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A Question of Balance: Racial and Gender Equity in the Jazz Classroom

Social-justice issues have become increasingly difficult to ignore in music education—and jazz people increasingly don’t want to ignore them.

Terri Lyne Carrington
Terri Lyne Carrington, bringing gender equity to cymbals (and many other things): “You don’t need us to tell you what to do. You already know the answers.” (photo: Ken Franckling)

About a year after he began working at Harvard University, pianist/composer Vijay Iyer was in a faculty meeting. A visiting committee—a group of academics from peer institutions—had studied and issued a report on the Harvard music department. Among its findings was that there was a diversity problem among music majors; the overwhelming majority of them were White men.

At the time, the curriculum was also overwhelmingly centered on the European classical tradition. Its repertoire, music theory, and music history all leaned hard on the so-called “Western canon.” When the department chair asked the faculty to respond to the report, Iyer—the only non-White person present—watched as silence filled the room.

He finally blurted out his thoughts. “Well, if students don’t see themselves reflected in our curriculum,” he asked, “why should they come to us?”

“People just let it sit for a while,” Iyer recalls today. “Afterwards, some of my colleagues texted me and said, ‘I’m so glad that you said that.’ And I was like, ‘Well, why didn’t you say it? Why are you just sitting on this obvious truth?’”

It took a while for his observation to take hold. “But after that,” he adds, “the entire curriculum was unmade and remade. Now it’s very much a work in progress, but there are now many different ways to be a music concentrator at Harvard. It’s not only the old-fashioned way; that still exists but there are other ways. So if you’re in the room, you can sometimes make a small amount of difference that matters.”

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Terri Lyne Carrington, the drummer/composer who is also the founder and director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, agrees. Being there, and being ready to take the initiative, is the most important part of addressing race and gender inequity (in jazz education or anywhere else).

“The very fact that the Institute exists forces other entities at the college to look at their practices,” she says. “We have to work with administration, admissions, ensemble departments, recording departments. So in figuring out how to work together, everybody has to look at themselves, at how they’re contributing to these inequities, and at what their students feel about that. So we’re setting an example, in a sense, that other people can jump on—or not, but they’ll at least be forced to look at their practices.”

Racial and gender issues are as deeply entrenched (if not more so) in jazz and jazz education as in any other facet of society. And, just as in those other facets, they have become increasingly difficult to overlook. What’s more, jazz people increasingly don’t want to overlook them.

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“It’s all kinda coming to the surface now: Everybody’s finally concerned in our field,” Carrington says. “With #MeToo and #TimesUp, and then the whole racial reckoning that happened in 2020, it seems like everybody came out of their slumber. And I think that’s a great thing, and people are finding their way.”

Even if current events somehow don’t move one’s conscience, University of North Texas lab band coordinator Alan Baylock argues, the music itself often does. “Everyone wants the music to be at the highest possible level,” he asserts. “And balancing the scale, eliminating the White male domination, has a positive effect: It makes the music better. It makes the music-making experience better.”

Yet even as that makes engaging with these issues more crucial, it does not make the engagement easier either to sell or to accomplish. Much of academia and no small share of the music industry is designed to protect and reinforce the status quo. Achieving change either in the classroom or on the bandstand requires facing down strong headwinds.

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Still, the problems of prejudice, discrimination, and racial and gender equity aren’t going away. If anything, they’ll only be more heavily scrutinized as time goes on. This article offers a few “best practices” in exploring and dealing with them as an educator with students, but also as an artist with an audience. We’ve already discussed the first of those practices: Be present and be ready. Here are some more.

 
Know the real history—and teach it.

It seems fundamental, doesn’t it? No music exists in a vacuum. You shouldn’t teach Gregorian polyphony or Bach’s court music without religious, political, and social context, so why would you do so with jazz? “You have to know what it is you’re playing about,” says violinist Regina Carter, who teaches at both Manhattan School of Music and New Jersey City University. “I usually start with the blues, field calls, field hollers. For a lot of them it may not resonate, but at least they have the history and can understand why the music sounds the way it does. It’s a cry.”

