How our socialization of girls translates to an underrepresentation of women in Jazz.

Roxy Coss: Chasing the Unicorn

I frequently feel like I’m not enough. These self-sabotaging thoughts often make their way into my practice of music. On my latest album, Chasing the Unicorn (Posi-Tone Records), I recorded an original composition called “Never Enough”. As I sat down to write this particular tune, I kept stopping myself. A lightbulb would go on as the seedling of an idea, but as soon as I heard it, I would stop myself from cultivating it, thinking “that’s not good enough!” I decided to force myself to finish this tune, and make that tiny idea that “wasn’t enough” into something complete. When I came up with the title, it got me thinking about why I often feel like I’m not good enough, and how this deep-seated and far-reaching societal problem affects not only my own music and productivity, but our whole culture.

Women Feel Like They’re Never Enough

The “Perfect Woman” by Men’s Health

Our society is telling us we are not pretty, skinny, fashionable, well-groomed, or blonde enough. Not tan enough or white enough, accessorized or toned enough. Not intelligent, organized, well-informed, well-read, politically aware, curious, self-aware, zen, or unique enough. We need a better car or house. We don’t wake up early enough, or get enough done in the day. We should be more feminine, better in bed, better friends/wives/daughters/mothers, more philanthropic. We need to eat healthier and take more steps. We should be making and saving more money, getting better jobs, and working to be more successful in our careers. We are too meek, or too forceful and bossy. We should be more agreeable and selfless. Strangers ask us if we want “more” in life, meaning, “when will you have kids”, and “don’t wait too long”. We are not assertive enough, but sometimes too aggressive. We are too young to be taken seriously, or too old to be relevant. We are told to be more confident and be proud of ourselves, but not too egotistical.
Society wants us to be everything, all the time. Society wants us to be perfect.

Early Life/Socialization of Girls Vs. Boys

This extreme pressure to fit into the feminine social mold begins at an early age, when girls are taught to take care of others before taking care of themselves.

As children, girls are encouraged to play house, be the “mom”, and tote around dolls and babies. She has tea parties, fixes lunches and sets the table, plays in her kitchen, and cleans up with her toy vacuum. She is also training, as she is expected to participate in these household chores and tasks within real family life as she grows older. Girls are expected to take up very little space – physical, emotional, and mental. “Be seen but not heard,” “felt but not noticed”. Girls are supposed to do things behind the scenes, without expecting acknowledgment or reward for their good behaviors. In fact, it’s been proven that often times, men and boys get the credit for women’s and girls’ ideas and successes. Girls are taught to prioritize others before themselves. They are taught to always think of how to please others, make others feel comfortable, and at all other costs – be pleasant.

Boys, on the other hand, are busy practicing: practicing independence; practicing their freedom of speech; practicing sports, which benefits hand-eye coordination, physical skill and strength, cooperation, leadership, organization, healthy competition, and good sportsmanship. “Boys will be boys!” Their hyper nature and physical activity are encouraged and accepted. Boys are practicing video games, exercising their imagination and problem solving skills; practicing building things, learning how to execute an idea from start to completion and stretching their critical thinking; practicing focus – on what they want, and how to get it. They are learning what they are good at, and how to demonstrate those skills to others. Boys are taught the power of discipline, and how if they stick to an idea, they can achieve results. They are rewarded for their creativity in projects, for thinking outside the box. Whether in the garage with their father working on cars, or at their father’s office in adolescence, interning for the family business – boys are practicing hands-on life skills, and making mistakes from an early age. Boys are taught to expect applause, congratulations, and encouragement not only for accomplishments, successes, and wins, but simply for their effort – even if it results in failure.

With all of the external expectations for girls to fit into a female mold that society has engrained into us, it is no surprise that many girls and women become perfectionists, (and/or self-destructive). Girls are trying to be something in particular – society has told us there is a “right” way to be. And often, this way of being doesn’t align with a girls’ true nature. Often, this expectation is stifling and results in an immense amount of pressure. Because often, when girls have tried to go up against these expectations, she has been violently punished or reprimanded for her disobedience, independence, assertiveness, intelligence, feistiness, aggressive nature, individuality, or – worst of all – “un-lady-like behavior”. As a result, many of us are afraid to try anything new, anything we are not sure we “should be doing”, or anything we aren’t certain we can get right on the first try.


When I was five years old, I attended a public Montessori school. I was in the lowest of three grades mixed into one classroom. In the Montessori program, the child sets their own pace, and chooses what to work on. It’s very creative, and hands-on. The problem with this system, however, is that the child determines their own challenge level and pace.

My parents became aware that I might need more of a rigorous academic situation. They decided that I should apply for an accelerated program called APP – Advanced Placement Program. APP worked two years ahead academically, but also focused on different types of learning skills, including creative problem solving and critical thinking.

My favorite book series at age five

There was a standardized test to get into the program, and I didn’t score anywhere close to the cutoff for acceptance. In particular, my language scores were way below my math scores. My mom confronted my teacher and said “This can’t be right – I know my daughter is smarter than this, and her language skills are typically her strength.” And my teacher said, “No, she really isn’t, this seems right. She’s only reading these easy books in class”. My mom explained to her that I was actually reading much harder chapter books at home.

So, my mom took me to a private testing facility. The proctor pulled her aside after the test and told her, “She knows all of the right answers, once I can get them out of her. But she won’t even try to answer if she isn’t 100% certain she knows it”. It turns out, I had left a ton of questions blank on the initial exam!

This is a funny anecdote now, but I think it is a great example of how many girls (from such a young age!) are feeling an extreme pressure to be perfect. And this perfectionism is preventing girls from trying. Which makes me wonder, how does this fear of failure prevent girls from getting the attention and education they deserve? What other opportunities does this phenomena prevent us from experiencing? What could women be contributing to society if they felt safe to try, and encouraged to participate?

I want to point out that my teacher was perfectly fine with me maintaining a minimal academic level in the classroom. As long as I didn’t speak up and cause trouble, I could keep my slow pace. To her benefit, she probably just didn’t realize my capacity, (because she never asked). Additionally, if I didn’t come from such an educated, assertive, and supportive family, I would have never received the tools I needed to thrive. Without my parents’ pushing and asking for more for their child, I would have stayed in an environment where I was allowed to fall through the cracks. I am extremely fortunate and privileged to come from this family.

The Underrepresentation of Women in Jazz

What does this all mean within the context of the Jazz world? These concepts and their consequences can be explored universally in our society, but in Jazz, I can attest that they are not only directly translated, but highlighted and exaggerated within the community.

The Male-to-Female Ratio in Jazz: The Jazz Education System

As girls get older, they quit jazz band. If you look at a very young jazz program these days (elementary-middle school), there is a pretty good representation of girls. But as the kids get older, and you look at high school programs, colleges, and into professional careers, that ratio of young women to their male counterparts only gets smaller as age increases. Female musicians quit, more and more, as they “grow up”. Why is this?

This problem is very complex, but the ingrained socialization of girls and their resulting desire to be perfect is one huge reason that many girls and women may feel they don’t fit in within the jazz community, they cannot succeed in the jazz world musically or in their career, and/or they simply never had an opportunity to fully try to pursue jazz.

In our current education system, students typically start learning an instrument some time between 4th and 6th grades. Also around 6th grade, jazz programs become available for students in many middle school programs. By high school, most kids are expected to solo, and are usually improvising at a beginning to intermediate level. By college, improvisation becomes the main focus of jazz education.


imageThe problem with all of this, is that soloing and improvisation require you to be bad at something. It is a skill that requires you to make things up. It requires you to synthesize ideas on the spot. It requires you to assert yourself, make yourself the center of attention, command attention from your bandmates and audience; step outside the box. And when you first start improvising, you are not any good at it!

Think back to early childhood, when girls are supposed to learn how to do things “properly,” while boys are encouraged to “explore”, and “create”; while girls follow orders, boys make up their own rules.

Now imagine me at age five, afraid to say anything that I’m not 100% certain is “perfect” or “correct”! How is that young girl going to learn how to improvise? When is she going to practice the skills required to master this extremely involved art form? How will she be brave enough to try soloing in front of her peers, let alone an audience, when she has been told she must be perfect at all times? She has been told to be quiet, meek, pleasing, appeasing, and supportive. She has been told her voice isn’t important.

