Join Them!: Bowdoin Women in Jazz

Five female students studied jazz last year in Bowdoin’s jazz program: two pianists, a bass player, and two singers. Though small in number, they’re undaunted by being a minority, and all express unequivocal enthusiasm for playing at Bowdoin.

“It’s fun, it’s social, it’s wonderful,” said Flora Hamilton ’21, who started out as a classical pianist but turned to jazz in high school.

Tashi Brundige ’21, who also trained as a classical pianist, began playing jazz at age 18. “Because I was not a member of an orchestra, I was always alone, practicing alone, and playing alone,” she said. “I wanted more creative license, and — I don’t know — jazz seemed more fun, and I knew that if I wanted to keep my motivation to play music going, then I knew I wanted something more playful.”

The fact that only a handful of women at Bowdoin are studying jazz is not unusual; it reflects the disparities in the genre overall. “Jazz has a history of, ‘Get the chick on the stage, and is she wearing sequins?'” jazz singer Isabel Udell ’19 said.

Tracy McMullen, associate professor of music and a jazz saxophonist, teaches courses at Bowdoin on music and gender, and one of her main research areas is women and gender in jazz. She noted that women musicians have always been part of jazz, but that they often are overlooked in jazz histories taught in schools.

She also pointed to other factors also possibly contributing to that gender imbalance. Scholars note that many young women tend to adopt a perfectionist standard in their activities. So in school jazz programs, boys might feel more comfortable making musical mistakes as they learn to improvise, McMullen said. “In junior high school or at beginning of high school, there’s all this information and studies showing that girls are losing their confidence at this age. And with jazz, you’re improvising, and it is very terrifying,” she said. “In general, speaking generally, boys allow themselves and are allowed to make mistakes. And girls, they’re much more nervous about making mistakes.”

Jazz singer Marshall Lowery ’21 agreed: “With jazz, you have to be pretty laid back about trying new things, and not be too nervous about it.” She said she’s been happy to discover how easy it is to be musically courageous at Bowdoin. “That is one thing that’s very unique about the jazz program here. You can try new things and not be scared. Nobody is going to be like, ‘Oh, you messed up!’ You’re going to have support from a group of people who are very interested in what you’re doing.”

To attract more women to study and play jazz at the college level, both McMullen and the Bowdoin students said that younger girls in elementary, middle, and high schools should be encouraged to try it out, instead of being steered toward classical music or school bands. “By the time you get here, you’ve been established in another genre, more or less,” Brundige said.

Hamilton suggested having more conversations on campus about music and gender — an interesting and problematic subject. “Instruments are considered gendered in a way,” she said. “There are a lot more women playing flutes and men playing tuba, for no real reason at all. And jazz is a brass heavy type of music. Having some more dialogue about that would encourage people to think differently.”

And thinking differently could lead to more women playing jazz at Bowdoin, and elsewhere, setting off a cascade. “You need more women to attract more women,” Udell said. So, she cajoled, “Join me!…It’s worth it.”

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