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This is especially important for jazz. Nearly all conservatories and music departments require music history courses. But these are often biased toward Western (i.e., European) music history.

“When I got to Harvard, it was like, ‘Take these six semesters of Western music theory, these four semesters of Western music history, and maybe then you will have earned the right to study something else,’” Iyer recalls. “It was beyond conservative—it was basically a White supremacist curriculum.”

That said, the history itself is not just context for the music: It has context of its own.

Carter, whose current musical project Gone in a Phrase of Air explores how highways and other urban developments have historically displaced African American communities, remembers that as a student “I hated history. And as I look back, I feel like it would have been easier if all my subjects lined up. If what I was learning in history class lined up with what I was learning in music, with what I was learning elsewhere—if it all had a connection.” Gone in a Phrase of Air put her back into the history student’s seat, and now finds her becoming a kind of teacher to an audience, although she works to mitigate that. “It’s just really got me thinking, ‘Okay, how can I deal with some of the things that are going on in this country without it feeling like I’m lecturing someone?’ so that people can handle the information and talk about what to do going forward.”

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As Carter well knows, the history surrounding jazz—both of the music itself and of African Americans—has been sanitized and selectively edited for decades. This does neither students nor the music any favors. In particular, jazz history features a profound erasure of women and their importance to the music, as Iyer found when he taught a class that surveyed six different composer/pianists: Lil Hardin Armstrong, Hazel Scott, Mary Lou Williams, Nina Simone, Alice Coltrane, and Geri Allen.

“I had students who were actually viscerally angry that they had never heard [Mary Lou Williams’ album] Black Christ of the Andes,” he says. “It came out around the same time as Kind of Blue and Giant Steps. It should have become a classic on the order of those other albums, but it did not. So why not? We found that the history we’ve been told about this music is wrong. It’s profoundly incomplete. Those women could and should be seen as the backbone of 20th-century music.”

Carrington has taken an ambitious step toward correcting that history. This year she published New Standards, a collection of 101 compositions—each by a different female composer. “Berklee Press liked the idea from the beginning, but then the question was why so many, and are there really that many quality composers?” Carrington recalls. “And I’m like, are you kidding me? So then I was even more driven to make sure there was a lot. A hundred isn’t even that many! Plenty of others had no problem telling me that they felt left out.”

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“What Terri Lyne just did with those 101 lead sheets, that’s one of the best ideas that anybody in the world ever had,” gushes pianist Monika Herzig, who teaches at Indiana University (and whose work is included in New Standards). “I actually saw her yesterday and I had to give her a big hug.”

Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer (photo: Ebru Yildiz)

“If students don’t see themselves reflected in our curriculum, why should they come to us?” –Vijay Iyer, Harvard University

 

Resources are more plentiful than you think. But where they’re lacking, create your own.

Carrington’s project shows the truth of both parts of this practice. There was no shortage of great jazz charts by women composers; she had more trouble limiting the number than she did reaching it. But the point was that there were no available collections of their music. Having gathered existing resources, she used them to fashion a new one, which has already brought significant new visibility to the material she marshalled.

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That’s not her only self-created resource, though. The Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice is a remarkable asset. “There’s what our students call the ‘jazz bro’ culture,” she says, referring to the cutthroat, testosterone-driven “boys’ club” atmosphere that has long dominated the music. “It’s pervasive, and it’s what has been the ruling class of jazz for so long, but there’s kind of a revolution happening because we’re like, ‘Oh, no, we’re done with this!’ We have to all live and work together.