Where does this type of socialization of our young girls leave females in Jazz? There is no room for girls in the band room, if she follows social norms. And, as she grows older and into puberty and it becomes ever more apparent to her teachers that she is a “young lady”, or a “young woman,” how is she treated more extremely as such? As it becomes more apparent to her that she wants to be accepted and treated as a “likeable” female, how does she change her own actions, personality, and behaviors to match the external expectations she faces?

How many women have quit playing Jazz at some point in their life because they didn’t feel comfortable going against everything they have been taught they are supposed to be?

Giving Girls a Voice

We have all heard of “mansplaining” by now. Where does that phenomena come from? A man’s opinion is validated and taken seriously. In our culture, men are encouraged to express their opinions and speak up for themselves, and men and women alike are taught to trust the message behind a man’s voice. When women express themselves, they are told they are “too emotional”, “bitchy”, “aggressive”, “outspoken”, “nagging”, “crazy” and “overbearing”. The message to girls is, “be quiet, listen, and learn!”

Boys raise their hands in class more than girls

We already know that girls are less likely to speak up in classrooms. This is also true in office environments – women speak up less than their male counterparts at work. Additionally, it has been shown that the more females are in a room, the more likely a female is to speak up. (The less women, the less likely). The tipping point is 33% – when a third or more people in a room are female, they start to feel comfortable to speak up, their voices start to be heard, and their thoughts represented (this goes for other marginalized groups as well). (Check out Feminist Fight Club by Jessica Bennett).


Stereotypical images of a “jazz band” include only men

Now imagine a typical band room full of boys, or a typical stage or bandstand full of men. Imagine a girl or woman there in the mix, and how she will be less likely to share her musical voice when there are literally no other girls or women in the room or on the stage. This cycle perpetuates itself, since Jazz has remained dominated by males.

So, within a jazz music culture where it is all about the individual voice, the courage to stand up and play a solo, and take a leap of faith to express your ideas without being afraid to be “wrong” or make mistakes, where does this leave girls and women, who are socialized to be silent, submissive and obedient?

How does a girl find her voice in Jazz, when she isn’t encouraged to speak loudly, aggressively, or to challenge her male peers? How is she supposed to hone her skills, or become first chair in band, when she is conditioned to step back and let boys take the lead? How is she supposed to sound strong sight-reading a piece of music for the first time, in front of her peers, when she isn’t 100% sure she will get the right notes or rhythms?

Summary: How Expectations of Girls in Society Clash With the Core Elements of Jazz

What is Jazz?

  • Jazz is the American Art Form. Jazz is a Democracy. Everyone is supposed to have a voice in Jazz.
  • Jazz is a language, where everyone interacts and speaks up.
  • Jazz is an artform where individuality and the individual is celebrated.
  • Jazz musicians must exhibit strong leadership skills.
  • Jazz is improvisation, encourages “imperfection” and creativity.
  • Jazz is the ultimate expressive music.
  • Jazz demonstrates risk-taking behavior.

Do any of these Jazz values sound like qualities that we encourage our young girls and young women to exhibit and explore?

Happy Valentine’s Day


To those who want to “make America great again”, or those who think our predecessors had it easier in any regard; to those who assume we as humans all exist on a leveled playing field; to those who believe in the “American Dream” and the idea that we all have the same opportunity to achieve it; to those who don’t realize their own privilege, don’t notice their relative ease of life, or perhaps take advantage of their freedom to live uninhibited and safely in this world; to those who may sometimes forget that we each, as individuals, have unique struggles that we face every day; to those who forget compassion and patience when someone may be having a bad day and seem over-sensitive, or may seem to be acting out in an aggressive way; to those who write off these individuals as “crazy”, “psycho”, “angry”, “whiny”, “ungrateful” or even “lazy” – without knowing what they went through that led them to this disposition;

I would like to challenge you to reconsider your assumptions about others, throw out your stubborn opinions, ponder the possibilities of alternate realities, and listen up to other’s experiences and struggles. Be more open, more understanding, and more aware. Help continue the progress that we as a society have made steadily over the past thousands of years that we have existed. Eventually, I challenge you to take this concept and understanding and apply it to the broader way we interact and treat each other. I hope you show your neighbor a little more love.

To those people who think that women have equal rights to men in this country; to those who mistakenly think women have an advantage in getting jobs or work; to those who think it is “unfair” when a woman gets acknowledged over a man; to those who think a woman must have received a raise, a deal, or a gig for being attractive, sleeping around, or manipulating, rather than for her skill, talent, intellect, creativity, or hard work; and to those who don’t think being the best at what she does “for a woman” isn’t an amazing accomplishment in itself, given the incapacitating hurdles she has faced her whole life to reach that point:

To those people who think that some women over-react to cat-calling, or that some women are too defensive, or complain too much; to those who think a strong woman, or a woman who asserts herself is a bitch; to those who have ever told a woman to “smile”, “lighten up”, or that she’s “too serious”; to those who expect a woman to acknowledge their own presence in a friendly and open way automatically, or give them the benefit of the doubt that they are a nice, trustworthy, and love-filled person without first establishing a relationship and building trust; to those who think “blessing” a woman on the street is a “nice” thing to do; to those who think it’s ok to violate another person’s space or privacy for their own pleasure, benefit, or gain; to those who think treating a woman with respect means offering his help by belittling her, or treating her as if she cannot do things without his help; to those who think a woman needs a man’s approval to feel validated, or that a woman lives her life to please men; to those who think a woman is waiting to hear that a man thinks she is attractive or thinks she is good at what she does, before she can feel at ease, beautiful, or accomplished – or that hearing these “compliments” will make her grateful:

I would like to tell you that women live a different reality than men do, every day. And I’d like you to consider what that may feel like, and how that may affect a woman in far-reaching, subversive, intense, and lasting ways. We each, as humans, live a different reality than the next human, every day. Each person’s existence is unique, and you cannot imagine or comprehend what any other person’s life feels like to live. But in this particular moment, I am going to focus in on one particular disadvantage: being a woman. And I ask you to try to be open to hearing an experience that you may or may have not experienced yourself, and imagine what the effect of this experience would have on someone. Imagine the implications of living this reality on an every-day basis. I want you to imagine what it would feel like to have this, or something similar, happen to you, regularly, since you were 10 years old. Imagine how that would shape who you are.

Here is my story for the day:

I am currently playing in an Off-Broadway show in NYC. I play the show 8 times a week, so I have my commute down. For the show, and beyond, I use the MTA for my daily travel within the city, with much regularity, ease, and comfort. During the walk through my neighborhood, and the train rides that I take to get anywhere, I am usually reading, listening to music, or texting someone. But I am always aware and always have my guard up. I am often a little apprehensive – and sometimes frightened – by passerby.

On my way to the show today, I am walking to the south end of the subway platform at my closest subway stop, waiting for the train. It is a Saturday afternoon, and there are plenty of other passengers. I go to the end of the platform,  strategically standing evenly spaced between people waiting, and in between two columns, facing the tracks. I notice a man walks up with his phone held up in front of his face, speaking quite loudly in another language. He stands on the same side of the column as me, facing me, and is extremely close to me, without it being that crowded around us.

I figured at first he’s on the phone with someone, face-timing, or using speaker phone, and find it annoying that he’s so close to me, speaking so loudly, and facing me, so I walk back in the opposite direction where I came from a little ways, to get away from his loud talking. Then as I stop again, I realize he’s following me and see that he’s very close to me again, and facing me, talking with his phone up once again, so I walk away again, slightly more annoyed, back to the end of the platform. At this point, I’m finding it all a little suspicious. And it seems he is still following me.

Then, a second man walks up and asks if the first man had been bothering me, and I look to find that the first guy is quickly walking away. I am confused and paranoid at this point, and worried the second man is either “in on it”, or now a second harasser. I say no, thank you, but I was only trying to escape his rude talking, and that he was getting close to me. Then the second guy says he saw a picture of me on the first guy’s phone, so I realize he had been holding the phone up to take pictures of me. Second guy says he saw first guy following me from all the way down the platform, and at first he thought we were traveling together, until he saw my reaction, trying to get away from him.

