In late December, when I first spoke to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra’s new president and CEO, Sarah Bell, about gender bias and sexual harassment in jazz, she told me that overall her personal experience has been positive. A few days passed, then she reached out again. Since taking over her current role at NOJO last year, she said, she’s often found that being introduced as the leader of the organization earns “a chuckle and an apologetic smile” from new business contacts. “They make a beeline to [a male colleague]. [Other times] when I’m introduced, they blurt out, ‘Oh!’ and I can see the mental adjustment being made and their approach to the conversation being instantly re-evaluated,” she said.
In Bell’s previous role in the organization, introductions often went south too, with men scanning her physique from head to toe, then openly talking about their impression of her body instead of sticking to the meeting’s agenda. “In those moments you play it off, because the goal was to make them feel comfortable enough to engage the organization at a high level,” Bell said. “But internally you know that your work now includes getting the conversation, and their minds, back on track.”
Neither Bell’s experience nor her initial hesitation in sharing it is uncommon, particularly in the male-dominated jazz industry. Vibraphonist Sasha Berliner, whose blog post “An Open Letter to Ethan Iverson (and the Rest of Jazz Patriarchy)” has made her one of the most talked-about jazz musicians associated with the #MeToo movement, said she waited six months to publish her piece because she was nervous about the response.
Jazz is a world where, to quote the Boston Globe, Berklee College of Music allowed teachers to “quietly leave after alleged sex abuse, and pushed students for silence.” It’s a genre in which just five of this year’s 25 Grammy nominations were filled by women, and a culture where being a young female instrumentalist almost guarantees being asked at some point in your career whether you’re carrying your boyfriend’s instrument.
None of this is new. What is new is that suddenly, after Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct scandal reignited activist Tarana Burke’s “Me Too” hashtag, women feel empowered to speak out about gender-based discrimination, harassment and assault. They’re being heard, too. Across multiple industries and countries, workplace policies are being revised and accused harassers are being held accountable for their behavior.
The jazz industry, meanwhile, has been slow to capitalize on the #MeToo-inspired momentum, a point writer Lara Pellegrinelli made in December, on the website of the non-profit arts venue National Sawdust. The lag may be due, in part, to the chicken-and-egg cycle of systemic gender bias that’s helped shape the culture of the music. But complacency shouldn’t be an option at a time when tangible progress is being made in other fields, and new research into sexism and sexual harassment is constantly becoming available.
Certainly the conversation around these issues has remained an impetus for change. Last fall, the dialogue inspired Hollywood studios to send out staff memos reiterating and breaking down their policies on sexual harassment. And it bolstered the entertainment industry-driven Time’s Up campaign, which raised millions of dollars for a legal defense fund to support victims of sexual harassment or workplace assault.
It’s also inspired men to speak out on social media about their own experiences being sexually victimized at work. (And as Lara Stemple and Ilan H. Meyer pointed out in a 2017 Scientific American report, neglecting to consider the experience of men who are harassed or assaulted helps reinforce gender-role stereotypes in which women are seen as weak or more easily victimized; more reason to keep the conversation as open as possible.)
Jazz can learn from these instances in which open conversation led to tangible change. Labels, festivals, institutions and, in some cases, bandleaders can include explicit zero-tolerance policies for sexual harassment and assault in all contractual paperwork. They can revise their hiring practices to include the blind auditions that Jazz at Lincoln Center finally adopted after years of lobbying. They can, as Berliner suggests, sign the We Have Voice Collective’s commitment to “[eliminating] a systemic structure that normalizes harassment and discrimination.” Posted at too-many.org, the loose contract created by more than a dozen female musicians including Tia Fuller and Jen Shyu asserts specific ways its signatories will fight such behavior. As of mid-January, it had nearly 800 signatures.
Ultimately, though, the systemic gender bias described by the We Have Voice Collective flourishes at every level of this industry. Fighting for a more equitable community at only one level—whether jazz education, institutional development or the festival circuit, where female instrumentalists are underrepresented as headliners—won’t be enough. So how do we institute change across the board?
One approach supported by statistical research is to get serious about installing more women in leadership roles, including in education. Studies have long shown that women are more likely to be sexually harassed than men, and that sexual harassment is reported more frequently in male-dominated fields. Where men hold more leadership positions, a culture of complicity around sexual harassment develops, contributing to the frightening numbers revealed in a recent study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Seventy-five percent of workplace sexual-harassment victims experience retribution for speaking out.
In a 2017 study published in the Harvard Business Review, sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev argued that “training programs and reporting systems won’t end harassment; promoting more women will.” Their research shows that instituting measures like anti-harassment training gets fewer results than promoting women, which challenges perceptions about gender roles and fosters a culture of mutual respect.
Of course, women can’t be leaders if there are no women, a fact SFJAZZ Director of Education Rebeca Mauleón struggles with daily. “We have this constant challenge to bring more young women into this world and, at the same time, what do they see? They see themselves not represented on stages, not as the directors of these programs; they see themselves further marginalized,” she said, citing the two young women out of more than 20 players in this year’s SFJAZZ High School All-Stars band as an example of the gender imbalance. “We have to go the extra mile.”
It’s also essential for young male players to see women—and, in the interest of intersectionality, people from various marginalized groups—as mentors. “I still don’t see as many women teaching jazz, and I feel it’s important for young men to learn from women because that shifts their perspective,” said drummer and Berklee professor Terri Lyne Carrington, who’s seen “so many” male students shift from being “a little dismissive about what I can offer” to considering her to be their mentor.
“If you’re able to look to a woman as a mentor in this music, it’s going to affect your outlook on it and who you hire once you’re out there [playing professionally],” she said.
Both Carrington and Mauleón are big believers in the need to keep a wide representation of identity groups involved in “open and honest conversations” about these issues. “We’re talking about issues of race and class and privilege … all of that has to be taken into consideration as a whole,” Mauleón said. “When we’re playing music, we’re expressing our humanity. We’re taking turns, we’re listening. Music is the ultimate equalizer.
“At the end of the day, we need to be able to understand each other to play music together.”
Read Natalie Weiner’s “Is Jazz Still Sexist?,” a column examining gender inequality within jazz fandom.