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'WOMEN IN JAZZ': AN UPBEAT ATTITUDE PREVAILS : Despite Undercurrent of Sexism in the Music Business, Most Conference Participants See Better Days Ahead

January 14, 1986|RANDY LEWIS | Times Staff Writer

Big band leader Ann Patterson had to stop and think about it. Pianist Ellyn Rucker was philosophical about it. Recent college graduate Penny Watson preferred not to focus on it. Veteran trumpeter Clora Bryant couldn't wait to talk about it.

The subject was "Women in Jazz," the topic of four days of analysis and debate as one of the major themes of the 13th National Assn. of Jazz Educators (NAJE) conference that concluded Sunday at the Anaheim Marriott Hotel.

Why the need for attention? After all, such musicians as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Cleo Laine and others have been highly visible proof that throughout its history, jazz has had a place for women. But for much of that history, the trouble has been that women were expected to know that place and stay there, a point made clear in the various seminars and concerts.

Except as vocalists, and to a much lesser degree as pianists, women have received little credit or attention in jazz.

"Everyone knows about Louis Armstrong, but who knows that Lil Hardin Armstrong (his wife) played piano, ran the band for several years and wrote a lot of his songs?" asked Jan Leder, a New York-based jazz flutist who has written a discography of women jazz instrumentalists from 1913-1968. "I've got 250 names in this book. Women have been there all along."

Los Angeles Times Sunday January 19, 1986 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 16 words Type of Material: Correction
Jan Ito of Gardena complains that Randy Lewis left out saxophonist Vi Redd in his Jan. 14 "Women in Jazz" article.

Yet, even the names of such highly regarded performers as pianist-composer Marian McPartland, who received the jazz educators association's 1986 Hall of Fame award, pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm big band remain virtually unknown outside jazz circles.

Therefore, the association's "Women in Jazz" theme was devised. "Part of my mission in this last couple of years has been to provide parity where inequities exist," said association president Herb Wong. "If jazz and education are presumed to be reflections of life, then the full fabric of life should be represented."

Because it was an educators' convention, discussions often focused on schools as the best place for changing social attitudes about women in jazz.

"I didn't start playing jazz seriously until I was 28," said saxophonist Patterson, leader of the all-woman big band Maiden Voyage and one of the most visible role models for aspiring women jazz instrumentalists.

"I'd never seen a woman play jazz until I was an adult," she continued. "I don't know where I might be now if I'd started at 12." As a result of her own lack of exposure to women musicians, Patterson now tours Los Angeles-area grade schools with a woodwind quartet, of which she is the only woman, offering everything from Bach to jazz. "I get these little girls coming up afterward and saying things like, 'I didn't know a girl could play saxophone.' "

Role models are particularly important for young musicians, yet nearly all women musicians said their early idols were men. "One of my biggest concerns about the issue of females in jazz is that I can't think of a major innovator in the development of this music that was female," said Arthur Dawkins, director of jazz studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C. "I think that's only because of the (small) number of women involved in jazz in the past and I think it will happen--sooner than most of us think."

Added Thom Mason, director of jazz studies at USC: "I'm still looking for a female Duke Ellington to emerge, and with all due respect to (band leader-composer) Toshiko Akiyoshi, that hasn't happened yet."

But even though most association members agreed that acceptance for women instrumentalists has grown dramatically in the last decade, the news for women at the conference wasn't all good. Less than 15% of all professional musicians are women, sexism hasn't been eradicated in the professional world and young women too often aren't taken seriously as jazz musicians by school music directors.

"We have to get the entire music education community to stop identifying instruments by gender," said Warrick Carter, dean of the faculty at Boston's Berklee College of Music and a past president of the jazz educators association. "When we start a young girl on an instrument, we can start her on saxophone or drums or whatever and not always give her those 'safe' instruments like flute and clarinet, which continues to happen."

Perhaps the most discouraging news of the convention concerned the annual Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival, a widely respected showcase that has been dissolved after eight years because of insufficient funds to hire a staff. "It's ironic that the festival has folded the same year NAJE is honoring women in jazz," said the festival's acting president Mary Hodges. "But all of us volunteers are just worn out."

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