I see first guy is nowhere in sight at this point, and say “thank you” to second guy for looking out. He says, “I have a sister”, and  “I guess I’ve done my good for the day”. But he continues to talk to me a little bit, so I’m still on edge.

This is all scary, and I don’t even fully realize what’s going on. The train arrives, and I get on it, presumably safe. The second man ends up on the same car as me, but we part ways. I say “have a nice day” as my typical way of trying to end the conversation.

I cry a little bit under my sunglasses, and see that the second guy exits the train at the following station, which makes me paranoid, too – why was he only traveling 5 blocks, but using the train? Were they working together? Did they take something from me?

I am paranoid all the way downtown, off the train, into the theater. I get into the dressing room, still feeling like someone followed me there. I burst into tears. I realize – this random man was following me, aggressively. Taking pictures of me. He violated me.

In the end, I think the second guy really was a nice guy, and trying to help me. And I’m appreciative, because looking back on the situation, I think the first man only left – and left me alone – because the second man came right up to me and started talking to me.

But it makes me realize I always have to be so on guard – even in the middle of a Saturday on my normal, every-day commute, with hundreds of people around. How can I ever know who to trust? What would have happened if I hadn’t been paying attention, or there wasn’t a “nice man” nearby?

I feared he would get out at the same stop as me when I left the train, and follow me. I still fear he will come back to my home station some other time, and find me again; and if he does, how will I recognize him? Also, this man will always have a photo of me.

As I take the train back home after the show, I’m paranoid of all the other men on the train. I still feel scared until I arrive home, safely.

I feel incredibly helpless and violated because of this incident. Where is this man’s humanity?  He took away my sense of security, independence, and freedom in the course of one minute.

How can I, or any woman, show up to the work place confident and ready to give 100%, when faced with this type of scenario?

This is not the first time a man has followed me. This is not the first time a man has taken pictures of me without my permission. This is not the worst case I have experienced of a violation of my privacy. This is not the worst emotional trauma I have experienced. This is not the worst physical threat or abuse I have received. This is not the worst threat of possible danger I have experienced. In a lot of ways, it “wasn’t that bad”. He didn’t actually touch me, or speak directly to me. Yet, I am very rattled. I am weary of every male traveler riding the MTA. I am traumatized. And I’m angry.

And, perhaps if you hear about and imagine this incident, you will become angry, too. And perhaps that anger about the situation will lead to feeling some form of empathy, compassion, and love towards women – and maybe even an understanding for what it means to be a woman in our society.

Maybe these lyrics will give you an idea:

Keep On

Every successful musician possesses a few common traits. Creativity, ambition, passion, a desire to be unique. But more importantly, I’ve noticed that all of the successful Jazz Musicians I look up to and grew up admiring, who are undeniably respected in the industry, and financially stable, posses one similar trait: persistence. I believe that persistence, above talent or luck, is the deciding factor in who “makes it,” in the end.

“The only way I knew how to keep going, was to keep going.” – Clark Terry (2011)

I am sure to most people, being a musician seems more like a childhood fantasy than a reality. I certainly enjoy the fact that I don’t have a Nine to Five job. I get to sleep in, and create my own schedule. I am able to hang out with friends until late on a weeknight. I don’t have to wear pant suits. But more importantly, I get to create. I get to express myself for a living. I come together with people from all walks of life to make something together that is greater than our individual parts.

I am one of the few people lucky enough to claim this as my everyday life. But that means, I also see the struggles that living that life can present. I used to literally shake every time I played in front of people, from nervousness. You expose yourself in a very scary way when you play a solo, perform an original composition, or attempt to execute a difficult melody in front of hundreds of people. Not to mention the millions of laborious hours you are required to spend practicing in isolation, unpaid. You must be insane to go over your weaknesses hour after hour while practicing, crushing your ego in hopes of improvement, only to pump it back up to extremes in order to perform. (Birdman depicts the artist’s bipolar struggle of ego extremely accurately, by the way.)


It’s a tough balance, trying to be a business woman, entrepreneur, and an artist simultaneously. I have to be my own CEO, Management, Artistic Development, Talent, Accountant, Personal Assistant, and Intern. I have a lot of anxiety from the fact that I don’t know how much money I will make on a given day or a given year. It’s tiring, schlepping pounds of equipment around town, the country, the world. It’s disheartening to have people ignore you, write negative opinions of your creations, or offer unsolicited advice to you.

Certainly, being a woman in music, I face even further hardships including bigotry and harassment. Being a woman living in NYC adds more struggle. Being specifically in Jazz adds another level of difficulty, especially in our current social climate. Being a female instrumentalist adds complications, too.

So, why do I persist in being a musician if it’s so hard? Every musician has a different answer to this. For me, it is a feeling I get, rarely, when I am in the midst of a great performance. When everything is flowing. The band is killing, the music is powerful. I feel in tune with everything around me. Time stops. An energy takes over me. I’m sure you’ve heard musicians, writers, actors, and painters talk about a sensation when they “let the art come through them” or “let the piece write itself”. Divine Inspiration, if you will. In these times, whether I am playing or not, I leave a concert feeling inspired to write, play, create. It keeps me going. It feeds my soul. This inspiration is the why, for me.


But, inspiration does not always come from a divine source. Sometimes, I don’t feel it at all. In the past, I would go through cycles. A few weeks with it, a few weeks without. A few days with, a few months without. And this becomes quite painful, in those times when you feel dry of inspiration. In those times, as I attempt to persist, trying to practice, compose, gig, rehearse, and maintain a functioning business, I start to crumble. I wonder, why am I doing this? Why am I a musician? I start to lose hope, and lose sight of what my purpose is. And without a greater purpose, I become depressed. I see this cycle reflected a lot in my peers, also. This is what I think drives people to quit the life of music. Why persist, when you’ve lost track of your “why”?


So I’ve realized that this feeling I get in those moments of “divine inspiration”, that feeling that makes me want to be a musician, that fills my soul up; this feeling is absolutely necessary for me to maintain, in order for me to persist as a musician. Therefore, I cannot afford to wait for inspiration to come to me. If I wait for it to “strike”, I may wait my whole lifetime.

My attempt to maintain inspiration has been a constant struggle throughout my musical life. Recently, I’ve been able to keep it going slightly longer, and it seems to be making all the difference in the world, in terms of my productivity, and overall happiness. The result is that I feel more hope for the world of music. I feel more hope for my own career. I feel more able to create, pursue gigs, and deal with the “schlep” of NYC. I think I’ve found the secret to this persistence. Or at least, a way to help myself continue to strive for more.

So, how do you create inspiration when it doesn’t fall into your lap? My answer has come through curiosity. I have been seeking out more information. I have been reading more – books including anything from the Wayne Shorter biography to Fifty Shades of Grey to Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl. Articles, including news, science, technology, interviews, opinion, current events, fashion, feminism, music reviews, and music theory. Blogs, magazines, social media. Even Pinterest. I have been watching movies, TV, Youtube videos, and various clips found online. I have been listening – buying new albums, going back through my own collection, playing friend’s tracks online, previewing samples on iTunes, playing clips on websites. Music of all genres. Rap, R&B, Pop, Electronic, Alternative, Indie Rock, and of course, Jazz. And live performance.

There is so much information and content available to us, especially through the internet. And especially living in New York. It can be overwhelming. But I’ve found that the more I consume and reach out, the more energy I have. It doesn’t “take up my time”, because it fuels my soul, to be more productive. I’ve started list upon list for myself, so I can try not to forget things I want to check out later. I put post-its in the books I read as I go, so I can remember inspirational quotes or passages to reference later.

I am consciously trying to be more active in my pursuit of knowledge, information, and enlightenment. I am trying to be a more hungry participant in my own life. I am trying to be more organized with my thoughts, ambitions, and process. And most importantly, I have stopped trying to limit my intake to any specific category or “class” of material. I have opened up and tried not to be judgmental of any thing. Because, you never know when something will make the lightbulb go off, or trigger a deep thought, idea, or conversation. You never know what you’ll learn, or be inspired to create.

