In response to my thoughts about my recent high school reunion and growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, I got an email from a schoolmate from my teenage years, Nancy, who said that she will share my piece with her kids, as it would give them a glimpse of what her life was like. She went on to say that the only thing that was missing for her was the plight of girls and women at that time.
So often Baby Boomers speak about Civil Rights advances in our lifetime for Black folks and the LGBT community, and for sure, those were some great strides. Obviously there is much work left to be done. No sane person wants to go back to the ’50s mentality towards those minorities, but what is so often neglected is the treatment of our majority—women.
Historically, women have been second-class citizens since forever. Men are stronger physically and have used that physical strength to disenfranchise women. In 1863 American slaves were freed. A few years later, male slaves were given the right to vote. Why would female slaves be allowed to vote when no white women in our country had that right or the right to own property? Women’s suffrage would take another 50 years, but that didn’t address cultural, financial and emotional rights.
When I was growing up in suburbia, nearly every kid’s mom stayed at home to take care of the family while the dads went to work and brought home the bacon—typical ’50s TV sitcom Americana. With that mindset (and a narrow view of mind enrichment), many men didn’t see the value of sending their daughters to college (since they assumed that girls would get married and stay home to raise children). Some parents sent their daughters to college so that they would have the opportunity to meet more upwardly mobile young men (“marriage material”).
My mom was a college grad who taught for a few years until I was born. In some ways, I thought that my father was smarter than her (history, math, and other academics and business), but in understanding people, insight and potential for growth, she had it all over him. I surely didn’t understand this as a kid, but I respected her. She was formidable. They both were. I learned early not to underestimate her ability to kick our asses in hearts. She was quietly shrewd.
And so, as I got to know girls in school, I wasn’t surprised at how smart they were. In fifth grade Maggie and I edited our class newspaper. I’m not sure that I contributed much. She was very nice not to mention that. In those days we all had to recite poems in class from memory. I would always look for a short poem. In sixth grade Nina recited “The Highwayman.” To this day, I can’t believe that she memorized that incredibly long poem and delivered it so beautifully. And why did she not pick something shorter? She was a true artist—even at the age of 11.
All through junior high and high school, I was in constant awe of the brilliant girls in my classes. It never occurred to me that girls were any less worthy than boys. In fact I was afraid that they would find out how unworthy I was.
Something didn’t make sense. If so many of the girls I knew were as intelligent as the boys, why should they have any less of a chance to realize their full potential? When I asked my father, he explained that women have babies, and then they stay home to take care of them. He was an employer, so he didn’t want to hire a woman who might quit to start a family. I guess this made sense—sorta. What about all that lost potential? What about the special qualities that women could bring to a job? Why should women have to choose between career and family? I know that it is biological. Haven’t we changed in many ways over the last 10,000 years?
Around this time Women’s Lib was picking up steam, and many of my contemporaries were changing the way society held women down. It could be as subtle as not calling on girls in class or the glass ceiling in business and politics, but women were speaking up and demanding equality. Thanks to some courageous trailblazers, the girls I grew up with had some fine role models. I know that it wasn’t easy for my friends, and it still isn’t.
Last year, at long last, we almost had a woman president. We have a few women Senators and Representatives in Congress. That’s a far cry from true representation. I should think that 50% would be a good start. So, there is still plenty of work to be done. Societies change slowly over generations.
In my own line of work, the world of jazz, I have seen change. As recently as 25 years ago, excluding singers, less that 1% of professional jazz musicians were women. There was a pianist a few years back, who, upon dying, was discovered to have been a she. Believe it or not, even her wife didn’t know. The percentage of pros who are women is still pretty low. My guess would be around 10%. It’s growing every year and will continue to do so. How can I predict that? Because I travel all around the country working with high school jazz bands. It used to be that maybe there would be one or two girls out of 15 or 18 in the band. Now I see many more girls. Last year I worked with a band that was mostly girls.
I’ve often wondered why the great majority of jazz players and fans were men. Some kind of macho thing maybe. I can’t say. But that is changing. I meet women who like jazz all the time now. My guess is that women of my generation came to it for two major reasons: swing dancing and the American Songbook.
The American Songbook is how my predecessors and I learned about romance. The lyrics are mainly about adult love, and the music sets the mood. When I was growing up, every girl who wanted to sing a song with a band knew two songs, Summertime and My Funny Valentine. What was it about My Funny Valentine? Girls found it so romantic. I’m writing an arrangement of it right now. I still think it is romantic.
40 years ago, when I was working with Gerry Mulligan, we played a concert at Carnegie Hall. I was dating a cute young actress at the time, and I invited her to the concert. Afterwards, she told me that she wasn’t really into the music, and then we played My Funny Valentine and she just melted. What is it about that song?
Like swing dancing, romance doesn’t seem to have much of a place in today’s popular music or in our society as a whole, and I think that’s a real shame. I understand that romance is largely about illusion and expectation, but even at my advanced age, it’s still one of the best games in town. When I was young, I went along with romantic stuff because women liked it, and I liked women. Somewhere along the line, I discovered my softer side and found out that I like romance too. If you hang around women long enough, you might learn something.
So why are more of today’s teenage girls joining their school jazz bands? Unless they grew up listening to jazz, I suspect that they started for the very same reason that I did: they enjoy playing their instruments, and joining the jazz band is another place to play.
When I was in high school, jazz bands were almost exclusively populated by males. I would imagine that being the only girl in a band back then could be intimidating or at least uncomfortable. Add to that the macho image of jazz and jazz musicians in those days. Jazz seems almost quaint now compared with many of the pop styles that have succeeded it like heavy metal and hip-hop.
Once they join a band, my guess is that girls get hooked by the same thing that hooked me—the rhythm and how it relates to how we speak and move and its life affirming effect on us. Then there is also the intellectual attraction of jazz and the challenge and thrill of improvising.
One of the beautiful things about jazz is how, like both men and women need to integrate their yin and yang, it embraces both our traditional male and female sides: strength and tenderness, hard and soft. Jazz can and will grow in many directions.
P.S. Don’t take my word for all this—I’m a guy. I invite women of all ages to post your experience and opinions.