Why are you singing that? and the many pitfalls of being a chick singer

I’ve just finished participating in the Documenting Jazz conference from the University of Edinburgh and the Edinburgh College of Art. It was an engaging event and I presented my paper “Why are you singing that? Encountering gender bias in the lyrics of jazz standards and other pitfalls of being a chick singer“. It was part of a larger session dedicated to gender in jazz.

Putting together my paper gave me an opportunity to look back over my journals as a young jazz vocalist starting out with a view to identifying the systemic barriers that I encountered at almost every turn. I was also in a bit of a snit when I wrote my abstract as I was reacting to some news I’d seen about some men taking the lead in studying the topic of women in jazz. Shouldn’t actual women in jazz be doing that and receiving encouragement? But then if no one asks or gathers our stories, we’ll continue to be hopeless. So I set about considering mine.

To honest I stopped looking over my journals sooner than I would have expected as going back in time was disturbing. I easily found examples of being obliged to perform a repertoire composed nearly exclusively by men and how deviating from that caused me to be excluded. It’s not the worst oppression out there but it is systemic. And while there were definitely more obvious issues like sexual harassment that were worse, if we don’t consider all the nuances of a sexist culture it becomes harder to understand why so many of us might choose to step back. There are, after all, many options in life besides being a chick singer.

But if you love the music like I do, if you love singing especially, and you love freedom of expression and the whole life philosophy of jazz and improvising, you need to find solutions. And I can safely say now that I have. I outlined strategies that worked for me in my paper as well, offering them up as ideas for others or as tips for educators who are interested in increasing diversity in their student populations. I’m suspicious of conventional education particularly for jazz training but as a mother I do see great value in offering music and art education to all students eager to delve deeply into something. And the interesting and thoughtful work being done by many of the talented educators who presented at the conference, most of them also musicians, gives me hope for the future.