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Monday, February 10, 2020

Sammy Stein - Women in Jazz: The Women, The Legends & Their Fight (8th House press, 2019) ****½

A couple of years ago I picked up a book edited by Renata Da Rin and William Parker called Giving Birth to Sound: Women in Creative Music. It came to mind as I was reading Sammy Stein's new Women in Jazz as the topic obviously intertwined a bit. Both books incorporate interviews heavily into their construction, but whereas Giving Birth to Sound lets a picture of individual musician's journey through the jazz world emerge from their words, Stein's investigates and shapes a story, supported by the interviewees insights and descriptions, of the current state of women's experiences, good and bad, in a predominantly male industry. 

Stein is a direct and positive writer, and the impression that you take away from the book is an upbeat, and honest, assessment of this current state of women working in jazz. She discusses women's successes, from the struggle for acceptance to the pushing of boundaries, and does not sugar coat the injustices and mistreatment along the way. Stein approaches this broad topic in a scientific manner, interviewing and grouping emergent themes into categories such as the sexism of yesterday and today, reactions to successful women, and ongoing change in attitudes, just to name a few, and splices in first hand quotes between her own descriptive interpretations. 

Stein lays the groundwork with a visit to New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. She follows with a chapter on the rather tricky question of "what is jazz?" and then moves on with developing a review of literature that reveals many of the underlying assumptions and conclusions of what women encounter in the jazz world, and the varying perceptions and attitudes that need to be overcome or are slowly being overcome. This is then capped off with succinct but thorough profiles of some of the pioneering women in jazz, ranging from Bessie Smith and Billy Holiday to Alice Coltrane and Carla Bley, underscoring that women have always been an influential and driving force in the development of jazz.

The interviews that then follow reveal a lot about the artists, the conditions, and the various ways people relate to the challenges that they have had and still come up against. Many of Stein's subjects are vocalists, but there are a number of instrumentalists as well, such as saxophonists Jane Ira Bloom and Kim Cypher, guitarists Mimi Fox and Faye Patton, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, as well women who are in the publicity and management side of the music business. All the perspectives - and there are many - help to form the picture of the challenges and attitudes that women in a traditionally male dominated industry endure and overcome. Some of the interviewees have a pragmatic point of view, and others more defiant, but most all seem to agree that the industry is has moved, and continues to move, in a positive direction for women.

Lastly, Stein discusses the future of jazz, and spends a good number of pages on jazz education. Possibly a topic that invites as much passion as the main one here, she broadly traces the development of jazz education, from the more male-oriented 'cutting session' to its gradual acceptance into the academy. Stein notes that while 50 percent of the students in music schools studying jazz are women, that number decreases dramatically afterwards, especially when looking at the number of women registered with the music licencing bodies like ASCAP, BMI and so on. Appropriately, she wonders, what is happening here?

While I would have been interested in hearing from more voices from the experimental side of the idiom (perhaps a second edition?), Women in Jazz is a fair and even-handed report from the field, with a welcome accentuation of the positive.

I'd like to leave off with a quote from the book, from saxophonist Kim Cypher, who I think captures the spirit of the book well:
I think it is an exciting time for women in jazz right now. We are living in a time when anybody can do anything and women are empowered as we continue to move away from an industry that was traditionally male dominated. It is exciting to see so many incredible female jazz musicians on the scene, especially in terms of instrumentalists.
Women in Jazz is a great read and a excellent and contemporary report on an important topic.

Learn more/order Women in Jazz here.

Women in Jazz was awarded the 3rd spot in JazzTimes' 2019 Readers Poll.