“So we started the institute to provide a space so that women could study without the extra burdens that their male counterparts aren’t dealing with. That said, our institute is probably about 50-50 with gender. We also have some nonbinary and trans musicians. But the young men that come to our institute, in most cases they’re tired of the masculinity that prevails in the environment of jazz. They don’t want to have to perform it, so they’re seemingly relieved.” And the institute is more than just a classroom environment: It partners with external organizations for initiatives like the Next Jazz Legacy (cosponsored with New Music USA), a program that provides grants and professional mentorships for female and nonbinary jazz musicians.

Baylock and UNT are following her lead. The school has its own student-led program, the Jazz and Gender Equity Initiative, that’s designed to educate and support people and to create and educate allies. In collaboration with pianist/composer Annie Booth, Baylock has been building his own reservoir of lead sheets, focusing on big-band arrangements where Carrington focused on combos. “In our jazz library at North Texas, we have thousands of big-band charts—but only a couple dozen written by women,” he says. “So that encouraged Annie and me to come up with this publishing company, Brava Jazz Publishing. I thought it’d be great to have a one-stop shop. And not only is it things that are already published, but we’ll be commissioning new work as well.”

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At Indiana, Herzig is also passionate about enlarging the space for women in jazz. Her primary concern, though, is for the women themselves. There are various aspects to that concern (many of which are explored in her coedited book, The Routledge Companion to Jazz and Gender), but one particularly appealed to her: There need to be more role models that girls and young women can access and emulate. Hence her creation of Sheroes, a nine-piece all-female ensemble that released a self-titled album in 2018. “I just said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna showcase all these amazing players, in a way that is noticeable, so you can see there are people doing this. There are women playing jazz at a really high level.’” 

In Herzig’s case, she can claim some real influence. Pianist Renee Rosnes has since created a similar but higher-profile (i.e., signed to Blue Note Records) band called Artemis. It’s no coincidence, Herzig feels, that Artemis shares trumpeter Ingrid Jensen with Sheroes. “I kind of want to claim my space of saying, ‘Artemis was formed after our model!’” she says. “Ingrid was part of my group, and people started paying attention!”

Of the educators interviewed for this article, Iyer probably has the greatest access to resources, in the conventional sense of the term: Harvard has a $53 billion endowment, the largest in the world. Nevertheless, he created his own: an entire curriculum, Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry (CPCI). “It’s a combination of musicmaking courses, and more academic courses at the undergraduate and graduate level,” he says. “There’s been a lot of one-on-one mentoring of projects.”

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In that capacity, Iyer does not identify as a “jazz educator.” His interest is both broader and more difficult to define. CPCI’s Ph.D. program, which accepts one new student per year, also comprises faculty members esperanza spalding and Yosvany Terry, and encourages musicians to incorporate more academic, cross-disciplinary classes into their learning. For example, its newest participant, pianist Fabian Almazan, is currently studying climate justice.

“We facilitate things like that, so they would not just be dabbling, they’d be on the cutting edge of research in these different disciplines,” Iyer says. “We can expand the footprint of what an artist is.”

 
There will be pushback. Be prepared to face it.

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Resistance to these kinds of initiatives seems always to be present. Sometimes, as in Iyer’s case, it’s active. The whole reason his CPCI program exists is because of the resistance he encountered at Harvard: Iyer originally applied for a position in music composition, only to find that the other (classical) composers were the only people in the department who didn’t support his hiring. He was eventually brought into an indefinite, “at large” position.

“That was Eurocentric exclusion, is what that was,” he says. “I have built my own presence there, and it’s become a very collective presence now, it’s not just me. But it was in the context of exclusion. It has been around throughout, and we’ve had to find a way to shoehorn ourselves into the culture of the music department there. They’ve been slow to come to grips with who and what we are.”

Having fought his way through that resistance, Iyer now reacts to it by siloing it off from himself. “That’s not my problem. That’s theirs,” he says. “What I’m interested in is, how can I help these incredible artists to be more and do more, and how can I support their journeys? And as an educator, that’s what I’m trying to do.”

