factors including social standing, socio-economic status, race, gender, religious belief, life experience, education etc etc etc. 

None of this goes on in our conscious mind so it’s easy to forget that it’s happening. But the sooner we all understand these powerful forces of unconscious bias and the default settings of our own thinking, the sooner we can take ownership of the power and the responsibility we have to ensure that our artform reflects the world it is created in. All of us have a vital part to play in creating change. 

‘But it’s also testament to the attractiveness of a myth that tells people who benefit from it that all their achievements are down to their own personal merit. It is no accident that those who are most likely to believe in the myth of meritocracy are young, upper-class, white Americans.’

caroline criado perez

Take the American Dream – the idea is if you work hard enough, you’ll be successful. Therefore, if you aren’t successful it’s because you didn’t work hard enough. 

Or look at everyone’s favourite capitalist board game, Monopoly. Imagine we’re playing a game. At the beginning, I start off with 60% of the properties on the board and double the amount of money you have. But we’re both playing by exactly the same rules, we’re both using the same dice. So how come you’re not winning? You’re clearly just not working hard enough. 

And so we move on to taking a look at the systems and structures that are not working. And how we might change them for the better.

Change the game, not the players

There has been much great work in the field of youth jazz education to address the gender imbalance we see at higher education level and beyond and to prepare young musicians with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in these environments. Important evidence, both 

data driven and anecdotal, is produced by these educators about when we see this gender divide really start to become apparent and about the successes and challenges faced when developing bespoke programmes to encourage under-represented groups to pursue careers in the jazz and improvised music world. In recent years I’ve been heartened to see dialogue between youth music education and conservatoires increase and the UK is home to a number of conferences, networks and events formed to work together on this issue. 

What I haven’t seen is a critical investigation or proposed reform of the systems in place that we’re preparing these young musicians to succeed in. I’d posit that the way auditions are held for jazz degree programmes is more or less the same now as it was when I went through them 10+ years ago and that they’d been the same for many years by the time I arrived. 

If a system attracts and produces a homogenous group of people and we are concerned about a lack of diversity, why don’t ask ourselves if the system is fit for purpose? 

Why don’t we seek to change the game, instead of the player? 

Posse Foundation​ was founded by Deborah Bial in 1989. The mission was to improve the diversity of graduates from top US universities and to set up a programme which would encourage and prepare students from diverse backgrounds to succeed in their studies and beyond. This, it was hoped, would positively impact on communities across the US and diversify the people in leadership positions across all fields. 

This is how it works :

1) Students from public schools in urban areas in the US are nominated by their teachers.
2) Posse Foundation uses an alternative assessment process to ‘measure qualities like boldness, resilience, creativity and ability to work as a team rather than relying on the traditional standardised test scores, class rankings and GPA.​’
3) Students are selected and placed into groups of 10 (a posse) and placed in one of their partner institutions. They are provided with full tuition scholarships and continuous support and mentoring throughout their studies. 

This approach deals with a number of issues simultaneously; first that standardised admissions processes work well for a specific group of people. We all know wonderful, smart and brilliant people who just crumble under the pressure of an interview or exam, don’t we? By offering an alternative process, they broaden the scope of the university’s intake. Secondly, the financial support deals directly with the socio-economic barrier to accessing education. Thirdly, the foundation recognises and places value in the presence of a network of peers and support, particularly when attempting to alter the make-up of a student body. 

A different set of priorities for entry. Financial support. Pastoral care. 

It’s no surprise that this three-pronged approach has produced strong results. Here are a few of their facts and figures –

● Posse Foundation students have a graduation rate of 90% 
● 57% of students are first-generation college students.
● Since 2001, students and alumni have won over 500 prestigious national fellowships.
● Founder Deborah Bial was awarded a MacArthur Genius grant in 2007 for her work as an educational strategist.
● In 2010, Barack Obama selected Posse Foundation as one of 10 organisations to share his $1.4 million Nobel Prize award, in recognition of their work. 

This is just one example of work in other fields to address lack of diversity. Look at the list of attributes the foundation lists in their admissions process – creativity, resilience, boldness…Aren’t these exactly the type of qualities we should be fostering in the next generation of artists? 

My deep concern is that unless we consider reforming the way we support young jazz and improvising artists to develop and grow, we will continue to wrestle with serious diversity issues. Not only that, we will also continue to produce an annual fleet of jazz ‘tradespeople’ that are exceptionally adept at the technical aspects of our artform yet similar in background/experience/creative output, who will have to suffer the frustration and disappointment of a saturated market that can’t sustain so many of their careers as well as discovering that the meritocracy we’ve extolled to them throughout their education is a myth.

Signalling vs normalization

There has been a significant shift in the discourse about gender balance in the arts in the last few years. More and more, people are agreeing that there is a problem and are willing to do something about it. The next question is – what do we do about it? 

There are numerous examples of high-profile projects and initiatives that address gender imbalance :
● Keychange (a pledge that festivals and venues sign up to to work toward 50/50 gender balance within their programming) 
● Education programmes specifically designed for girls – Jazz Camp for Girls (JazzDanmark and now also in the UK) for example 
● All-female ensembles like Artemis or DIVA big band 
● Activist activities like the We Have Voice collective that issued an open letter to the sector about safe spaces and the problem of sexual harassment and misogyny in the workplace.

