‘Busting Myths, Freeing Unicorns’ to Expand Inclusivity for Women in Music (Guest Column)
As Women's History Month draws to a close, Tulani Bridgewater-Kowalski of The Woodshed Network addresses this ongoing imperative for women in jazz… and the industry overall.
As a kid, I dreamed of being a unicorn. Now that I am one, I recognize I’m just one of the herd. When I gaze at festival lineups, skirt cables backstage, log onto Zoom meetings with labels or give the post-COVID elbow bump before settling down for an in-person, women are still scarce. We make up a fraction of the music industry, both in presence and recognition. However, we are here and always have been.
The world of jazz is a microcosm within the industry, but it mirrors the greater whole. While the majority of celebrated titans are men, the smattering of women in the pantheon are often finely coiffed, smiling behind mics and backed by an entirely male band. However, people need to take a closer look. For example, Louis Armstrong wouldn’t be an international icon without wife Lillian ‘Lil’ Hardin Armstrong. She was a celebrated pianist, composer/arranger, bandleader and singer in her own right long before taking Louis under her wing. Yet, few know her name.
There are countless other women in front of and behind the scenes who remain obscured, despite the valuable contributions they’ve made to the music and business. How do we bring the overlooked to center stage and expand the spotlight? Enter Grammy- and Tony Award-winning singer-songwriter-actress Dee Dee Bridgewater and The Woodshed Network.
Bridgewater launched this artists residency in 2019 with me as co-artistic director and program curator. We‘re steadily building community, providing support and educating cohorts of women in jazz. The annual 10-day program (Feb. 27-March 10 this year) is bolstered by a who’s who of women executives, creatives and legends including Sheila E., Lizz Wright, Regina Carter, Maria Schneider and more. Alumnae are busy topping charts (Lakecia Benjamin’s “Phoenix”), releasing albums (Candice Hoyes’ “Nite Bjuti”) and winning Grammys for arrangements and compositions (Marta Sanchez’s “Unchanged” on Terri Lyne Carrington’s New Standards. Vol. 1).
However, this is just one piece of a very large puzzle. Before you can hold space, you have to create it. The most enduring line from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams can be applied to jazz and the industry more broadly: “If you build it, (s)he will come.” Across the world, various programs are creating spaces for women in all sectors of the industry … and women are joining in droves.
Here are a few tangible examples of those fields plus several accompanying myths that spring to mind. So let’s get down to busting those myths, shall we?
Myth 1: There are no women sound engineers.
Women may make up only 2.1% of engineers, but they’re flipping all the right switches and turning award-winning knobs. Examples: Woodshed mentors Jett Galindoand Grammy winner Jaclyn “Jackie Boom” Sanchez. This dynamic duo has been with the program since its launch, breaking down process, equipment and production in all formats from recording to release. Organizations like Women in Vinyl, SoundGirls and Women’s Audio Mission are also training, supporting and getting gigs for women in sound recording, mixing and mastering.
Myth 2: No women run labels or produce music.
Betty Carter launched BetCar Records in 1970. Dee Dee Bridgewater launched DDB Records in 2006. Jazzmeia Horn launched Empress Legacy Records in 2020. Lizz Wright launched Blues & Greens Records in 2022. All produce and release projects on their own labels with distributors. Some 15% of women in the industry overall run labels, while even fewer produce their own material at 2.6%. Throw in songwriting and they figure into that 12.5%. These are just four examples among countless others.
Myth 3: People don’t care about jazz.
Tell that to the Nice Jazz Festival (founded in 1948, France), Monterey Jazz Festival (f. 1957, USA), Festival International de Jazz de Montreal (f. 1959, Canada), Montreux (f. 1967) and New Orleans & Jazz Heritage Festival (f. 1970). They’re all going strong. Globally, jazz is one of the most sought-after genres. Ella Fitzgerald said it best: “Music is the universal language.” Yet, when you turn up to one of these festivals, only 14% of the headliners are women.
Considering that women comprise over 49% of the world’s population, influence more than 80% of purchases and are set to hold 66% of consumer wealth in the coming years, this is not a demographic to ignore.
Something is amiss.
So how do we fix it?
1. Start at the beginning organizationally and include women.
When Woodshed took the Keychange pledge (the global campaign committed to gender equality in the music industry), we realized that we’d already surpassed the goal line. Women make up 90% of our team and 100% of our mentees, mentors and speakers. We have precisely zero problems finding leaders in every category and facet of the music industry who are women. There is so much pent-up desire to mentor and pay it forward that we have a year’s-long list of women who have approached Woodshed to participate on both sides of the table.
2. Make larger tables and bring folding chairs.
When organizations make it central to their mission to include women, not for tokenism, but in acknowledgment of their contributions, experience and expertise, they’re stronger for it. Echo chambers may be good for vocal effects, but they’re terrible for healthy businesses and communities. A quick internet search yields pages of results for women in various fields of the music industry. Let your fingers do the walking and hire more women in all positions. It’s not a capitulation, it’s a sound investment in your organization’s future.
3. Free the unicorns.
Once individuals and organizations take stock of their own houses, they can look outward to the community. The ripple effect is positive in all aspects. By creating, maintaining and ensuring the health of spaces inclusive of and specifically for women, The Woodshed Network is investing in the future. A thriving jazz community fosters dynamic exchanges of ideas and, in its highest form, democracy. Women belong on the bandstand, behind the scenes, and in C-suites. We’re providing support, resources, visibility … and space. What will you do? It’s time to crossfade into the thundering hooves of unicorns.
Tulani Bridgewater-Kowalski is the founder and president of Bridgewater Artists Management and co-artistic director and program curator of The Woodshed Network.