The Book Cooks
Excerpt from

Women in Jazz: Musicality, Femininity, Marginalization
Marie Buscatto
(Routledge; Milton Park, Abingdon-on-Thames, Oxfordshire)


The jazz world proves to be a quite unwelcoming world to women, singers and instrumentalists alike, and this outside of any explicit desire to exclude them. With some notable exceptions, and generally criticized as such, jazzmen don’t seek out a priori to make life difficult for the women they sometimes play with. The social processes, both internal and external to the jazz world, not only make it difficult for female musicians to enter and maintain themselves in this art world, but also situate female singers and instrumentalists in the lower ranks of the musical, professional and economic hierarchy. Each and every one of them thus participates in constituting a “masculine” world not very favorable to the careers of women musicians. As for the socio-historical analysis of the construction of the genius of Beethoven (DeNora, 1995), I have identified the various social processes that contribute to creating and legitimizing the marginalization of women musicians in the French jazz world. It’s all being constructed over time, through multiple choices and social interactions that create women’s great difficulty to live mainly from jazz, even for the most renowned ones.

Female singers are not regarded as professionals of a specific instrument and music. They rather appear as attractive women, naturally gifted at expressing themselves with their voice and body. In return, they find it difficult to be regarded as real musicians endowed with specific qualities and technical skills: their “feminine” qualification is invisible. Jazz singer is a “female job” (Buscatto, 2003; Perrot, 1987) and, as such, is denied all specific professional qualities. The association of the role of the singer with mythical images, between seduction and danger, locks them up in undervalued positions. In the conflicting encounter between singers and instrumentalists, millennia-old gendered relations expressed in a musical form are taking place. “Half victims, half accomplices, like everyone else,” as Jean-Paul Sartre famously put it, singers participate in building up the reality that puts them yet in a situation of strong economic, emotional and social dependence.

For women instrumentalists, other social processes make it difficult for them to enter and to remain in the French jazz world. The accumulation of family, social, musical and professional resources, combined with an exceptional ability to “adapt” to a very “masculine” world allows a few “oversocialized” women to enter the French jazz world. Therefore, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, young women instrumentalists are still few and appear as pioneers among the young male instrumentalists. But their exceptional resources are not enough to keep them in this jazz world that is particularly closed to them. Their radical and fairly common choice not to have children to remain free or to manage their maternity in an atypical manner never guarantees that they will work as jazz professionals over time. If the support of a jazz musician (or producer or programmer) partner is a good way to build an efficient informal working network, it also constitutes its limits over time. Even for the most renowned ones, it is never enough to prevent female instrumentalists from having to look “elsewhere” – world music, show business, teaching, international jazz – to make a living from music. This support constitutes also, over time, a limit to their insertion: during a break-up, it becomes the source of their musical and professional difficulties. In their thirties, women instrumentalists seem to be tired of sharing male conventions that made them successful in the first place. Lack of self-confidence, lassitude towards behaviours considered “manly” or competitive, or the desire to work differently may encourage them to look for other professional colleagues outside of this art world. Finally, women instrumentalists have to build up a “restrained seduction” that suits them personally, responds to the requests of programmers, producers and colleagues, and cannot be reproached in the form of disparagement or “flirtatious” behaviors threatening the maintenance of labor relations.

However, some of these women instrumentalists are creating unexpected solutions to make a living from their art, both in the management of their private life and in their insertion into the musical worlds. Faced with the devaluing of female singers on the pretext of their all-too-feminine art, some innovative vocalists and singers are redefining the vocal professionalism and their artistic image. We can hope that these innovations will gradually lose their transgressive nature, perhaps aided by those men – critics, instrumentalists, producers or programmers of jazz – who always more embarrassed by their absence or their devaluation in a contemporary society that displays the equality of the sexes as one of its core values.

More broadly, this ethnographic research conducted in the French jazz world enriches our understanding of the processes affecting women’s access to prestigious “masculine” professions along three main axes: the ways in which the image of seduction associated with women shapes their socio-professional trajectories; the ways in which women play, with mixed success, with varying definitions of their “femininity”; and the shifting patterns of informal production and transgression of gendered differentiations.