Eureka Moment

As a young student of Jazz, many elder musicians would give me the advice, “be hungry”. But there were many times when I wasn’t hungry for Jazz. And this caused me to think, “should I really be a Jazz musician?” But the answer lies in the fact that, I must create the hunger for the music from within myself. And I now know it isn’t limited to being “hungry for the music” as in, just checking out jazz records. (Of course this is huge – you must know your alphabet before you can write.) But more importantly, I know how necessary it is to stay hungry. It is the difference between the life and death of my musical career. This is the only way I will be able to Keep On.

feed me

As an artist, I believe I hold a great responsibility to stay inspired. I owe it to myself, for my own happiness and productivity. But I also owe it to society. If I want to create anything new and of substance, the content must be relevant. It must be coming from a place of honesty, and life, and motion. The art that inspires me, that I return to time and again, is coming from this place of inspiration. It is reaching. It is open. It is moving forward. It is speaking. It is life.

So to all my fellow musicians, artists, and creators: We must continue to educate ourselves as artists, we must continue to be open, be hungry, be curious. Make your own inspiration. For I believe if we inspire ourselves, we will create more. And what we create will be a reflection of life. It will be inspiring. And we will be able to persist.

Cat Fights

I play in a band regularly with a few other women. We generally get along and engage in friendly banter about “girly” things. At first, this was a nice reprieve for me from the usual male-dominated, testosterone-fuled conversations I am subjected to. But recently, I’ve noticed how much of this talk has remained centered around the superficial. “I love your dress!” “You’re so skinny!” “Your ass looks great in those pants!” “Great lashes!”

Fake Eyelashes

I have been just as guilty as the next gal, in terms of perpetuating this type of back-and-forth. But, you’d think after being in a band with these women for several years, that our interactions would move beyond this banality into something more meaningful. At least, with the male members of the band, our conversations are generally focused on music. I take issue with this dichotomy.

Why are women “supposed” to be, and often times, focused on superficiality and physical appearance? I don’t believe this is an accident. And I don’t believe it is any woman’s idea to make this the reality.

Think about an extremely successful woman, and chances are, she is not focused on these vapid endeavors. Imagine Hillary Clinton discussing her own ass shape with her colleagues during a meeting, or spending 30 minutes trying to apply false eyelashes before she gives a speech, so that people will take her more seriously. It’s just not going to happen. Women who accomplish great things see beyond these distractions.

Hillary Clinton

This focus on appearance as the ideal goal, takes away our uniqueness as humans, and with it, any value in anything other than beauty and possessions. As musicians, for instance, we are supposed to be artists; people who value the exact things that we are ignoring and killing: individuality, depth, vision, personality, courage, acceptance – real character.

I first realized that these conversations with my bandmates were a problem, when I experienced one of these girls acting aggressively toward me. I was struggling with my gear after a gig, trying to maneuver the 50+ pounds of instruments/stands/sheet music/wardrobe, etc, in the rain, to load into the van. Instead of offering to help me out, my “friend” pushed me out of the way and jumped into the seat I was headed for, complaining about how long I was taking, and that it was raining and cold. She had no gear to load.

This interaction made me realize something. My bandmate was more concerned with winning, getting in the van first, than she was with my well-being as a human. Which meant, all of those conversations and “compliments” were fake. This was not just harmless small talk. It was a competition.

Which leads me to my main concern, and maybe a slightly more disguised issue. Why are women constantly competing and fighting against each other?

With the focus stuck on the superficial, we become engrossed with and obsessed with who is prettier, more in shape, better dressed, richer, etc. We’re trying to fill an imaginary void in our self esteems and in our souls. This seemingly harmless focus on appearances is really quite disparaging to us. It takes away from our other, more valuable, traits. And worse, this behavior pits us women against one another.

This is definitely being fed by pop culture and the media.

 I think when it comes to females in the media, you’ll see something that kind of upsets me which is that females are pinned up against each other more so than men. For example, you never see online, vote for who has the better butt: this actor or this actor? It’s always, like, this female singer and this female singer, and you get to vote. It’s daily that I see these things and these polls, like, let us know who’s sexier? Who’s the hotter mama? I just don’t see: who’s the hotter dad? One thing that I do believe as a feminist is that in order for us to have gender equality, we have to stop making it a girl fight. We have to stop being so interested in seeing girls trying to tear each other down. It has to be about cheering each other on as women… – Taylor Swift

“And when the interviewer asked her about Miley Cyrus’s scandalous outfits (perhaps doing the exact thing Swift hates by trying to pit her against another female singer her age), Swift responded that she supports women singers expressing their sexuality:”  – Watch Taylor Swift Praise Emma Watson for Her UN Feminism Speech,

Miley Cyrus

As a side note, I wonder if it was really Miley’s idea to appear like this in her video, or rather, the brilliant idea of her mostly male producers, label, managers, agents, etc?

This is not just a problem that women have – men compare women, too. You probably hear it most in the form of judgments: “She’s hot, but nothing compared to ______”, or “She’s got great legs, but her tits are too small for me”.

I personally have heard from men how I am “better” than another female Jazz Musician. Why would this “compliment” be something I want to hear? Yes, I realize you “mean well” by this. But, let me explain why it isn’t actually positive feedback…

First of all, I don’t strive to be better than my female colleagues. I want us all to thrive and contribute to our community, and to the world, with our art. I want there to be room for all of us to be good, better, and best. Of course, I want to get better at what I do through hard work over time, but I don’t want to compare my advancements to those of other females.

Secondly, why would you compare me to her, but not to him? After all, you are referring to our music, right? Is music genderized? Why should I strive to be competitive with my female colleague, but not my male colleague? Should I only ever strive to be the best female musician, not the best musician?

And thirdly, why is the fact that you think I’m better than her at music supposed to make me feel validated? Why is your opinion as a male, supposed to be the absolute truth and reassurance to me as an artist? Can I not make my own decisions on my sound and progress without needing your assessment? Oh! Now that you’ve claimed me as better, I can rest assured…?

In an atmosphere like the one I am in as a Jazz Musician, where there are very few females, the ones that do exist have a hard enough time as it is surviving and thriving within the environment. The last thing we should be doing is tearing each other down. Yet, I see it all the time. I personally used to get my feelings hurt if another female was hired for a gig over me, but not if a male did. Why am I trying to compete with the females in my industry, when we are all fighting the same fight? Why am I devaluing myself and my female colleagues, versus our male counterparts? This is bigger than any individual’s low self esteem. This is about the world needing our art and our unique offerings. Obviously, it doesn’t stop in the Jazz community.

Pitting woman against woman takes away our validity within the community as a whole. By comparing us, you (as male or female) diminish our actual contribution and our greater worth to society. If we can only ever strive to be the best female, that’s only half our potential. We should all encourage women to be the best self they can be – regardless of how they compare to others.

I believe that it is the responsibility of women to realize this problem, and work to not engage in this competitive behavior. Women should be supporting each other as much as we possibly can. Fight the instinct to compare your successes and failures to your female colleagues’. Fight the urge to make a judgmental comment about a woman who is wearing something you wouldn’t feel comfortable sporting. Celebrate her courage and individuality. Support her and make her feel safe to try something bold or new. Revel in her success, because it is your own, too.

Rosie the Riveter

It is also the responsibility of men to not compare women, offer judgments, or to believe that your opinions or preferences have any bearing on a woman’s self worth, or more importantly, her actual worth. Realize the far-reaching consequences of your judgements and comparisons. They perpetuate the degradation and devaluing of women.

Everyone: be open to a woman’s perspective, and listen to her ideas. Whether she be playing a solo, writing an article, wearing a beautiful dress, playing a sport, or raising 5 children; trust her. Give her the benefit of the doubt, as you likely do for men. Don’t assume her contribution to be less than. Accept the fact that a woman holds a different, yet equally valid perspective to a man’s, and that you may benefit and grow from hearing these ideas. She may be able to show you something. Currently, we as a society are greatly lacking in the female perspective.  Without ample female contributions, the world is not as full and rich as it could be.

