More Than 'The Chick Singer': Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves & Terri Lyne Carrington Talk About Being Women in Jazz

Herbie Hancock International jazz day 2016
Steve Mundinger

Herbie Hancock and Sequoia Snyder with the Duke Ellington High School Jazz Band performing in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. on April 30, 2016

At events like International Jazz Day, the UNESCO-sponsored event designed to promote the music across the globe, “Jazz is…” statements abound, defining the music (on mostly extramusical terms) as everything from freedom to innovation to blues to fun -- all different ways of arguing, in the face of the usual commercial citations to the contrary, that it is essential. One one less expected argument is that jazz is inclusive -- not an adjective it prompts often, particularly when it comes to women. “Critics have often used the fact that women and transgender musicians are missing from the historical record as proof of their supposed inability to properly understand the music,” writes The New Inquiry’s Elizabeth Newton of jazz’s eternal imbalance. As people of all races and nationalities (hence the “International”) embrace the music, women remain underrepresented -- though that is changing, slowly but surely, as a panel of women gathered at (fittingly) Washington D.C.’s National Museum of Women in the Arts on International Jazz Day (April 30) to discuss.

Watch President Obama Celebrate International Jazz Day With an All-Star Concert April 30 on ABC

“I didn't know at the time that it wasn't normal for little girls to play the drums,” said Terri Lyne Carrington, a drummer and bandleader who’s worked with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Wayne Shorter, of how she first got into the music. Her story, though, is unusual -- born into a family of musicians, Carrington was encouraged to play from an early age, which has earned her the distinction of being one of the ten (ten!) women listed as bandleaders on Wikipedia’s “Women In Jazz” page. “Because I had so much encouragement, I didn't realize I couldn't do it,” she added -- a good thing, of course, because she could (and did).

Though Carrington admitted she had often “shied away” from discussing the issues women face in the jazz world -- “I'm a musician, not a ‘female musician,’ “ she said -- fellow panelists Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater, both vocalists and bandleaders, professed to frequently feeling underestimated. “It was really hard for the younger musicians to take me seriously -- not the older musicians,” Reeves said, adding that she would test the skeptics with “very complicated arrangements.” Bridgewater alleged that the vp of Atlantic Records propositioned her early in her career, and canned her album when she refused. “After that, I got a call from someone in the industry saying, ‘If you don't sleep with men in power, you'll never have a career,’” she told the aghast audience. “I said, ‘I guess I'll never have a career.’”

Are things better today than they were in the 70’s and 80’s? “They're beginning to accept that we are their equals...well, I don’t know, actually,” said Bridgewater, laughing. “There is improvement, but the sexist issues are still there.”

“As a producer and a musical director, that's where I feel the glass ceiling,” said Carrington, who won her third Grammy in 2014 as a producer on Reeves’s album Beautiful Life. “People have preconceived ideas about who a producer or MD can be. When I won the Grammy, I thought people would call -- but nobody did.” She added that as a teacher (she’s on the faculty at Berklee College of Music), she often has to overcome her male students’ biases. “Some students will come to me with an attitude -- then it, at some point in the semester, when they realize who I’ve worked with and what I’ve done in my career, it changes,” she said. “It's important for young male musicians to learn from female musicians. It creates a balance”

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When it came to discussing the music itself, though, all three women were optimistic. “I heard that all my life,” said Reeves, laughing, in response to a question on whether jazz was in decline. “I think jazz is more exciting now than it’s ever been,” added Carrington. “Isn't it wonderful that finally we don't need a category? There are no more record bins!”

If the day’s opening ceremony was any indication, their bright outlooks were on point: Bridgewater had joined the Duke Ellington High School Band -- almost half of whom were girls, representing from rhythm section to brass -- for the day’s lead performance, just a few hours before the panel began. Eventually, Herbie Hancock, Jazz Day co-chairman, sat in for a performance of his classic tune “Watermelon Man,” which wound up as one of the day’s most inspiring moments. Instead of claiming the keyboard for himself, he sat alongside 16-year-old Sequoia Snyder who not only kept up, comping alongside the legend with admirable composure, she followed his solo with a positively inspired (and possibly even better) one of her own -- proving there’s plenty of reasons to believe that the best, for women in jazz (and thus jazz in general), is yet to come.

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