Exclusion and Finding Your Place

Thoughts from an outsider’s perspective

My involvement with All In Melbourne first came about when I was invited to participate in a panel discussion for the Big Blowout Jazz Festival held at the Victorian College of the Arts in September 2016. The all female panel was tasked with discussing the lack of diversity, and specifically female under-representation, in the jazz music scene. The organisers of this panel event went on to form All In Melbourne, a group that advocates for a more inclusive environment for musicians and audiences in the Melbourne jazz music scene.

In discussing these issues with my fellow panel members and more broadly amongst my musical peers since, I’ve come to the realisation what many of us have had similar experiences.

Many of us, including those who may be considered to have gained some measure of recognition and success within the jazz music scene, have had experiences of exclusion and of being sidelined (for example, being told to pursue opportunities at women’s jazz festivals instead of through ‘mainstream’ programming), having opportunities granted or denied to us on the basis of our gender as opposed to our ability or gigging experience, being subject to a perception that an opportunity was only granted on the basis of our gender, feeling the pressure to conform to a sexualised look or style in order to get a gig while our male counterparts do not have to meet the same expectations, and feeling out of place or even unwelcome amongst our male colleagues when ‘hanging’ out during or after gigs.

Of course, these issues are not limited to the jazz music scene but are reflected in the broader music scene and in other creative industries.

This article is not intended to be a scholarly exposition on the issue – there are plenty of well researched and well written articles on this topic that are easily found online for those who are interested in reading more.  Instead, these are thoughts and ideas that have been developed out of my own subjective experience of being a female musician trying to make her way writing and playing jazz music in Melbourne.

Jazz as an exclusionary music

In one sense, jazz music itself is an exclusionary space. As a genre, it can pride itself on being complex, conceptual and intellectual. Its harmonic and rhythmic structures can be obtuse and hard to decipher, and seemingly only a few can reach the level of technical proficiency and improvisational mastery on their instrument to be able to be considered as true jazz musicians.

There is an idea that in order to be a serious jazz musician, your music cannot be too accessible or easy to understand. Rather, you must aspire to build a small and discerning audience, one who respects the purity of your music and your artistic expression. There can also be a sense of the ‘jazz police’ or gatekeepers of the jazz music scene such as venue bookers, festival programmers, educators and other jazz musicians, who subtly influence what is considered to be jazz, and what is not.

As a classically trained pianist who has always had a keen interest and love for jazz, I thought I had struck gold when I discovered the work of Bill Evans and was able to study jazz and ‘find my people’ – those who love this music as much as I do!

However, I have also often felt that there were various unspoken and un-articulated rules about jazz music and how jazz should sound, along with a sense of anxiety about whether my music and playing was ‘jazz enough’. Perhaps some of this stems from the fact that jazz is an imported art form in Australia and we don’t have the extensive jazz pedagogy and history that exists in America to really root these concepts into our popular consciousness.

And yet there is lately a sense that jazz is evolving, changing and opening up. Bands like Snarky Puppy have brought their version of instrumental and improvised music to a wider and newer audience, while incorporating other musical styles and collaborations with non-jazz musicians. This year’s Melbourne International Jazz Festival program was one of the most inclusive and wide-ranging to date, and included a range of different styles such as afro-beat and funk, along with a broad line up of various international female-led ensembles performing their version of ‘jazz’.

Whether some of these newer bands and ensembles will continue to be considered to be ‘jazz’ remains to be seen, but it’s certainly an exciting time for musicians and audiences to come together and be part of seeing and hearing the genre evolve and innovate as the ‘old masters’ make way for new voices and sounds. If jazz doesn’t evolve, it will become heritage music or a nostalgic memento, to be appreciated for archival purposes only. It will also be unlikely to grow a wider audience, which means that the art form will eventually cease to exist.

Is Jazz a gendered art form?

There is scope to argue that jazz music itself is a gendered art form, where some of its key and celebrated elements are exhibited in behaviours that are typically considered to be more masculine in nature.

For example, to be a jazz musician one must be willing to take risks in an improvisatory setting, feel comfortable taking up space and playing a lead role, typically by playing loudly and confidently in order to contribute new ideas and melodies (sometimes even ‘speaking over’ others in an ensemble setting), and achieve a level of physical ability that demonstrates that you have ‘chops’ and can play fast.  In some respects, jazz can be quite competitive and achievement oriented, with less of a focus on lyricism, musicality and allowing space.