Musical Foreplay

Recently, I was waiting in the green room of a venue I was performing at, with some fellow Jazz Musicians. A drummer was describing a concert that he had attended that week at the esteemed Blue Note Jazz Club. He had seen a very famous saxophone player perform. This is a sax player who, when I first started out playing, I looked up to. He was the shit. A well-dressed, young, talented, easily typified and branded player, he certainly received a lot of attention from the Jazz critics and media during that time, which was the late ’90s to early 2000s. But I found that as I progressed in my craft, I became bored and unimpressed with him as a technician and improvisor. The pedestal had fallen, and on several occasions I had heard my peers bashing this guy off-record, and writing him off as a joke.

Self-admittedly, I and many of my peers have become extremely jaded. There seems to be a rampant epidemic of criticizing, tearing apart, and competitive comparison amongst the musicians in this community. There are many cliques and factions, and a facade of brown-nosing compliments abound within each camp. But outside of that, it’s hard to find musicians (especially young musicians,) who genuinely listen to each other, and respect and support individuality and musicianship over sheer technical prowess, connections in high places, and rankings in charts or competitions.

So my drummer friend mentions that he saw this sax player perform. My reaction was, “Really? hmm….” and I sort of laughed it off.

“No, but check it out…he KILLED it!” says the drummer.

My skepticism lingered as he began to describe the gig.

“He held out this note, for, like, a REALLY long time. Like, the band started, and he came in with his solo. And I mean, he held this note FOREVER.”

Again, I sort of scoffed, like “of course he did…what else can he rely on besides circular breathing and gimmicks?”

“Yo, but seriously…He just held this note. And it allowed the rhythm section to go nuts!”

At this point, I see where he’s headed with his story, and I’m intrigued. My drummer friend goes on to explain the interaction of the band in detail.

“He was like, caressing this note. Using dynamics and tone, to build a crazy amount of tension. The piano player was responding in incredible ways, the whole band created this insane energy just from this one note. When he finally started playing changes, it was such a huge relief! The audience went crazy. It made it so much more meaningful once we finally heard them swing!”

The musicians were actually listening to each other, responding musically, and being pushed to go places that they aren’t usually allowed to go. The space left by the sax player only playing one note for so long, invited the other musicians to contribute in a way that these days, is hard to come by.

Most soloists I hear are extremely concerned with how many notes they can fill their solo with, or how those notes are subdivided, or which intervals are used, or what language or licks they can incorporate…You get the point.

There is a good reason to be a technical champion of your instrument. It allows you to reach places musically, more naturally and easily. It allows you to express your voice more fully. Like speaking a language, the more vocabulary you learn, the more you read, the more you practice writing, the more ideas you can comprehend and express. If you are fluent in your instrument, you have a better chance of making better music.

But how many musicians use a solo as a means to hear what others have to say? How many musicians attempt to create a musical conversation through their own solos, instead of seeing a solo as an opportunity to give a lecture or speech? This technical obsession is supposed to be a means to an end – making good music. Perhaps part of our problem as Jazz Musicians in reaching a greater audience, is getting caught up on this process of technical ambition, instead of focusing on the end goal, to reach and move people through beautiful music.

Furthermore, this sax player had taken his time. He told a story. He didn’t just jump right in and say “HELLO, I AM SO FUCKING BAD!” He said, “hey baby, …” in a coy way, and then built it up until an appropriate time to spill the goods.

So naturally, in response to my friend’s description of this solo, I said, “Oh, so he actually made music? Most Jazz Musicians are men, and so Jazz is all this super testosterone-fuled, machismo, battle-Jazz. It’s like sex. Guys always want to just get to the good part, and women are always trying to engage in and extend the foreplay. But really, the best sex (usually) has great foreplay, because it builds up to the real thing in such a more alluring way. It makes it so that by the time you actually get to “the good stuff”, you can take it to another level. Too bad Jazz is so masculine all the time, there’s no foreplay. It sounds like this sax player actually used foreplay. I think we could use a lot more of that in Jazz.”

The guys erupted in laughing and cheering.

“Roxy’s dropping knowledge!”

The funny part is, this is the first time they had ever considered this.

This is not a new concept. When I studied with Curtis Fuller and Nathan Davis at the Jazz Ahead Residency Program at the Kennedy Center, they would always ask, “Are you playing for the women? That’s how you play the real music.” They were inferring that instead of trying to impress your buds and peers, you should think of playing for a woman in the audience. Because women hear things differently, and appreciate subtlety in a different way. I think they had a point.

As a female musician and instrumentalist, this is a concept I consider daily. What do I have to offer that is unique? I am a rare female saxophonist. What does that mean in my profession? How can I express that femininity and contribute that unique perspective in a meaningful way? I think we would all benefit from having a more feminine voice represented in the music. Maybe a more balanced approach would benefit not only the craft, but the popularity and effectiveness of it as well.

Maybe the critics and the media were right all along about that sax player.

Street Walker

So by now, I’m assuming you’ve seen the “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” video by Hollaback that has gone viral. If not, here it is:

I first saw the video pop up on my Facebook feed. For the first few days the video appeared, I ignored it. This may seem counterintuitive, since I am a feminist, and actively interested in researching and advocating for feminism. I live in NYC, and surmised that I, too, experience the phenomena documented on the video on a daily basis. The material I assumed to be on the video is my everyday life. I deal with it just as I deal with swiping my Metrocard. Why should I watch some other woman deal with it? It is boring, mundane, and commonplace for me. Therefore, it is annoying that 30 million people are claiming that it’s something to talk about. I resisted watching it because I was offended that something like this would be seen as breakthrough, novel, or furthermore, a topic of debate.

In the meantime, I went to a friend’s performance the other night, and a bunch of my friends, colleagues, and respected peers were in attendance. After the show, I was casually chatting with some male jazz musicians. One asked me about a recent gig that I played. I explained that when I showed up, the artist contact for the venue said to me, “I’m SO glad you could be here! We specifically asked for female jazz musicians!” I was hired because I am a woman.

I explained to my colleague my feelings on this: First, that I think it was good that I was hired because I am a woman.

Audience members, and young people especially, need to see that women can do things that we don’t usually see them do. I feel it is part of my responsibility as a female jazz musician to show younger girls that they have the option if they want it. And to show younger boys that it is normal and beneficial for women to have active voices and be contributing members of the jazz community. I also believe it is my responsibility to show older men and women something that they may not think is possible – or expect. There are women who can actually play jazz! And we will all benefit as individuals, and as a society, from a more diverse pool of artists or contributors in any field.

I also explained that secondly, even though I do think it is a good thing that I am hired for this reason, it is also frustrating and disappointing for me to hear it.

I want to be hired because I can play. My gender should not come into the decision. My hope is that by taking every opportunity I can to play, even if some of these opportunities only exist because I am a woman, that I somehow help the system. Hopefully, one day females are hired without it being because we are females. I mean, I don’t think anyone starts a career because they want to even out the playing field. It isn’t fun to be a minority. I started playing saxophone and I followed jazz as a career because I wanted to PLAY MUSIC. I keep hoping that on each gig, I am hired based on my skills, talent, hard work, accomplishments, artistic vision, adaptability, leadership, voice, creativity or overall professionalism. I keep hoping that it isn’t only because I’m a woman.

The response from my friend to my story about the venue contact, and being hired on this condition was, “Oh yeah, that is a hot topic right now.”

I was very confused at first by this response. But I quickly realized, he meant that feminism is a hot topic right now, because of “The Video”.

To clarify, there are thousands of other reasons feminism is a hot topic right now. Also, it is always a hot topic. And it will continue to be until we change how things are. This experience I had at my last gig is not an example of how feminism is a hot topic right now. This is another day in the life of a Female Jazz Musician. And “The Video” isn’t an example of how feminism is a hot topic right now. It is another day in the life of a woman living in NYC. This is my life.

My friend asked if I had watched The Video. I said no. He began to describe his reaction to it.

