Friday, September 9, 2016

An Ethnography of Brown University Jazz Combo Groups: Gender Identity in jazz Education

The Jazz Combo performance, involving a group of college students enrolling in the Brown Jazz program, happens twice per semester,  at the University Grant Recital hall.  Tunes played at the performances range from songs in the fake book to adapted modern film music. The songs are often interpreted in various ways, very much depending on the performers’ improvisations. The performance is not only a review for the work of the combo groups, as well as an opportunity for people in or outside of the jazz community at Brown/local providence to hear some Jazz music for fun. The performers include music students at Brown who may or may not be music majors,  while audiences include Brown students(most of them are friends of the performers), Parents, and local jazz enthusiasts. Notably, men make up most of the performers and  audiences. 

The question that makes me curious and that I would like to address in my research study is: Why does the performers or audiences in the Jazz Combo performances all tend to be men? Is modern instrumental jazz music in college/academic settings dominated by men? Why?

Through observations/interviews/surveys during the course of a semester, I have found out the information below:

First, the performers(members of the Brown Jazz Combo groups) are exclusively Brown students who have registered for the semester-long, credit-bearing class.  They,  among all who auditioned for the class at the beginning of the school year, were selected by Professor Matt McGarrell, the director of the Jazz, Wind, Percussion programs at Brown. There are four combo groups. The formation of each is determined by time availability. For example, in order to join “Wednesday afternoon Combo”,  one needs to be available during that specific rehearsal time. Therefore, the groups are relatively randomly assigned/formed.  As a result, it sometimes happens that one combo has more than 9 people(the average is 6), and another only has 5 people.  The band leaders, usually hired jazz professionals, are also randomly assigned to each combo groups as well.  According an interview with Ron, who is the band leader/coach of a combo group that I studied, most of the students in  the combo groups are not music majors/professionals, and they play jazz for fun or as an extra curriculum activity. Ron directs the band, by giving advices on various aspects: rhythm, volume, techniques, timbre, order, feel, background counterpart, solo melody, ornamentation, form and tune selection. Despite his authority to coach the band, Ron tends to let the group flow on its own and play by ear at often times with almost no constraints of theories/rules.  In short, the combo group members are mostly college students who are proficient yet not necessarily professional jazz instrument players. They are organized in an academic course, yet loosely directed in a relatively non-rigorous casual setting.

Second,  almost 90 percent  of the performers in the Combo fall into category of white male. In fact, there are only three girls all together in the entire combo population of about 25 people. There is not a single girl instrumentalists.  All of the three girls, perhaps not by accident, are vocalists. These data are not unexpected given that Brown is an  Ivy league college in New England and Jazz has been historically dominated by men.  However, female jazz musicians, are often represented in jazz vocals. I think it has to do with several facts, one could be  that in a male-dominated jazz world, the men run the bands, the clubs, the record companies and they prefer to see a skirt.  Another could be that the “moon, love, heart...”sort of sentimental lyrics in a lot of popular jazz songs are hard for a man to sing; they were really written for women. This seems to be the case for Brown Jazz combo groups as well; most of the songs with vocals chosen are fairly soft and feminine. Notably,  Amos, the only male singer represented in all combo groups, sang “That’s all” and “The moon represents my heart”, both of which are slow-tempo, romantic ballads. This may not indicate a general pattern/trend of songs with vocals being performed at Brown, since the particular songs are chosen by the vocalists in each separate cases. However, it could be true that the feminine quality of a lot of  jazz vocal music(tempo&lyrics such) pushed away men from choosing to sing jazz, especially comparing to sing pop/rock music.  As a miniature of the big picture, Brown Jazz combo group represents a wider identity of modern jazz musicians in college settings. 

Third, the audiences of the Brown combo performances are made up mostly of middle class white males in their forties or older. A large per cent of the female audiences are almost exclusively either parents of the performers, or wives of the male audiences. From an observation of the audience group during the performance, most of the men are very engaged and focused.  70 percent of them tap their feet or slightly move their bodies with the rhythm. A number of them not only followed the beats intensely with their body movements, but also hummed the tune along the whole time. Much fewer women had done the same. In fact, a few women, I noticed, were not paying attention at all and looking at their surroundings/cellphones etc. One women fell asleep on her husband’s shoulder.  On the one hand, what I have observed sort of proved my pre-consumptions that men love jazz more than women do. On the other hand, I find this interesting and I am curious to find out why women in the modern time are much less enthusiastic about instrumental jazz. 

