So we’ve been playing Joe Zawinul’s Birdland at Symphonic Band. It’s one of those charts that is inextricably tied to high school for me when it was our signature tune in Little Big Band for a while. We thought we were cool. We were not.
Having said that, Little Big Band was actually one of those ensembles that punched well above its weight. We won eisteddfod after eisteddfod going up against these other private schools with much better resources than ours (but the fact that we were in eisteddfods shows how uncool we were). I still remember seeing the sneering faces of some of those boys from other schools looking at us scruffy nobodies backstage and actually saying “who are they?” and their jaws dropping when we played. We were tight, we sounded good. The tenor saxophonist is an accomplished professional musician now and I’m proud of him every time I see his name somewhere.
The jazz bands at my school were formed by a talented but flawed music teacher who championed his male saxophonist and clarinet players (being one himself). But for some reason, although we got along fine, I just couldn’t get anywhere in the ensemble. There were two of us girls who played piano but rather than splitting the parts or even having us double on keys, she always got the keys parts and I was given the bass lines, which aren’t the most interesting things to play on a piano. Then when we eventually got an actual bass player I was totally redundant. There was one female saxophonist, but I don’t remember her ever getting solos, or didn’t ever seem keen to take them. I was allowed to sing one song in our repertoire but others with (what I thought were) lesser voices were favoured more. It was puzzling to me. Why were the boys given so much support and attention and the girls were just there to be decorative, almost?
I developed a taste for jazz in those years that got me into all sorts of trouble, but I don’t regret loving the music. I don’t regret going to the Basement or the Strawberry Hills Hotel (RIP to both) and watching band after band way beyond the time when I should’ve been tucked up in bed at home (or studying for my HSC). I loved the dark, smokey world of it all – very alluring to a teenager who thought herself very mature – but I was mostly there for the music. Honest.
I studied jazz piano with Alister Spence but was hopeless because all I wanted to do was listen to him play and I was too shy to actually try much improvisation in our lessons in case I sounded stupid in front of this person I admired so much (he was very patient with me). I had the only singing lessons of my life with Kristen Cornwell but again would have just been happy to sit at her feet and listen, though I didn’t mind trying out new things in my lessons with her. I had associations with a whole range of musos but I was just on the fringe of it. I longed to sing or play in a jazz band but for some reason I just couldn’t make it happen.
There’s a podcast I like called Strong Songs, where the host, Kirk, pulls apart popular songs and analyses what makes them work. But although he focuses mainly on pop music, his background is in jazz. Today I listened to a recent episode called ‘Secrets of a great band director‘, where he chats to his now-retired high school music teacher, Janis Stockhouse. She wrote ‘the book’ on women in jazz (called Jazzwomen), which I would love to read but is quite hard to track down apparently. In the course of their conversation, they talk about how and why jazz, even in schools, is historically so male-dominated, and the answer rang true.
[from around 37:00]
K: I guess I’m interested in your thoughts, why boys are drawn to jazz in high school or what encourages them, what the system is that makes that happen or why…I don’t know, just any of your general thoughts on that.
J: Public school music education started in the 1920s and the people who were the band directors had to have been 100% male. So I’m sure, not by their own intentions, but I’m sure they guided women toward woodwind instruments and boys toward brass and percussion. It was kind of a stereotype. So that was kind of the school setting. And then the jazz bands that we looked at, think about them, they were 100% male instrumentalists, or 99.9 . . . logistics of hotel rooms, sharing hotel rooms, like vocalists sometimes had to stay at a different hotel, I heard, if they had a female vocalist. And the other thing was, it was a hard life, a really hard life, and I’m not sure many women would have chosen that kind of a life. But 1960s comes along, and we are finding more women doing things, there’s so many great players now. So it’s coming, it’s like one of those glass ceilings that still needs to be broken.
K: I think about all of the ways that boys act in high school, like the sort of default high school boy mentality. At least the students I had, there was a lot more loud, willing to stand up and take attention – a lot of times in a bad way, sometimes in a good way. And jazz itself kind of encourages that behaviour and because there’s this whole social, decades, more than decades, centuries of reinforcement with boys acting that way and girls not acting that way. It almost feels as though that then plays out in the jazz band because jazz music tends to encourage that sort of individual expression. So it’s like you’re up against this whole long swathe of history. Have you noticed that changing at all in your time at North?
J: It comes with women having, young women having confidence. And you nailed it, the boys by and large, sophomore boys, they don’t really care. They’ll get up, take a solo, they don’t care if they play wrong notes or if it sounds bad. They just don’t care. Whereas we women are trained that we must be perfect, right? Why do women wear makeup and curl their hair and put on lipstick in between class? So we can’t make mistakes, I think, is how we are kind of brought up, in a generic term. And that’s unfortunate.
K: It is.
J: But knowledge and confidence can overcome fear.
K: It seems like it’s a good place for all students to experience that, or experiment with sounding bad and getting up in front of people and being confident and just throwing your stuff out there and seeing what happens.
It just struck a chord with me (boom tish). I was always so worried of sounding bad, of being ridiculed, of not impressing the guys that I didn’t even try. Or it didn’t occur to me to push for an opportunity. I just assumed that because I wasn’t given the chance I mustn’t have been good enough. I find that really sad when I think back on it. I had a lot of chutzpah on one level as a teenager, but the imposter syndrome I still carry kicked in very early.
I guess they were also the source of some of the creativity scars that Brene Brown talks about that most of us bear, that subconsciously affect what we think we can and can’t do as adults. I’m glad it didn’t stop me playing music entirely and that I eventually found an outlet. I’m so thankful for people throughout my adult life who’ve given me chances, who asked me to sing and play at church until I became a confident leader on my own, who asked me to record something that friends still cherish, who told me to join a community band that I love, who want to get together to play music just for the fun of it. To realise that it’s not about whether you get the solos or stand out the front of the band, but it’s about creating music together, listening to each other, each part working to support the other to make something that didn’t exist before that moment.
So it’s weird playing Birdland now, all these years later because of all these memories it raises. Or maybe it’s because flute has no place trying to sound cool in a jazz chart like that. At least back at school, even if it was only on keyboard, I got to play that iconic bass line for a while.