Music Commentary: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra — Gender Diversity?

By taking the stage with 15 musicians, none of whom is female, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra presents the music as segregated and outdated.

Wynton Marsalis — every one of the 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra was male.

By Clea Simon

Wynton Marsalis seeks respect. When the Celebrity Series brought his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to Symphony Hall on Sunday to perform the music of Duke Ellington, the program was in keeping with Marsalis’s overall mission to establish (enshrine?) jazz as America’s classical music, defying decades of racism and racially biased neglect. Ellington fits this message perfectly, as the great American composer who was famously denied the Pulitzer Prize during his lifetime despite brilliant compositions, several of which were beautifully performed on Sunday (Arts Fuse review). And in unspoken rebuke to such prejudiced slights, the orchestra is both multi-ethnic and multigenerational: a rainbow of musicians performing pieces that deserve to be heard by all. And yet, for this listener, the overall effect was discordant, though it took a few numbers before I realized why. As band member after band member stood to solo, it finally hit me. Every one of the 15-piece orchestra was male.

This jarring realization threw me back to my own musical youth, playing bass in rock and jazz bands in the ‘70s. Although I loved the music – loved to play – I recall well how odd it felt to be the only female in any given combo. How awkward to be up on the stage, and not dancing before it, like the other girls my age. I was no virtuoso, and therefore it was unlikely that I would have pursued a musical career in any case, but this isolation didn’t help. However, I was reminded at Symphony Hall of those gigs decades ago – at least back then I was up there, on the podium. Feeling odd, perhaps, but definitely a member of the band.

Rock and pop have certainly changed since then. Punk encouraged the do-it-yourself sensibility that brought female (and non-heteronormative) musicians to the fore, making underground stars of performers like the Slits and Patti Smith, Suzi Quatro and Joan Jett. The riot grrrl movement of the ‘90s pushed gender equality further with bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. But even the seemingly staid world of classical music has evolved. As a result of the adoption of blind “curtain” auditions in the ’70s, for example, the percentage of female musicians in the top 10 U.S. classical orchestras – including the Boston Symphony – has risen from roughly 5% to 35%. These days, it’s the rare orchestra that remains all male. Contemporary jazz – an admittedly cerebral, progressive art form – has also worked to embrace gender equity. Even beyond stars like Harvard professor Esperanza Spalding (a bassist like me) and Brookline’s own Grace Kelly, the field is full of journeymen female musicians. Players like Ingrid Jensen and Jennifer Wharton routinely play in the bands of bigger names, like Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, without any fanfare about their gender.

Equality doesn’t have to mean that every performing group is integrated. There will continue to be small groups of one binary gender, just as there are of one race or ethnicity. Creativity – and the friendship that often first brings musicians together – doesn’t answer to quota. However, ideally we are working toward a more equitable landscape where, for each such self-selected small group, another with a different makeup – or, even better, a more mixed composition – will share the stages and the opportunities to reach an audience, make a living with its art, and inspire another generation.

As I sat in the packed Symphony Hall, however, I could not see Wynton’s band as part of that vision. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is no small group of friends. An internationally touring ensemble, Marsalis’s band is the flagship jazz orchestra of the day, the one that he is using to establish the importance of jazz around the world. Taking the stage with 15 musicians, none of whom is female, presents the music as segregated and outdated. Ellington would understand that landscape, but Marsalis should know that isn’t what his art is about.

A former journalist, Clea Simon is the author of three nonfiction books and 25 mysteries. A contributor to such publications as the Boston Globe, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle, she lives in Somerville with her husband, Jon Garelick. She can be reached here and on @Clea_Simon.


  1. Bob Blumenthal on June 15, 2018 at 6:14 am

    An excellent point. At least jazz journalists are catching up. In the Jazz Journalists Association Poll results recently announced, 12 of 29 winners in individual categories were women. That’s 41%, a far cry from the day when the only female winner was in the gender-separate vocal category.

    • Susan Fleet on June 15, 2018 at 11:02 am

      Excellent article, Clea. As the first female ever to teach in the brass dept. at Berklee College of Music, I waged quite a battle there to get more visibility for female jazz artists, especially instrumentalists. I write about many of them on my website.