It is likely that the primacy of male jazz artists in the development of jazz is a key factor in shaping these characteristics of the music, and there will be various historical reasons for the absence of female jazz musicians in shaping the development of the genre that are beyond the scope of this article.

I’m excited that we are now living in a time where issues around gender roles and identity, sexual harassment and gender inequality in the workplace are being discussed at a broader societal and cultural level. There is a sense of reckoning for past actions and omissions and a rebalancing of scales.

These ideas can be related back to jazz and add some perspectives on the under-representation of women in the genre. For instance, young girls are typically raised and/or socialised to ‘play it safe’, ‘wait their turn’ and ‘dress nice and look pretty’. Young boys on the other hand are typically encouraged to take risks, make a mess, and take the lead.

In a jazz setting, this can then translate to a reluctance on the part of girls and young women to ‘have a go’ at improvising over a tune if they don’t know the tune or the chord changes, lead them to miss out on opportunities while ‘waiting for their turn’ and even a reluctance to learn to play more ‘masculine’ instruments that they feel might make them look unattractive.

Ideas around gender and gender roles are limiting, for both men and women, and as a society we need to move away from thinking in terms of gender. This is the only way to allow ourselves, and those who will come after us, to dream big and reach our full potential.

This is our jazz community and to ensure its viability, sustainability and growth, we must allow more voices in. Who knows, addressing this issue may also have the effect of increasing our audience numbers and broadening the appeal of jazz to a wider market.

We all have a responsibility to address the under-representation of women in jazz. Young girls can only ‘be what they can see’ and there needs to be role models for them to emulate. We need to support the women currently working in the scene, be inclusive and allow space for more voices. Quotas and affirmative action targets aside, I do think that we can all do our bit. For example, if you are in the position of booking musicians or bands, or programming a festival or event line up, consider whether you might be able to book a female musician or a female-led ensemble, or whether it would be appropriate to give an opportunity to a young female up and coming musician.

Finding your place

A key part of being a musician and getting work as a musician is visibility. The jazz scene is not a traditional work environment with formal networking or team-building events, a directory or contact listing of all your colleagues, or an office space or workplace where all personnel are required to attend on a regular basis.

Rather, musicians network and socialise at the ‘hang’, typically at a venue during or after gigs. For some of us – and let’s face it, musicians are by nature often introverted and socially awkward – this concept of the ‘hang’ can be terrifying, for both male and female musicians!

The ‘hang’ can also lend itself to being a bit of an exclusive environment, one that is not as easily accessible to those with family or other commitments, or who don’t drink or who may not feel comfortable in an environment where dirty jokes or banter might be the norm (let’s face it, the music industry is male dominated).

Certainly, there is a responsibility on each of us to make one another feel welcome in these spaces, but there is also a way to make the ‘hang’ work for you! Visibility is a big part of the game, and your fellow musicians and industry colleagues need to see you to know you are still ‘in the scene’ and available for projects and gigs.

It can be useful to have a strategy for navigating these spaces and to cultivate your networking and business skills. For example, you may not have to stay at the ‘hang’ for long, but you can perhaps aim to introduce yourself to one or two new people. You can rehearse up a bit of a ‘bio’ to describe the projects you are working on so that you can roll this out when you meet new people. Also, in this highly connected age, a lot of this networking activity can take place online – musicians are incredibly fortunate to be able to use social media to promote their gigs and reach out to their colleagues.

The above criticisms of the jazz music scene aside, I have also learned that you do have to make your own way in the scene.

Believe that people want to hear and see what you are doing! Cultivate genuine relationships with your fellow musicians and others within the scene – you never know what opportunities might come your way.

Remember that the ‘scene’ is made up of people in it – you, me, and all our colleagues! Without the musicians there would be no scene. With this in mind, I’d encourage you to play your own music, develop your sound – whatever that might be, or how ‘jazz’ you might think it is. Have confidence to back yourself, believe in what you have to say, and make your way to the table. Continue to do your homework, hone your skills and master your craft – never stop working at it and become the best musician you can be.

Louise Goh is a Melbourne based pianist, keyboardist, vocalist and composer trained in classical piano, jazz and improvisation (Victorian College of the Arts). She is a core member of multiple award-winning cabaret act Yana Alana and The Paranas, which recently performed at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and in London. Louise released her debut piano trio album 'Crossing Ahead' in 2013 with L.A.A. and is currently working on her upcoming solo album, scheduled for release in 2019. Louise also works part-time as an in-house lawyer. Find her on her website and on Facebook.