Previous Reviews
Looking back into the history of Jazz, there are certainly many scholars who have studied the gender issues in Jazz. They have also made statements to explain the male dominance. For example, writing on jazz history in the United States, Jane Hassinger states: ‘Commonly, brass, reeds, and percussion instruments are located in the male domain, while strings and flute are supposedly female in essence’ . Hassinger raised a point that certain instruments have  specific gender associations. How to determine with which gender the instrument is associated? Ideas and conventions about the female body have often been brought into male debates about female instrumental musicianship. A common idea has been that women lack the physiological strength to play a particular instrument: for example, women often has smaller lung capacity and smaller hands, which could be a hinder in playing brass, guitar and such. Another reason could be that certain instruments are seen as unsightly for women to play, either because their presence interferes with men's enjoyment of the female face or body, or because a playing position is judged to be indecorous. In Victorian Britain female cellists were expected to adopt awkward ‘side-saddle’ positions so as to avoid holding their instrument between opened legs.

There has been studies about general questions of  male dominance over instrumental musicianship, highlighting issues such as male exclusivity, gendered divisions of labour, gendered space, and male control over technology. Some typical female relationships with instruments are outlined, whereby certain instruments are deemed to be suitable or acceptable for women. In short, past studies have concluded that the male dominance over instrumental music is related to the issues of sexuality and gender-roles. 


In modern days, Jazz music has been widely incorporated in academic/college settings.
 jazz programs have been growing in the  American education system for the last 50 years. Schools offer extracurricular opportunities in jazz education that include contests, festivals, and concerts exposing young artists to listening and performing opportunities. Some schools offer jazz studies as part of the regular curriculum through ensembles, jazz improvisation classes, and/or jazz theory classes. Many colleges and universities now offer degrees in jazz studies and jazz pedagogyJazz education is more accessible than ever, yet male participation continues to surpass female participation. According to a research published by the National Association for Music Education, it is found in a survey of 628 college music majors that significantly more men participate in jazz programs than women, that men spend more time than women do in jazz programs before dis-continuing participation in the idiom, and that there is a dramatic attrition rate for women between high school and college jazz participation.  This research indicate a significant under representation of female jazz instrumentalists in college. Drawing upon my observations and  previous studies/theories about gender, instrument and jazz, there are three reasons for the high male-female ratio in college jazz programs:

First, it has to with how girls see themselves and how their male peers and society generally see a girl who attempts to enter this very male domain. It was made aware that Jazz is an odd interest for a girl. Teachers can be unsupportive, friends unenthused and boys turned off. Just to dare embark on the path to instrumental jazz, a girl must be the kind of young person who is willing to forego approval of others and press onward despite the odds. This is further complicated by the fact that jazz is a collaborative art form and cannot be practiced alone. Unless one is a solo pianist, it is not possible to become a jazz musician without the willingness of others to practice with you. A real jazz education begins when school is out and players get together to jam. This is where things get really tough for girls and they are likely to fall behind their male peers regardless of their abilities.
Second, college jazz education or college education in general often promotes equality in opportunities for both genders. However, according to my observation and experiences there is almost no sign of actual actions taken to solve the problem at Brown University. For example, I would suggest setting up an all-female group to provide comfort zone for girls who are under experienced in jazz to try and practice improvisation. 
Third, a lack of appreciation for instrumental jazz among women in college. Deep down, this is also due to the lack of experience in playing jazz. Since Jazz music is no longer a popular music genre, its audiences are largely made up of people in the older generation, and people who play jazz instruments themselves and people who has a jazz-playing family member or partner. Among these people, there are very few young female colleges students. 

To conclude,  I used methods of observation,  interview  and surveys to conduct a research of the Brown Jazz Combo groups. My analysis, together with theories I have gathered from previous scholarly works,  addresses the problem of under presentation of female college students in instrumental Jazz music performances, and proposed explanations in terms of gender-role and its complications in society. 

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