Inequality Women on Bass Guitar!

Women jazz musicians in Germany don’t usually go for bass guitar, but Polish bassist Kinga Glyk is out to buck the trend.
Women jazz musicians in Germany don’t usually go for bass guitar, but Polish bassist Kinga Glyk is out to buck the trend. | © picture alliance / Geisler-Fotopress | Clemens Niehaus/Geisler-Fotopress

Gender imbalances and pay gaps, structural oppression and sexual abuse are enduring evils in the jazz scene that need to be addressed now, insists Sophie Emilie Beha. 

This article should actually be superfluous, seeing as jazz music stands for openness, tolerance and integration more than just about any other art form. These qualities actually ought to guarantee ideal conditions for diversity and equality in jazz, whose roots lie in an artistic and sociopolitical rebellion against structural oppression and discrimination.

Enduring Gender Imbalance

But take a close look at the German jazz scene and you’ll be struck by the glaring imbalances right away: Only three women in the country are currently professors of instrumental music at a German college of music. And there are only two women playing alongside 64 men in the nation’s four public radio big bands. Or, as singer Donya Solaimani recently blogged about the Rhine-Ruhr jazz festival’s autumn lineup, “There are more Martins (3!) than women on this concert flyer.”

Other statistics corroborate this lopsided situation. In 2016, a study on “Women in Media and the Arts” by the German Cultural Council parsed data from the German social security fund for artists (Künstlersozialkasse, KSK) and found that only 10% of the musicians in the “Jazz and Rock” category were women. Also in 2016, some two thousand jazz musicians took part in an online survey of socio-economic and practical working conditions for jazz professionals. The results were presented that year in an initial study by the German Jazz Union, then reissued in 2022 with a focus on gender-specific differences. Both versions of the study show a huge imbalance: 20% of German jazz musicians are women (non-binary gender categories were not covered by the study). Another striking disproportion was that women account for only 12% of the instrumentalists, but 86% of the singers. Half of the female vocalists said they also play an instrument, mostly piano, on the side.

It is not by chance that, now as ever, women practitioners of jazz are usually singers or pianists. The musicologist Freia Hoffmann dug up the historical reasons for this phenomenon back in 1991. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the only musical instruments deemed appropriate for women were the ones that presented their “beautiful bodies” in a “seemly” posture, as opposed to big, expansive physical gestures }, which were deemed “unladylike”. So women’s musical practice was by and large confined to singing and playing the piano. To all appearances, not much has changed since then: instruments associated with such expansive gestures – bass guitar and drums, for example – are still very seldom played by women. This disparity goes to show that certain instruments still carry stereotypical gender associations. And because stereotypes maintain and consolidate norms, they also cement existing power relations.

Starting Young: Music Education, Ensemble Playing and Pay Gaps

On the face of it, the fact that more girls than boys take music lessons may seem grounds for hope. But when it comes to setting up or taking part in an ensemble, let alone embarking on a musical career, the tables are turned: fewer female musicians play in ensembles – whether it be the school band or a professional jazz trio. “As jazz becomes increasingly professionalized, there are fewer and fewer female music students, band leaders, teachers and professors in jazz,” writes Urs Johnen in Gender.Macht.Musik. Geschlechtergerechtigkeit im Jazz, a book about “gender justice in jazz”. This is not a jazz-specific phenomenon, however, but a reflection of our society.

The pay gap is even more striking. According to the afore-cited 2016 study, full-time female jazz musicians earn roughly 25% less than their male counterparts, a disparity even more blatant than the 18% average gender pay gap in Germany. The unremitting structural oppression of women is doubtless deeply rooted in our society’s hegemonic patriarchal structures.

#MeToo and Abuse of Power

Naturally, there are power imbalances in jazz as elsewhere in society. In July 2023, the German jazz scene was shaken up by a blog post from musician, songwriter and activist Friede Merz pointing out structural abuses of power in the music industry, both at colleges of music and in the independent professional scene. She also described how discrimination is compounded by problematic structural issues as well as violence, sexual assaults and overstepping of boundaries. Merz included in her denunciation a #MeToo case, which composer and pianist Julia Kadel, speaking on a panel at the Darmstadt Jazz Forum, hailed as a “very big and decisive moment that we’ve been needing for a long time now”. “Incidents of this nature are no surprise to any of us,” said music professor and percussionist Eva Klesse in an interview. “It’s very important to start the conversation about this.” And yet the statement has yet to yield any far-reaching consequences. Although a number of musicians in the independent scene have expressed solidarity with Friede Merz and her demands, there’s been little, if any, reaction or support from institutions and organizations in the German jazz scene.

All of this goes to show what a long hard road still lies ahead for concert organizers, musicians, music schools, jazz associations, record companies and music journalists. Jazz in Germany is still a mainly white, cis-male, patriarchal, classicistic domain. Its shortcomings are well known, but so are a number of possible remedies. There’s plenty of good will to go around, but that won’t suffice to change the status quo. If jazz is not to become passé, the jazz scene needs to get beyond symbolic political gestures and tokenism, and finally come to grips with its own system. It can no longer ignore structural abuses of power and gender inequality.