Being a female instrumentalist puts first-year drummer Léna Bartels in the minority at the School of Jazz. She says this has sometimes been a source of discomfort for her in the classroom.
“I’ve had teachers who make kind of overly sexual comments about — not to me or anything — but just things like, ‘understanding music is really about how much you have sex,’” Bartels said.
Hearing a professor liken music to sex bothered her. “Saying that in the context of, this is a room full of boys and I’m the only woman in this room, that makes me so uncomfortable,” Bartels said. “How would that not make someone so uncomfortable?”
Multiple interviews with other Jazz students also attested to the experience of feeling overlooked, undermined, or of having their bodies, rather than their musicianship, be the focus of attention.
BA/BFA sophomore trombonist Lindsay Dobbs said one professor wouldn’t call her by her name and instead would call her ‘Baby’ or ‘Sexy.’
Freshman vibraphonist Sasha Berliner said she’s noticed professors reacting to her musical compositions differently than how they receive a male student’s work.
“I’ll use a specific technique or specific idea, specific harmony, and the teacher will sort of ignore it and then my male counterpart will use a similar technique or similar harmony and the teacher will all of a sudden be like, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting what you did right there,’” Berliner said. “And it’s like, I did the same thing, you did not point that out for me.”
She said she has to work harder than her male classmates in order to gain an instructor’s respect. “A lot of the teachers, I think they sort of have this preconceived notion that I don’t know what I’m talking about, or they’ll sort of attempt to re-explain a concept that I already tried to explain to them,” Berliner said.
She added, “There’s a Björk quote that I think is ‘Everything that a man says you have to say five times,’ and that’s just so true because you have to prove yourself so much more to teachers before they actually start to respect you.”
The School of Jazz, located in the building at 55 West 13th Street, has a new Dean, Keller Coker, who replaced Martin Mueller in March 2017, and is part of the College of the Performing Arts (CoPA), which includes Mannes College of Music and the School of Drama.
In response to a question from the Free Press about official complaints that may have been made about sexism at the school, Richard Kessler, the executive Dean of CoPA, said, “All complaints made to the administration are investigated fully and various actions are taken relative to the particular complaint. I take each and every complaint and report seriously and ensure that no complaint goes unaddressed.”
Kessler was unable to procure numbers on the gender breakdown between students at the Jazz school, but he did acknowledge a clear split. Vocalists at the Jazz school are predominantly female while instrumentalists are predominantly male, and this reflects the Jazz industry at large, he said in an email to the Free Press.
Dobbs, the trombonist, also takes courses at Lang for her Arts in Context major. She noticed how different the gender populations are at both schools. “It’s just a lot of opposites,” Dobbs said. “I come into my Lang classes and I say that most people are like femme women, you know? And then I go into my Jazz class and it’s all cis straight men.”
She’s also noted differences between how professors at the Jazz school and at Lang conduct themselves in the classroom. “My professors in Lang are a lot more sensitive to who they’re speaking to and are definitely sensitive to pronouns,” Dobbs said. “And I’ve never had a Jazz professor ask me about my pronouns.”
Rebecca Zola, a BA/BFA senior studying voice at the Jazz school and Arts in Context at Lang, said gender bias manifests within the Jazz school’s curriculum because it systematically separates vocalists from instrumentalists. “Vocalists are very separated from instrumentalists on a curricular level. We have almost an entirely separate selection of courses,” she said.
“The reason that I talk about this, the vocalists versus instrumental thing, it’s very tied to the gender binary at the school because the majority of people that identify as women at the Jazz school are in the vocal department,” she added.
Dean Kessler said it is not unusual for courses to be specific to either voice or instrumental training. “That said, we are working to see a better blend of voice and instruments where possible,” Kessler said in an email to the Free Press.
Several students said in interviews that vocalists are treated differently than instrumentalists by professors and students within the school.
“I have some teachers who definitely expect less of the vocalists,” Dobbs said. She’s noticed professors in her theory courses letting female vocalists off the hook when they write songs that are off-track, while male and female instrumentalists who make mistakes are almost always corrected and told to rewrite their compositions.
“There will be vocalists and musicians that will come in and write songs that are completely off track and totally don’t relate to what we’re learning,” she said. “With an instrumentalist, the teachers more often are going to be like, ‘This is like wrong, and you need to redo it,’ but with the vocalist, a lot of the time, the teacher will just be like, ‘Cool, this is cool. nice job.’ I see it happen all the time.”