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The resistance that Herzig has encountered has more to do with fear of taking risks. On the institutional level, that means faculty chairs who aren’t willing to hire outside their own networks. Hence the historical shortage of women in those networks perpetuates itself, not creating new opportunities. “When you do hiring decisions, you would have to step out of your comfort zone,” she says. “Often the pushback is ‘We’re not getting enough applicants,’ or ‘the applicants are not at the same level.’ But every time I get a notice saying someone’s hiring and I put out a call to my circle of friends saying, ‘Apply here,’ suddenly the pool of female applicants becomes larger.”

On the performing level, she sees a similar risk-averseness: The audience for Sheroes concerts looks different from the usual jazz club crowds, with more women and fewer of the hardcore regulars. “That worries the presenters. Even though you will build a new audience and a different audience, you need the hardcores in the end! You can’t scare them away.” As a result, clubs will book bands like Sheroes once a year—and more often it will be a higher-profile act like Artemis.

Herzig’s response is simply to soldier on. “We didn’t play any of the really big festivals,” she says of Sheroes. “We did some of the cool clubs and maybe didn’t get all of the audience members immediately that were expected, which might just be us on our first time. It’s hard work, but I’m not complaining; we did some really great things.” She also uses her networks to enlarge those of her academic colleagues and pushes them to take a chance on someone they don’t know. The latter, at least, she says is paying off: “Right now it’s really exciting to be in on the hiring of a lot of young female players, fresh out of their doctorate. That’s where we see the change.”

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Baylock, on the other hand, accepts blowback as an inevitable side effect of the changes he’s advocating, and he’s made his peace with that. In 2020, he was part of UNT’s decision to change the name of Kenton Hall, its primary rehearsal and recital venue, in response to allegations of its namesake (bandleader Stan Kenton) having made racist remarks and sexually assaulted his daughter. Kenton is a tentpole figure in UNT’s jazz history, having donated his entire library to the school; removing his name from the hall was going to cause considerable consternation among donors and alumni.

The school did it anyway. Some alumni pulled their support and publicly criticized the move. “That’s a growing pain right there,” Baylock says. “If we lose support of some alum, it’s okay. Because there’s a bigger picture. Of course our history is about more than one or two people. So the way I felt was, it’s worth it! Because we feel like we’re doing the right thing and we need to move things forward.”

Alan Baylock
Alan Baylock (photo courtesy of the University of North Texas)

“Balancing the scale, eliminating the White male domination, has a positive effect: It makes the music better.” –Alan Baylock, University of North Texas

 

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Don’t try to outsource the work.

Just about everyone concerned with these issues, inside and outside of academia, sings Terri Lyne Carrington’s praises for her work. (Iyer calls it “hugely transformative.”) So much so, in fact, that other institutions frequently ask her to visit their campuses, to lecture or Zoom with their faculties and tell them how to do what she’s doing.

Consulting the experts is always a good start. But, she warns, it sometimes feels like these other institutions think that’s enough.

“You can’t just address it by bringing someone like me in for the week,” Carrington says. “You have to study! You have to read! You have to research! And I think a lot of people are just busy and don’t necessarily want to take that extra time; it’s easier just to bring some people to their schools without really doing the research. But I’ve been researching it myself for five and a half years. And I’m still not a scholar of this. So if I, who’s very passionate about this topic—if I’m still learning and studying after five years, there’s no quick fix. Asking us to do this work for other people is just adding more labor onto us.”

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More than that, however, Carrington advises that real engagement requires real desire and real commitment. “I always say, ‘You don’t need us to tell you what to do. You just have to look within yourself and divorce yourself from the “ruling classes” in jazz. You already know the answers.’

“I don’t think anybody’s expected to know everything, or to do everything correctly,” she adds. “But I do think it’s a time where you have to decide where you stand. You have to really decide if you care enough about your fellow human beings to make some changes. Or, in our case, if you care about the music enough so that it has the most potential to be developed. A lot of people are looking to us as leadership for this, but we can’t do everything for everyone.”

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.