Dig Boy Dig

Jazz at Lincoln Center Breaks New Ground, but Where Are the Women?

The gaping hole at Columbus Circle, former site of the Coliseum, represents more than New York City's shifting landscape. As the future home for Jazz at Lincoln Center—an architectural plan totaling 100,000 square feet with a concert theater, atrium, and jazz café—it reflects the organization's astounding growth, unprecedented among jazz institutions. What started as a three-concert "Classical Jazz" series in 1987 now presents over 450 events yearly, at home and around the globe. This season celebrates the centennial of trumpeter Louis Armstrong. A gala benefit titled "Swing That Music" launches festivities on November 13.

With prospective opportunities further increased by the expansion ahead, which musicians will benefit? Despite J@LC's heroic visions and vast resources, accusations of nepotism, reverse racism, and age discrimination have long tarnished its reputation. But what nobody seems to have noticed is the profound, and unchanged, absence of women from the bandstand.

"There have been women good enough to be included for at least 60 years."

Technically, J@LC does employ a substantial percentage of women—behind the scenes. "We are an EEOC dream, in terms of our staff, our board, our band, our makeup, our equality," says Rob Gibson, executive producer and director. "I've heard many men here complain that we need more men." Out of 50 administrators, 30 are female, including many department heads. The board of directors boasts such prominent figures as former Planned Parenthood president Faye Wattleton, business mogul Tina Santi Flaherty, and former mayor Koch's former chief of staff, Diane M. Coffey.

The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, however, has never had a female member.

"I hire orchestra members on the basis of merit," says artistic director Wynton Marsalis, implying women do not yet make the grade. "The more women we have playing jazz, the higher the level of playing gets, the more they audition, and the more women are going to be all over. It will be just like classical music." Marsalis also cites slow turnover in the band of 15, limiting the availability of positions.

Contrary to the popular image of jazz women as singers, the number of female instrumentalists has grown substantially in recent decades—just not in big bands. Virtually none of the top mainstream bands—the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, the ghost bands of Count Basie or Duke Ellington, groups led by Lionel Hampton or Illinois Jacquet—currently employ any female players as permanent members.

"The argument that women will eventually be good enough is very old," points out historian Sherrie Tucker. In her book Swing Shift: All-Girl Bands of the 1940s, published this summer, Tucker documents a generation of female musicians overlooked by the standard histories. "There have been women good enough to be included for at least 60 years," she says. Lil Hardin-Armstrong, Louis's second wife, figures among the earliest. Although the Lincoln Center celebration neglects her contributions, she was the pianist, and a composer and arranger, for Louis's seminal Hot Five.

Pianist Billy Taylor, artistic adviser for the Kennedy Center's Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, praises contemporary talents like Lynne Arriale, Terri Lyne Carrington, Jane Bunnett, and Ingrid Jensen. "Time won't do it," he claims. "There has to be an effort. People have to start focusing on the fact that not only the Regina Carters of this world deserve recognition."

While increased public consciousness would help, hiring practices present the largest obstacle. Although Marsalis refers to auditions, the LCJO has never held one. Positions are not advertised. There is no formal hiring procedure. As in the majority of big bands past and present, hiring takes place by word of mouth, through personal recommendations. Sometimes musicians get a foot in the door by subbing—on referral—or by sitting in at rehearsals. "I ask the guys in the section who they like," says Marsalis. He has autonomous decision-making power, determining who gets a job and whether or not they keep it.

Marsalis grudgingly admits that sexism could hinder awareness of female talent. "I think that's true in a certain sense," he says, "but for that 1 or 2 percent of people who excel above the others, you always hear about them. Christian McBride, Nicholas Payton, Roy Hargrove—I heard about him as this boy in Houston."

Female musicians disagree. Renee Rosnes, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band's pianist, argues that the recommendation process affects women regardless of skill. "When a male musician is looking for a substitute," she says, "it's a natural impulse for him to call a friend first, most likely someone who is also a man. I've had male friends tell me this and experienced it myself."

Rosnes herself credits a longstanding connection for her entry at Carnegie Hall. "I wouldn't hesitate to say I'm there because of the musical director, Jon Faddis," she explains. "He has always been a strong supporter of mine and I used to play in his small group."

If rehearsals and subbing form paths to potential employment, women's J@LC prospects seem bleak. "Women come to rehearsals," insists Marsalis. But asked for specific players, he comes up empty-handed. "There's a trombone player who comes all the time and plays with us," offers producer and director Gibson. "What's her name?"

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