“I couldn’t believe it! I am going to say something the next time I see this happen. I mean, it makes sense, but I didn’t realize…”

Another friend comments,

“Yeah I mean, I never made these type of comments [to women]. I knew they happened, but I didn’t think it was as bad of a thing as I guess it is. I didn’t notice because it is normal.”

So I began to think back on my last couple of weeks, the experiences I had at the aforementioned gig and many others, the responses from those around me…

My conclusion is that the men that I am around on a regular basis DO NOT see, or understand the daily issues (god forbid I say struggles) that are part of my life. They don’t see or understand that this video is nothing new! And probably most men don’t. How could they? They don’t receive this type of aggression when they leave their home every day. So I began to see the importance of the video, in bringing to light an issue that is commonplace for many, and yet nonexistent for others. How can we begin to change something that people aren’t even aware of? So, I admitted finally to myself, the video must be somewhat of a good thing.

I went home and watched it. And yes, it was everything I imagined it to be. NORMAL. Boring. This is what it is like to be a female living in NYC. Every day. But I was glad for a moment that someone took the time to make it, post it, and stand behind it. It at least worked to show a few people a common experience they hadn’t seen before.

Fast forward to the next morning. I once again see some things posted on my Facebook feed. Now, there are going to inevitably be responses (valid and invalid) to any type of media that brings this much attention. Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

However, what stood out to me was a post from an extremely well respected and highly skilled Jazz Musician. It’s an abhorrent article in response to The Video:

This woman is out of her mind.

“First, I have never seen or experienced anything bordering on the “harassment” liberal women claim to experience.”

I don’t think I need to point out that just because you may not notice something happening doesn’t make it not exist. Just because you don’t understand the repercussions of something, doesn’t make them not exist.

Not to mention the immediate contradiction she poses.

“And in nearly 25 years I’ve experienced a grand total of two — yes, two — negative experiences…”

So, which is it? Never, or two?

…you’ll see that it plays fast and loose with what’s considered offensive. I would never count someone wishing me a good day or telling me I was pretty as harassment…Most of the phrases in the video are just harmless ways for men to respectfully show their interest or, in the case of older generations, just — gasp — be polite.

This is just simple ignorance. Which brings me to the problem at hand:

Why is it offensive that the woman on the video experienced these “compliments”, cat calls, abusive comments, harassment, or whatever you want to label it?

It is a problem because it is an example of the hyper sexualization and objectification of women in our society.

If we were talking about a man walking up to a woman directly, looking her in the eyes, treating her as an equal, as a human being, and saying, “You are beautiful,” I think that this would be an entirely different conversation. Although, I have my issues with these type of compliments as well – a much bigger conundrum about how our society values looks and attraction, materialism, and beauty, above other values. A woman’s worth in our culture is based on her level of conventional beauty. (You’d never hear, “You seem exceptionally intelligent today,” as a compliment).

No, we’re talking about a man seeing an attractive woman walk by and feeling the need to pronounce his unwanted opinion in an aggressive manner. This act makes the woman an object. She is no longer a human being, but a visually appealing piece of meat, or worse, a potential conquest for sexual gratification.

As you can see in many of the incidents in The Video, these men expect a response. There is a rampant problem amongst these men that they feel entitled to this woman’s attention. To her sexual interest. She is expected to have no will or choice. She is expected to react in whatever way the man is fantasizing. And she is harassed if she doesn’t live up to this fantasy.

The objectification occurs because the woman isn’t seen as a human being with her own thoughts, feelings, ideas, and body. She is viewed as an object that is visually pleasing to a man, provided to him to please him and interact with him to his sexual pleasure and arousal.

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is doing a project about street harassment, and I think she states it beautifully in this video:

Many others are posting on Facebook about how it isn’t really a problem. We should be happy to be receiving these “compliments”. There are “bigger problems” we need to be focusing on…

“catcalling…..women pissed at remarks from ‘admirers’ on the street. makes me roll my eyes. pc police in overdrive. women may think back nostalgically to ‘catcalling’ when they fall off the radar as they age. i sort of agree with George Che’s remarks here: “i wanna apologize to all the women that ive harrassed with statements like “hi” or “have a nice day” or “youre beautiful”. i cant imagine what that must feel like. the closest thing I’ve experienced is maybe when a girl recognizes me from tv and they say things like “AHHHH!! OH MY GOD!! SNL SNL SNL!! TAKE A PICTURE!! TAKE A PICTURE!! I LOVE YOU SO MUCH!! WHATS YOUR NAME AGAIN?! THANK YOU!! THANK YOU!! WAIT SAY SOMETHING FUNNY!!” but even that is nothing like the harrassment of having a complete stranger tell me to “smile.””

Unfortunately, there are even well known feminist critics of those who complain about this form of harassment. I go back to my Facebook feed. This time, it has become a race issue. Even Roxane Gay tweeted,

“The racial politics of the video are fucked up. Like, she didn’t walk through any white neighborhoods?”

This is not a race issue. I’m sorry. Yes, it is stupid that they edited out the white men. We all know media is racist, as it is sexist. But it doesn’t change the fact that these comments are a problem that women deal with from many different men every day. Bringing it in to the “racial issue” arena is disempowering the issue, and discrediting the problem itself. It’s taking the focus off of the actual issue and bringing it back into an issue men can identify with.

My biggest problem with all of this, and the reason I am writing now, is that the men in my community do not understand the commonplace of this type of occurrence. They do not understand the implications of these actions. They do not understand the damaging consequences and far reaching repercussions of these abuses. And undercutting an issue that is clearly universal and well documented is not only ignorant, but damaging.

I see more and more that my peers, bosses, predecessors, employers, mentors, idols, and alas, even the new generation of musicians that make up my entire community, are blind to many of the issues that I take for granted as day to day problems. Many of the struggles I see now as obvious and prevalent in society, and more pointedly in life as a Female Jazz Musician, are unknown to all of the people who surround me. And this is one of the most isolating and hopeless feelings to realize.

The interesting thing to me, is that many of the men in my community (Jazz Musicians) are minorities themselves – racially – in the context of the greater society. But within our insular community, all men, all races, are the majority. And they act it. (Did you ever read Animal Farm?)

Let me take it a step further and explain my reality.  Not only does catcalling, harassment, and blatant sexualization and objectification occur for me when I walk through the streets of NYC (and most places I’ve been to).  However, when other women arrive at work after they “brave the streets,” there is legal action, whole HR departments behind them, to ensure that they are not treated this way in the workplace. The difference in my world is, this treatment continues, and is commonplace. In fact, I am “unprofessional” if I do not respond pleasantly to these comments and interactions. (At least on the streets I can act like a bitch!)

This type of behavior is encouraged in my profession! Jazz Musicians have created a culture of misogyny. If they are not active participants, many are oblivious to it, or at least impartial to it. Notice, I did not specify Men here. Jazz Musicians as a whole. And this is not an attack. It is simply the truth. I realize through the responses I see to The Video. I realize through responses to stories about my every day experiences. I realize through “compliments” I receive. I realize through a broad cultural attitude I see of complacency and naivety.

When I am hired for a gig, I ask myself, “Was I hired for my sexual organs?”. When I try to rehearse a band, the musicians talk over me, or argue with my instructions on my own compositions. I am valued for the way I lose weight, or the way I dress, above my creativity or intellect. These are daily thoughts and incidents for me. These are the things I think need to be brought to your attention. Male and Female alike, we need to be privy to the problems that members of our own community face. We need to realize problems that make it harder for people to lead their lives and contribute positively to our society.

We need to be open to hearing about other people’s experiences, and what they mean to them. We need to post more videos about our “boring” day to day experiences, if they are experiences that prevent us from living in equality. Just because something is normal doesn’t make it OK.

We need to pause before making it about ourselves, and our own issues, when someone brings up a problem. Stop tearing down the validity of someone’s experience, or even politicizing it, so that you can avoid the issue.

We need to treat each other as human beings. As equals. If we begin to value each other and celebrate our strengths through our diversity, I believe we will begin to create better music, better art, and become more productive overall. We will grow as a community. If our arts grow, so will our race. The human race.