Female artists can’t escape the “feminine” images they evoke in other people’s eyes. Their strong capacity of seduction is thus particularly disturbing for women seeking to build stable working relationships with colleagues, art professionals or the public. The seduction most often translates into a double danger: fear of the disparagement often associated with it, and the breakdown of stable and fruitful relationships due to the overly strong attraction that they cause. These women artists must then demonstrate ingeniousness to build various protective strategies: closing the seduction, living with a male artist or art professional, masculinizing their body or building a restrained seduction. But they are struggling to pull through this constraint and are constantly subject to the risk of breakdowns of labor relations, nefarious reputation or one-time denigrated success. Better grasping the devalued imaginaries associated with “femininity” in more traditional professional contexts would surely help us better understand both the obstacles these stereotypes place on their professional trajectories, and the strategies used by some women to escape from them to succeed over time.

Moreover, if the “femininity” associated with the work of female singers constantly keeps them locked in a devalued professional position, I also observed the great variability of definitions of “femininity” (and “masculinity”) for female instrumentalists according to the context - maternity, musicality, appearance or social behaviors. If the very definitions of “femininity” and “masculinity” vary in relation to each other, according to social backgrounds, geographical regions or professional contexts, it appears here that they also vary within a relatively small narrow professional world. And these women, even the most “masculine” at first glance, want to “feel” like “real women”, and that this definition of themselves is played out on stage, in the music, in their social relationships or as mothers. Some women instrumentalists told us that they experienced periods of depression at certain points in their history and attributed it to the “loss of their femininity.” It is with the help of psychotherapy, sometimes over a long period of time, that the latter say they have found it, at the price for most of them of the abandonment of their musical activity in the jazz world. These observations should commit us to better capture both the variability in social definitions of the femininity in male work environments and the creative strategies, even if with mixed success, implemented by these women in order to both feel like “real women” and be recognized as “real” professionals.

Last but not least, the exclusion of women is played out here in a free, open and fluid professional environment. While the qualification of musicians is built into their daily musical lives and is not part, at any moment, of classification grids, public policies or job evaluation methods, its reality is physical and mental for all those involved in building it. These processes are then put to work both under the influence of informal norms co-produced by individual musicians and the weight of social norms defining “feminine “roles” in our society. Between internalization of social roles and the opportunities offered by the jazz world, the singers and the instrumentalists produce and reproduce social orders that exceed them. But talent is never enough. So, it is in the analysis of the gendered relationships produced, reproduced and transgressed by women and men working in “masculine” professional worlds that the reasons for the difficult integration of those women can be identified.

Hopefully, I have also shown the capacity of the ethnographic approach to capture, describe, and articulate the plurality of these issues by placing the ethnographer as close as possible to the forms that “femininities” take in any professional world and in grasping the ways women develop to limit as much as possible the negative effects on their professional trajectory. Indeed, various studies on women artists, engineers, leaders or military personnel have succeeded in stating the difficult articulation between private life and professional life or unveiling the negative effects “feminine” stereotypes – sentimentality, seduction or motherhood for example – may have on their career opportunities. But only very rare works describe on the one hand, the ways in which these stereotypes are organized through interaction to make them less “employable” and, on the other, the strategies used by these women to transgress them.

Here we see the value of an ethnographic approach that allows the articulated identification of female stereotypes at work in a professional world and the ways in which they are produced, reproduced and transgressed by individuals, thereby allowing comparative studies (Buscatto, 2007). Thus, and for the jazz worlds alone, we can see that the place of women in the labor market varies from country to country, with 15 to 20 per cent of female jazz musicians in the United States versus around 8 per cent in France.[1] Questioning these differences using an ethnographic method would allow us not only to refine the analysis developed over these pages, but also to broaden its meaning by bringing out even more clearly the nature of the social processes at work.



[1] This statistical survey, conducted by the Research Center for Arts and Culture in 2001, was carried out in four major cities: Detroit, New Orleans, New York and San Francisco (Jeffri, 2003).

© 2022 Marie Buscatto


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