Sexism in Jazz, From the Conservatory to the Club: One Saxophonist Shares Her Story

Oct 20, 2017

Over the last several days, as the phrase #MeToo took hold as a viral movement, I’ve been thinking about how its message pertains to the world of jazz.

My mind was already in that space, because of a series of conversations on social media, sparked most recently by a personal outpouring from a young vibraphonist named Sasha Berliner. “Objectification and disrespect of female musicians is apparent not just to us younger women in school,” she writes, “but to women who are incredibly successful professional musicians.”

I’m a baritone saxophonist, and have lived in New York City for over 20 years. I’ve shared the stage and the recording studio with some of the finest musicians around, and played hundreds of festivals and clubs all over the world. I’m involved in jazz education, teaching at several prominent programs in the area. I’m very lucky to do what I do, and when I think about how close I was to throwing it all away because of one inappropriate comment someone made about me, it’s hard to conceive.

Let me say up front that I had an amazing jazz conservatory experience: wonderful instructors, exciting classes, peers who inspired me to get better. I looked forward to going to school every day. But one day, near the end of my freshman year, it all changed because of a blunt, objectifying comment that a teacher made about me to another student. This student — it hardly needs to be said that he was a guy — told me about it because he thought I should know.

Not being one to let something like that slide, I went to a senior administrator at the school and let her know what had happened. She took a breath, and then asked me with great care: “Lauren, do you want to have a career?”

“Yes, of course I do!” I said, wondering why anyone would ask such a question.

After the next response, it was clear. “I really feel where you’re coming from,” she said, “but you should just forget about this.”

I balked. “What??? I did nothing wrong! What he said about me to another student was distasteful, and I want to report it!”

With a methodical sort of patience, she laid out the alternative: there would be a long inquiry, digging into my personal life (should that matter?), and the person I was accusing would attempt to drag my name in the mud. I mean, who’s going to trust the word of a 19-year-old girl over an established jazz musician with many years of playing and teaching under his belt?

I walked out of the office completely stunned. Did that actually happen? On reflection, I realized the powers-that-be were doing their best to protect me. But those good intentions are part of what perpetuates sexism in the industry, down to the school level.

We’re told to move on, forget about it, avoid the person in the name of self-preservation. These are all coping tools. But are we really dealing with the problem? The issue is power. The fact that a man, in a position of power, put me in an uncomfortable situation is downright wrong. This kind of harassment has no place anywhere — but especially not in school, where the whole purpose is to learn and grow. Is that what being a grown up is about? Letting things go? It is and it isn’t. But it’s also important to know when to take a stand.

Unfortunately, that seedy little comment did get to me — more than any other incident of harassment I had ever experienced, including inappropriate physical advances. Why would that be the case? Why would an offhand remark by an instructor, behind my back, have such an effect on me? I felt demeaned and in some way betrayed, both by my instructor and the institution. I was really close to dropping out of school, because I didn’t want to be involved in the music business if this was what it was all about.

Would I never be taken seriously as a musician, being a woman? The idea made me rethink my entire trajectory. Maybe I shouldn’t be a performer. Maybe I should play a more “feminine” instrument. Then I thought: You’re being ridiculous. Use this as ammunition. For yourself. Be the best you can possibly be at any moment in time. Because no one can take that away from you. Find out what it is that makes your light shine so brightly that nothing anyone says or does will extinguish it. Completely own what you do, and be unapologetic about it.

Have I had other incidents of sexism and harassment since then? The sad answer is a resounding yes. Waking up on a tour bus to find someone rubbing my leg. Walking down a hallway and literally having a fellow musician grab my ass. (“What are you doing, dude?” I said when I whirled around. Looking startled, he apologized, mumbling something about not being able to control himself.) Still, what had the greatest impact on me was what happened in school: someone I thought I could trust, who was supposed to be in my corner, turned out to be just another card-carrying member of The Old Boys' Club.

The Mingus Big Band outside Ronnie Scott's in London.

In 2003, I began working with the Mingus Big Band. I wasn’t sure what to expect; I had heard many stories about the guys in the band, and wondered how I would fit in being the only lady in the ensemble. But those guys really looked out for me — especially John Stubblefield, Earl McIntyre and Frank Lacy, who all treated me like I was their little sister. The respect they showed me when I was first starting out, at 24 — and continue to show me, at 38 — makes me feel so blessed to be a part of that musical family. The Mingus Big Band embodies the purity, beauty, and love of the music, and from the beginning it really gave me hope that I would be respected in this business, along with a huge opportunity to learn and grow as a musician. I’m forever grateful to Sue Mingus and all of the musicians in the band for being so supportive of me.

I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter many other allies in the music. Almost a decade ago, saxophonist Greg Osby gave me the opportunity to release my debut album, Blueprint, on his label, Inner Circle Music. The rhythm section on that record — pianist George Colligan, bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Johnathan Blake — were all guys I had been playing with a lot in the Mingus Band, and they brought such encouragement and positive vibes. As a first-time bandleader, this was crucial: it boosted my confidence, helping me feel I really was a voice to be heard on my instrument and in jazz.

Credit Gulnara Khamatova

Last month I went back into the studio to record two bands of mine, the LSQ and LSAT (which I co-lead with alto saxophonist Alexa Tarantino) for Posi-Tone Records. Posi-Tone is run by Marc Free and Nick O’Toole, who are both big advocates of women in jazz. This time around I was joined by Robert Rodriguez on piano, Christian McBride on bass and E.J. Strickland on drums. It was such a magical day for me — not only because of the high level of musicianship, but also because of the love, friendship and connection I felt with these musicians as human beings.

What can we do, as men and women of this community, to move forward and work towards eradicating sexism, especially in education? I think part of it is training those in positions of power that this type of behavior isn’t the norm, isn’t accepted, and won’t be tolerated. Our institutions should remove those in positions of power who have a history of sexist behavior towards women. (And anyone with a history of abuses shouldn’t be hired in the first place, unless they’ve gone and sought professional help.)

We need to stay vigilant and speak up if we see or hear someone making a comment, or making someone uncomfortable. It’s not funny; it’s disrespectful and destructive. We can do better. I can do better. It’s not going to be tolerated anymore. These are small steps we can take every day to achieve the bigger picture.

And that, of course, is the music. I found my own inner strength in the music. I vowed from that awful day, back in 1998, that I would never let anyone change what I was put on this earth to do, which is make music, bring joy to those who choose to listen, and spread a message, which ultimately is love.

I love playing the baritone saxophone. I want to be an inspiration to anyone who feels like they’re not sure if they can make it. I especially want to lend an ear and a helping hand to any aspiring female musicians who feel like they’re on shaky ground. There are women out here in the trenches who have your back, and I’m one of them.