Why is Jazz still a very male-dominated art-form and can this change?

Dianne Reeves Kenya concert

Do you, like me, struggle to name at least 10 or even 5 women in Jazz when this conversation comes up at music related (jazz or other) social gatherings?

It’s not by fluke. Women in Jazz have achieved much less recognition for their contributions to this art form especially if their role was not singing. Ever heard of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Judith Sephuma? Now, how about Lil Hardin Armstrong or Christine Kamau or Anikki Maswanganyi? Female Jazz singers have historically, been better -known than the writers, composers, band leaders or instrumental performers

Even to break the Jazz ceiling, it was not until the 1930s and 1940s that many women jazz singers such as Billie Holiday were recognized as successful artists in the music world. These women were persistent in striving to make their names known in the music industry and lead the way for many more women artists to come.

Coming closer home, women Jazz musicians here in Kenya and well across Africa are grossly underrepresented ergo few get to be the subject of feature newspaper or blog headlines. The few that exist, are not well marketed and some soon drift into other ‘more acceptable music genres’ to more often than not, be more identified through other genres than Jazz.

Dianne Reeves to headline Safaricom Jazz Festival

Since its inception 5 years ago, it is only this year that Safaricom is having a female Jazz vocalist headline its annual jazz festival. For those who have gone to some of the major international Jazz festivals down in South Africa, Europe or even in the US, it comes as no surprise the skewed representation of women jazz instrumentalists on those stages.

This year, as Safaricom marks 5 years of bringing Jazz to music lovers, although the February edition was a femme fusion which had an all-female ensemble from the vocalists, percussion players, the drummer to saxophonist, the edition was the exception and hardly the norm.

Increasingly on the international Jazz stages, festival presenters can no longer get away with booking one or two female musicians next to a heap of men. “The awareness of it not being equitable for men and women in jazz has really come to a bit of a head,” said Terri Lyne Carrington, 52, an esteemed drummer who has long spoken out about sexism in the music industry.

Later this month, the international acclaimed Grammy award-winning jazz singer Dianne Reeves will be in Nairobi and Naivasha to headline the October edition of Safaricom Jazz. The Nairobi show will be on a Thursday night and any parent wishing to use this as a way to inspire their daughters to pursue Jazz music will have to jump through hoops to make that happen. As women and parents, we are still grappling a society that still assigns roles and interest based on gender.

The image of Jazz is one of men and not women instrumentalists
The image of Jazz is one of men and not women instrumentalists

Jazz as a world of men

Jazz has historically always been viewed and exalted as a male art-form.

When you think of Jazz, what imagery comes to mind, a female or male saxophonist? Dr. Aril Alexander through her research found three main factors that serve to turn females away from jazz

  • The masculine image of jazz
  • The gender stereotypes of musical instruments
  • The behavioral tendencies and preferences of girls and young women

Her research further demonstrates how, due to the history of jazz, it’s coming of age in places where women were either exploited or absent, there has been a systematic fall out of women who, despite taking up music in their formative years, do not explore this further into a career. This translates into a lack of female role models specifically in instrumental jazz completing the vicious cycle.

Learning music in Kenya

Last weekend, my husband and I took the kids to the Kenya Conservatoire of Music for their monthly open day concert.  This is a Sunday afternoon 2-hour concert in which all the music teachers get to perform as a way of sparking an interest and conversation around classical music among children. In a country where music is no longer a subject taught in public schools, the program is serving a need though only to those who can afford. I will spare you rant on what effect this will have in further entrenching music as an elitist past time and career choice for now.

Efforts by Wandiri Karimi the Conservatoire’s new director and her team in encouraging children into music also seeks to challenge the generalization that is associated with which instruments are for what gender. In March 2019, they will be putting together an all-women concert in commemorating International Women’s day.

There is a lot more that needs to be done both at a local, regional and international level to celebrate more women in jazz and break the sexual stereotyping of instruments.


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