PJ Fossum, a sophomore studying piano, said he’s noticed female vocalists are sometimes treated with less respect from the student body.
“People shit talk [about] vocalists a lot and vocalists are predominantly female. In fact, there’s like two or three guys who sing here as their major,” he said.
He said the school’s largely male population affects the college’s social environment.
“It’s occasionally, or more than occasionally, like a locker room,” he said. “Just shit that gets said is akin to, you know, ‘Oh, it’s just the old boys club kind of thing.’”
Zola said that a fair amount of vocalists are enrolled because they want to be singers, not because they are interested specifically in Jazz, and this leads to a stigma towards female students who enter the school. Some students assume that if you are a woman, you are probably a vocalist, and if you are a vocalist, you probably don’t know anything about Jazz, Zola said.
“A lot of instrumental students and teachers or faculty in the instrumental department have this notion towards women when they enter a classroom environment,” Zola said. “And people can be extremely dismissive or kind of challenging. Like setting up these students to fail.”
She recalled an example of an incident with a professor in an music course that combined vocalists and instrumentalists. “While he was giving all of the instrumental students in the class direct feedback about their improvising and their playing, I was not even getting any feedback,” Zola said. “The only responses I was really getting was on my physical appearance in the class.”
Zola is currently writing her undergraduate thesis, “Gender in Jazz,” on gender discrimination in Jazz culture. She read through text books that are often assigned in Jazz history courses and scanned the pages, looking for presence of female Jazz musicians. One book, The Oxford Companion to Jazz, which is an assigned textbook in the Jazz program, had only two chapters out of 61 devoted solely to female musicians..
Associate Professor Chris Stover, who instructs Jazz history courses at both Lang and the Jazz school, also noted a lack of visibility among female Jazz musicians in textbooks. “There are very, very few women in the history of Jazz who have been written about, and those that have have primarily been singers,” Stover said.
He said there are exceptions— including trombonist Melba Liston and pianist Mary Lou Williams, but they are less known among the general public. “Very few people have heard of Mary Lou Williams as compared to the number of people who have heard of Art Tatum,” Stover said.
Several students pointed to an interview between New School alumni Robert Glasper and Jazz pianist Ethan Iverson as emblematic of the issue of sexism within Jazz.
In the interview, Glasper and Iverson talk briefly about women who listen to Jazz. Glasper said, “They don’t love a whole lot of soloing. When you hit that one groove and stay there, it’s like musical clitoris. You’re there, you stay on that groove, and the women’s eyes close and they start to sway, going into a trance.”
The interview drew ire from people who believed Glasper was implying that women are not sophisticated listeners. Music critic Michelle Mercer wrote on NPR that she thanks him for bringing up eroticism in Jazz, “But there’s no agency in Glasper’s one-sided construction of female eroticism; asserting that women in general prefer groove to solos essentializes them as creatures of pure instinct. Conflating a musical mood with female anatomy makes women into passive vessels for male sounds.”
New School students were disturbed by Glasper’s comment too. “It was hard. It was really discouraging,” Bartels said, regarding the interview. “And it really made me think: Is the only reason that things are different now because these attitudes towards women in music are more censored around women? Everything I hear is troubling. But it’s even more troubling to think about what I’m not hearing.”
Professor Stover said the interview between Glasper and Iverson shows how pervasive misogyny is in the Jazz industry, and that it is up to individuals to take steps to confront it.
“It’s incumbent on us as male jazz musicians to not just say, ‘Well, I don’t do that,’” he said. “It’s incumbent on us to say, ‘I need to take pro-active steps to fight against that.’”
Dean Kessler said he plans to take steps to address some student’s perception of bias at the school. “We are actively working to recruit more women students and faculty, as well as planning to increase the amount of training required by faculty and staff,” he said in an email to the Free Press.
Berliner said she plans to take an active approach to confronting sexism within the Jazz school and the Jazz community at large.
‘I’ll just have to gain this sort of super-strength and overcome all of this,” Berlinger said. “And I plan to be very vocal about what happens and you know, uncompromising and unforgiving.”
“I cannot just let it pass by,” she added. “I cannot let things happen as they always do.”
Additional reporting by Hannah Emmert
Photo by Orlando Mendiola
Correction: A previous version of this article addressed the new dean of the jazz school by the incorrect name. It has since been fixed.