Small Talk

One time, a middle aged African American woman came up to me on the Subway platform. She asked, “What’s in the case?” I was pleasantly surprised, certain that this kind woman was knowledgable and friendly. She must be a feminist, or at least sensitive to the fact that we share in some form of the same struggle. If she knows I’m carrying an instrument, and asking which one, maybe she is also a musician? So, being more bold than usual, I replied!

Usually, I completely IGNORE and do NOT respond to comments from the peanut gallery referring to my case – especially while riding the train. These almost always come by way of a greasy, drunk, winking-while-licking-his-lips, or just plain MEAN 30-60-something White, Black, or Dominican man.

One guy in Central Park even challenged me by asking me what the first chord of a certain [HARD] tune was. When I responded that I didn’t know that specific tune, he started laughing loudly and yelling at me – “YOU DON’T KNOW SHIT!” I guess I, being a young white female sax player, was a little threatening to him in his rightful place as King of the Saxophone. Or should I say, Old Homeless Man Without Heart. And clearly that is working out for him, since he is still unknown to me in the small Jazz community. I was happy to vindicate him.

Anyway, back to the lady on the platform. When I told her “it is a saxophone”, she began to scorn me. “You shouldn’t play that instrument! You should play violin! Girls can’t play sax. Their lungs are too small! It’s not lady-like. The violin is more suited for a woman!” At this point, I put my earbuds BACK in.

What was this woman hoping to accomplish? WHY did she feel these things? What did I do to deserve her scorn and resentment?

These questions may never be answered. But I deal with a LOT of this bullshit.

A large part of how our society runs, is by people meeting new people, engaging in small talk, introducing each other, networking, expanding social and professional circles. It happens all the time. You say “thank you” to a stranger at the grocery store check-out, or “excuse me, I love your shoes” to a woman on the train. More often, you’re at a party or bar, and you run into someone new. “Hi, I’m Sally, a friend of Jane’s from college. How do you know Jane and Bill?” Or you encounter someone new through your job or career, and say, “I’m a huge fan of your work. That piece you wrote on innovative aluminum technology was groundbreaking”. Or, in my line of work, “That solo was so killing! You’re a beast! Bad band, man. I’d love to play! Hit me up sometime.” By the way, that’s a complimentary sentence, in case you aren’t hip to the jazz vernacular.

Generally speaking, small talk is necessary.

Small talk is an informal type of discourse that does not cover any functional topics of conversation or any transactions that need to be addressed.[1]” – “Small Talk”,

So if there is seemingly no functional purpose for it, in terms of exchanging interesting or necessary information between people, why do we do it?

“There’s nothing small about small talk. Though you may think that making small talk is just a way to pass the time or avoid awkwardness, many great friendships and relationships have started with a discussion about the weather. Small talk can not only help you build a meaningful bond with a person, but it’s also a vital skill that will benefit you in the professional world.” – “How to Make Small Talk”,

“In spite of seeming to have little useful purpose, small talk is a bonding ritual and a strategy for managing interpersonal distance.[4] It serves many functions in helping to define the relationships between friends, work colleagues, and new acquaintances.” – “Small Talk”,

A very small percentage of these encounters throughout our everyday lives may lead to a more interesting conversation, and even less likely, a meaningful relationship. Hope for this type of outcome is why we do it.

The only unfortunate thing is, I hate making small talk. In fact, it is often quite painful for me.

I am constantly meeting new people. I live in one of the largest cities in the world. I travel very frequently. And when I go to work, the “normal” person (i.e. non-musician – read, audience member) is there primarily to socialize. Musicians who aren’t “working” often go out to meet other musicians, to network. Or, if they are male, it is also possible they are there to try to meet “normal” girls, since there aren’t many females in my profession who they would meet naturally. Though, upon finding me, they inevitably approach me to chit-chat. In short, a large part of my job and my life involves making small talk.

But when does small talk become something else? Something MUCH, MUCH, worse? When does small talk infringe on someone’s happiness and break the boundaries of normal social codes and personal space? Leave the small talk out. None for me, please.

Don’t get me wrong, if I’m playing a gig, I am happy to hear from an audience member afterward. I live for moments when people tell me that they connect with the music, or that I showed them something new. I am also pleasantly surprised if a musician introduces him- or herself to me. These introductions usually lead to more gig opportunities, broad exposure to and knowledge of different artists and music, or even new friendships. It also simply nurtures a sense of community within the seemingly tiny and competitive world of Jazz.

But, more frequently, my conversations are not so deep or hopeful. They are full of mundane robo-scripts from clones on autopilot, grasping for straws in my unforgiving depths of a bottomless sea of what they hoped would be a pleasant conversation.

Now, you’re probably thinking: Everyone has to endure small talk. What makes YOU so special as to avoid it altogether?

I would argue that formulating responses to small talk is more difficult for me than for your average Librarian, English Teacher, Attorney, Financial Advisor, Psychologist, Marketing Consultant, Software Engineer, Fashion Blogger, Photographer, Basketball Coach, Rocket Scientist, or New York Times Bestselling Author.

I am a female Jazz Musician. and YES, that DOES make me special. I’m not yet sure which meaning of “special” it makes me, but…it does.

People often ask me, “What do you do?” This is probably a very common approach to starting a conversation. It certainly serves the purpose of categorizing people, or defining a social position.

“…[small talk] helps new acquaintances to explore and categorize each other’s social position.[5] Small talk is closely related to the need for people to maintain positive face — to feel approved-of by those who are listening to them.” – “Small Talk”,

But, when I respond with, “I’m a musician,” I am, more often than not, met with a look that says, “but what do you DO?” or the actual question, “So what do you DO?”. And let me tell you, there is no easy answer.

Sometimes I wish I could just wear a flashing sign that lists well-said, thought-out answers to common questions.

As most musicians in the world probably do, but especially your average Jazz Musician in New York City, I DO a lot of different things. This is the nature of being a freelancer, and the nature of being a Jazz Musician. I think Musicians, and Artists in general, have always pieced together different projects, sources of incomes, and outlets to come up with a complete career. I just watched the movie, Amadeus, about Mozart, and he certainly did!

Not only is it necessary financially, but all the different parts feed each other. It makes you feel like more of a complete artist, and person. When you teach a lesson, you may realize something that you would like to learn more about, or you realize a skill you are actually quite good at and want to incorporate more. When you record a solo over a pop song, you remind yourself of why melody is important. When you stumble over the chord changes, or the tempo of Cherokee at a jam session, you have motivation to listen to a great recording, that may inspire you to write a wonderful new composition. The possibilities are endless, but the point being: All of the various facets of what comprise the job “Jazz Musician” are necessary, enjoyable, and interconnected. There is no one activity you could partake in that would make you a “successful” jazz musician, and if you claim it, I’m guessing you’re missing out on some great aspects of the career.

But also, running around town like a chicken with your head cut off, trying to be the new “Renaissance Man/Woman”, learning 500 new skills, being an artist, graphic designer, marketing expert, ad manager, booking agent, travel agent, manager, copyist, recording engineer, author, fitness guru, for the sake of your “music” career: this is a product of being a musician in the current economic climate, with the emergence of mp3s, the “fall” of the record label business as we know it, the slow but steady decline of Jazz awareness in America, and the slow but steady robotization and digitization of all popular music.

Explaining all of the random, numerous small things that I do to comprise a full career would take much longer than your typical 3-minute small talk conversation. As you can see, it is quite complex. But let’s say I choose to go into one of these various “activities” or explanations, in a small talk conversation. The person gets caught up in it. For instance:

ME: “I play around the city.” JOE: “Where?” ME: “Oh, various jazz clubs.” JOE: “Oh, like where?” ME: “like Smalls and Smoke…” JOE: (insert look of befuddlement) ME: think to myself, “great, another guy who has never been to a jazz club in NYC! and WHY did you ask me to list them?!”

Or another scenario:

JOE: “Do you play with a BAND? Or do you just play by yourself?” ME: (insert look of befuddlement) “I play with a lot of different bands, and I don’t ever play by myself.” How many bands does he think exist that could support a saxophone player FULL TIME? Not many, I assume…Also, has Joe ever heard a saxophonist on a gig play by himself? Oh wait, the most saxophone he’s ever heard was probably a guy playing by himself in Central Park. Does he think I support myself by doing that all day, every day?

