NOTE: During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, Janet Grice lost a long battle with multiple myeloma. Her spirit lives on in her music, and in the hearts of the friends, students, and musical colleagues she inspired.
It’s not easy for women in jazz, as I remembered when I went to hear my friend Janet Grice play some serious bassoon at a gig in Manhattan.
I’ve been out of the field for more than 20 years, but hearing Janet and her band rock out on both jazz and Brazilian tunes reminded me of our student days at the New England Conservatory of Music in the 1970s.
Janet and I used to get together once a week with our friends Cercie Miller (alto and baritone sax) and Jamie Baum (flute and alto flute), have the cheapest dinner we could find, and complain about how some men in jazz — it seemed like a lot of them — were never gonna give us any gigs, even after we’d hired them!
Not much has changed since then:
- Jazz is still a very macho field (ask our classmate, piano genius Fred Hersch, who’s still described as “openly gay,” as if it was 1980 in any other business).
- Women are still more likely to get gigs from other women than from men.
- And the best way for most jazz musicians of the female persuasion to succeed is still to go out on their own — leading their own groups, getting their own gigs, and fighting for their own recognition, as Janet, Jamie, Cercie and I did, and the three of them are still doing.
Not that this is any big surprise. I can still remember, growing up, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra hired its first woman (harpist Ann Hobson Pilot, who was not just female but Black, and if you don’t think that was a big deal in Boston in 1969, you can think again!).
And lest you think this is just about jazz, I also remember the first time I looked around in a business meeting and realized there were as many women present as men.
None of the women in that room had ever expected to see that day, let alone a day when vast numbers of women run our own businesses and are busily creating work for each other. Yet — just like women in jazz — women who work in every field still have a very long way to go.
It’s still routinely the case — in spite of the millions of men who are allies for women in the workplace, and in spite of 100 years of our own advocacy — that for even among the most successful of us:
- Women make less money than men in comparable positions (this is true across all fields and gets worse the higher up the food chain you go);
- Women are listened to less than men (by both men and women, the research sadly shows);
- Women are vastly less likely than men to hold top positions (as I write this, only 4.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are female, and exactly 2 of those women are not white); and
- Women are still subjected to sexual harassment at alarming rates.
What was true in the 1960s and 1970s often remains stubbornly true today:
If you’re non-mainstream in any way — and, remarkably, that list still includes women! — you can’t sit around waiting for other people to discover you, promote you, or hire you for the gig.
You may have to get out and do it yourself.
And you will have to speak up for your own success.