And then there are countless low-profile initiatives, too – festivals that ensure that the photographs used in their brochure are balanced and each page draws the eye equally toward different images. Venues that have gender balance embedded in their programming strategy without any reference to it publicly. Organisations that work to ensure parity across their staff structures and those that publish diversity reports that track progress (or lack of) on an annual basis. 

It’s a common conversation topic to compare these two types of approach – high vs low profile, signalling vs normalisation. Often people prefer one to the other and many cite one as the right answer and the other as the wrong one. I’ve had this very discussion with myself many times as I try to find the right answer and I’ve come to this conclusion: we need BOTH to ensure meaningful change. 

A recent study conducted by IRIN & Women’s Refugee Council found that female students perform better in science when the images in their textbooks include female scientists. It’s that old adage – If I can see it, I can be it.​ So initiatives that seek to improve the visibility of women in our field are vital to encouraging the next generation. However, they go hand in hand with initiatives that normalise gender parity as we strive for a world in which we no longer have to highlight that actually women exist and convince our children that they can pursue any career they choose. And of course, neither of these will be of any long term use unless we commit to dismantling the power structures and systemic bias that exist everywhere we look. 

OK, great. Easy. I’ll just pop and do that then, shall I? 

Clearly not. Of course I’ve simplified and condensed this hugely complex issue. But I don’t believe we should allow the enormity of a problem deter us from working to solve it. Caitlin Moran talks about a patchwork quilty of pioneering in her book Moranifesto. If we take our little square and we do with it what we can and what we feel comfortable doing, we can join them together to form something much bigger than ourselves. We need the loud, placard-waving protesters as much as we need the quiet policy-makers and writers. Far more important than the choice of activity is that we are all travelling in the same direction. That we use our energy to propel us forward. 

Let’s get confortable being unconfortable

In an episode of Lauren Schiller’s podcast Inflection Point, Amber Tamblyn said that we are living in a moment of chaos. In her book, Era of Ignition, Tamblyn creates a manifesto for modern feminism, a guide to living during divisive times. As one of the founders of Time’s Up, she joined with other hollywood actors, writers and activists to make a stand against the culture of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, in response to the #Metoo movement and Harvey Weinstein’s highly public unveiling as a sexual predator and his subsequent prosecution. 

She talks about the meetings she and others involved in the movement would hold with 50-70 women in someone’s large house, sitting together and talking. Tamblyn didn’t wish to propose a solution to a problem, but instead wished to bring people together and spark discussion on the important questions – what can be done? How can we use what we have to force change? 

There were many positives, moments of inspiration and breakthroughs in the work of TimesUp but I think the key lies in the challenges and criticisms. In the meetings, certain voices dominated the discussion and caused tension – these tended to be wealthy, middle class women in powerful positions. Sometimes in the sharing of experiences, accusations would fly between the women and the anger became misdirected. When a number of actors opted to invite activists and political figures as their date to the Golden Globes, the press criticised the actors for using activists as ‘moral accessories.’ 

Tamblyn recalls many moments of being uncomfortable. But that’s ok, she says. It’s good in fact. We’re going to be uncomfortable for a long time as we try to unravel a complicated issue. We’re going to make mistakes and reflect on choices that were made in good faith but that missed the mark. All of this, she says, is an important part of change. And I think she is absolutely right. 

We have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. We have to reconcile with the fact that as we try to make a positive change we may cause offense,that we may isolate when we try to accommodate. We have to become comfortable with these phrases :
● I don’t know 
● I was wrong 
● Can you help me? 

Too many well-meaning conversations and panel discussions on diversity in the arts are futile because people are concerned about saying the wrong thing and are afraid to show their ignorance or to ask a difficult question. Perhaps that’s exacerbated by the fact I live in the UK, a place where we apologise when someone stands on our foot. 

If we embrace the chaos and the messiness of our world and we acknowledge that it’s ok to make mistakes, change your mind and ask for help, we’ll have so much more energy and time to deal with the important things in life. Feeling uncomfortable is what connects us. 

Where do we go from here ?

So let’s talk about this chaos that we’re living in. There’s energy and momentum firing off in every conceivable direction. The political nerd feminist in me is so excited because we’ve got a record number of women in the US senate (23%), we have so many exceptional women in politics – Nicola Sturgeon, Jacinda Ardern, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren…Not to mention two female Supreme Court Justices – Sonia Sotomayer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG has a long track record of landmark gender discrimination cases while she was a lawyer) The artist feminist in me is thrilled because some of these female leaders are also acknowledging the value of the arts as they work to support their country through Covid-19 (Jacinda Ardern’s $175 million support package for New Zealand and Angela Merkel’s 55 billion euro package for Germany). 

We have #metoo and TimesUP, We Have Voice and Women in Music. The Keychange initiative continues to grow and attract press coverage. 


We also have people like Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro and many other dangerous men in power. In 2020, there is a movement to UNDO legislation that protects the right to abortion access. In the US the Equal Rights Amendment is still not ratified. 

(And this is not to even mention the global pandemic, climate catastrophe, police brutality and institutional racism rampant across the world. These are topics for another day…) 

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But remember whenever you feel hopeless – 

Bang your head against a brick wall long enough and the wall begins to crumble.