I can sympathize with Joe thinking I perform by myself, since when you Google Image Search “Saxophone Player”, you come up with something like this…

Typical Sax Player image

And, yes there are a FEW bands that support sax players full time – even women! Thanks, Beyoncé!

Beyoncé with her female band behind her

But, didn’t I mention that I play JAZZ?

Or, another scenario:

ME: “I’m headed to Europe next week for a short tour” JOE: “OH MY GOD! You’re like a superstar!” ME: (insert look of befuddlement) If only he knew I’d be squished between 6 overpacked suitcases, 3 instrument cases, and 5 large men in a tiny European sedan, driving 7 hours without a substantial break, directly from hotel to gig to hotel to gig and so on. JOE: “Where are you going?” ME: “All over. Germany, a day in Paris, then to Rome” JOE: “Are you going to see the Eiffel Tower? My favorite shopping is in Rome! You MUST check out fancy-ass-coffee-shop!” ME: (insert look of befuddlement) Did I mention to him I’ll be WORKING?!

Although, YES I do get to see awesome things sometimes! A wonderful perk of my “job”! Here’s a shot from the Musée Rodin in Paris:

Cathedral Hands, Rodin

But there are other reasons why ELSE these situations are harder for me – or should I say annoying? Challenging? Let me back up to the beginning. Usually, these “lovely” conversations start something like this:

JOE: “What do you do?” ME: “I’m a musician.” JOE: “Oh! Are you a singer?” ME: “No, I actually play saxophone.”

Now here’s where the good shit really happens. Meaning, anything from a very supportive woman who gushes over what this means for her daughters and other women around the world, to the more TYPICAL quizzical looks, befuddled expressions, mouth agape responses, harsh judgements, unwanted advice, and critical side notes that ensue from finding out that the woman standing in front of them plays the tenor saxophone -and plays primarily Jazz music. And NO, I do not ALSO sing. Yes, Joe asked.

As hard as it is for most people to grasp the idea of what it means to be a Musician, more specifically, a Jazz Musician, or most specifically, a Jazz Instrumentalist, I feel like it is IMPOSSIBLE for people to grasp ANYTHING once they find out that I am all of these things. Somehow, being a woman and being a Jazz Instrumentalist do not match up in their heads. I’d like to point out that this is not an exclusive reaction from men, as demonstrated in my initial story about the lady on the train platform. This type of reaction crosses all borders of ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, nationality, and age group.

So, the conversation moves forward after an awkward pause or rude facial expression…

JOE: “Wow, so do you teach?” ME: Right, because a woman is most likely to be a music teacher. Also, if I were, I’d be proud of it, and would have said it from the beginning. “Yes, I do, but only one day a week during the school year, after school, for two hours leading a small jazz ensemble. Plus the occasional private student.” JOE: “So then how do you support yourself?” [Insert gig talk from above here]…


JOE: “Can you actually make a living doing that?” ME: “Yes, I’ve been doing it so far…” And yes, I CAN support mySELF. Sadly, I realized that the typical “what else do you do besides play music” follow-up questions have subsided now that I am married. Meaning, I know there are people assuming my husband supports me. And that is great for people who are in that circumstance – but PLEASE don’t assume that I cannot support myself, just because you don’t know HOW it would be done.


JOE: “Wow, I’ve never met a WOMAN sax player!” ME: I can tell! Also, they don’t make it easy to become one!


JOE: “OOOH, I always thought sax was the SEXIEST instrument!” ME: What a coincidence! You and everyone else, when they find out that it’s my instrument! WHY does my profession have to be sexualized? AND, why does a piece of metal have to define my sexuality?

OR a combo of the above two:

JOE: “Excuse me, but are you like the hottest female sax player alive?” ME: “I hope so!” No, but really – REALLY?! AND it’s a question!


JOE: “I used to play the saxophone!” ME: Who DIDN’T play an instrument in 4th grade?! Sorry, you are NOT special. If you are a banker, and I said, OMG! Sometimes I go to the ATM! Would that impress you?

I actually recently had an argument with a man in a bar, because he was trying to convince me that he and I were on the same page, since he “plays guitar and piano”. He mentioned that he just started playing both, and that he was in finance for a profession. His only knowledge of a jazz saxophone player was Kenny G. He was CERTAIN that this would impress me! His friend recommended him, so it must be legit.

Kenny G

I mean, come on!

PLEASE do not insult me or my profession by pretending that you and I have this thing in common. I have spent my entire life up until now studying this music. And mentioning Kenny G is comparable to me mentioning Benjamin Franklin alongside Finance. I mean, he’s on one of those American bills, isn’t he?

One of my favorite questions is, “How do you PLAY that thing?!”

I’m not sure what that means… By moving my fingers? 19 years of study? Blowing air into a conical shaped metal object and placing your tongue on a reed strapped to rubber with a piece of metal?

“No, I mean, HOW do YOU play it?”


“Aren’t your lungs smaller than a man’s? It must take SO MUCH air from such a SMALL person! How do you make your lips like that? Don’t you worry that it will make them look funny? I hope they don’t get stuck like that! I’m glad you don’t puff out your cheeks!” And so on…

For the record, I am probably taller, at 5’8″, than a lot of male sax players. Also, do you really think that being small, or having smaller lungs, would prevent a woman from playing saxophone? Can we not run? Swim? Sing? Yell loudly?

I found this online:

“The story goes, even into the 1980’s it was taken as fact that women had a smaller lung capacity for their size than men, and this ‘fact’ was widely taught in medical schools. A
researcher( I can’t remember the name) decided this didn’t sound right, and laboriously tracked the citations for each paper and found that the new paper referenced an older paper, that referenced a yet older paper, and on until he found them to all refer to a single study of lung function performed in the 1800’s, with the women wearing corsets.” –

I’d like to mention here that, growing up, there was a constant comment that I received: “You have such a BIG SOUND!” Now, I’m not sure. I DO remember having a bigger sound than my male classmates on the same instruments. However, maybe this was stated because the listener was surprised? Upon my arrival to NYC, I realized that there are men out there with much BIGGER sounds (and smaller sounds). To those “normal” people reading, when I say “big sound,” I’m referring to the volume of sound output. Also, the depth and power of my actual tone.

As you can see, what most people think “Small Talk” is in relation to me, my career, and my personhood, usually steers in a very strange direction. I yearn for a conversation in which I discuss my cat, Lulu, or my new Kitchenaid Mixer. I would get a thrill from a chat with someone about where they can catch my band playing next. I would love to hear about a book you’re reading. Please, tell me about your running hobby, and a pair of awesome workout pants I need to buy. I’m dying to tell you the name of my hair stylist. In fact, ask me the color of my nail polish. These are what I fantasize to be typical topics of small talk conversations.

My cat, Lulu

But let’s take it further. Tell me about a speech you saw the President make this morning – yes, I’ll take the politics talk! I’ll take religion talk! I love discussing Emma Watson’s feminist speech to the UN (#heforshe). I can’t wait to engage in banter about global warming. God forbid, we learn something from each other, or discuss topics that apply to us as a human race.

But instead, I get career advice – or ideas on how to entirely change my career direction. I get anatomy questions, or proclamations of ways in which I am not adequate to carry out my job. I get intrusive financial questioning, and judgements on my choice of lifestyle, and my current living situation. I receive scrutinizing comments about my body – positive or negative. Or I hear about someone’s opinion on my choice of clothing, hairstyle, shoes, or accessories. Or furthermore, how it somehow seems to effect them personally. I get disbelief, that I can actually DO what I’m claiming. Like I’m a liar. I hear stories about people’s uncles, and how yours played trombone in a band in the 1930’s. I get misguided questions about why I play a genre of music I know nothing about. People say personal violations in the guise of flattery. And worst of all, I experience a general questioning of my existence.

So a word of advice from someone who has had more than her share of light banter, chit chat, and pleasantries: stick to something nice when engaging in small talk. Otherwise, please for the love of everything pleasant. Shut up.

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