    • Rachel Z on June 18, 2018 at 4:50 pm

      I have suffered this fool’s sexism since we were both asigned to Columbia records. Since all Wynton had for me as a labelmate was to stare at my breasts when I was supposed to sit on piano at a Columbia event as per Dr George Butler’s request, I have a resentment against him. At that moment it was unlikely that I was not good enough to play with Wynton because I was Wayne Shorter’s pianist-but he was demeanig to me.

      Frankly, as a “Special Forces of Jazz” member -I’ve found it more effective to use musical covert OPs to expand my career.

      Shedding harder and updating skills as a lone female wolf allows me to continue playing with the greatest musicans in Jazz and in music in general!

      If you could change Wynton’s limiting stance…most NY musicians would celebrate the end of his reign of terror on creativity.

      I performed ONE night at JALC since it opened-in my own city!
      I have experienced sexism in this field & I wonder why it continues in 2018.

      As my mentor tells me…just bring more to the table and be grateful that you get to play this beautiful music…keep the focus on yourself.

      • Clea Simon on June 25, 2018 at 1:44 pm

        Hi Rachel,
        I just emailed you via your website. Trying to get in touch – Clea

      • Ellen Seeling on July 2, 2018 at 11:41 am

        Right on Z! I’m with you.

  2. Myanna on June 15, 2018 at 7:20 am

    Thank you, Clea for for this thoughtful post. It’s a situation that is sadly very slow to change. At almost every gig I do, someone approaches me to say they’ve never seen a woman saxophonist! And all I can think is how sad is that?
    Wynton should know better. Equality is more than just about race.

  3. […] Music Commentary: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra — Gender Diversity? The Arts Fuse […]

  4. A on June 17, 2018 at 7:07 pm

    After Ingrid Jensen left Maria Schneider’s band, her replacement was a man. On the group’s most recent album The Thompson Fields, there are no women in the band. Currently, Nadje Noordhuis (also in Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society) is the only woman in that 18 piece group. Esperanza Spalding & Grace Kelly have no women in their bands. The only big band that is gender exclusive by design is Diva (#sarcasm). Where’s the outrage?

    • B on June 18, 2018 at 8:22 am

      DIVA was not designed to exclude men. It was designed to promote and give opportunity in the jazz world where there had previously been very little. DIVA receives hundreds of letters from young women across the country who say their parents wouldn’t let them play trumpet because it was a boy’s instrument, until they saw and heard the band. They are forging the change that this field needs.

      • Ellen Seeling on July 2, 2018 at 12:19 pm

        Yes B, you are sooo right. What a silly comment by A, whoever he was.

    • Clea Simon on June 18, 2018 at 11:33 am

      A – If you want to engage in a dialogue, it would be useful if you would identify yourself.

  5. Ellen Seeling on June 17, 2018 at 10:43 pm

    Clea Simon, we’ve been advocating and pressuring JALCO for years to include women in the Orchestra. In 2016 the adopted our suggested hiring policy of open job postings (all openings were previously broadcast by word of mouth), and blind auditions (there has yet to ever be an audition for JALCO). See our press release on this new hiring policy here

    Thank you for continuing to shed light on this travesty. Yes, you have it exactly right…the Orchestra travels the world sending the message to girls and women that they are not good enough to be in the Orchestra. Men and boys get this message too. I continue to be beyond frustrated at this…there has never been a woman permanent member in the Orchestra in 30 years.

  6. Ellen Seeling on June 17, 2018 at 10:50 pm

    Thank you Clea for continuing to shed light on this gender discrimination at JALCO. Although our Jazzwomen and Girls Advocates were able to consult with them on their new hiring policy, open job postings and blind auditions, there are still no women permanent members in the Orchestra. You can see our press release from 2016 here

    And yes, the Orchestra travels the world sending the message to all that women and girls are not good enough to be permanent members of the band. Nothing could be more damaging. I don’t care about all the other things JALC has done for women and girls…that’s window dressing. I’m beyond frustrated that his board of directors and the executives at Lincoln Center allow him to get away with this.

  7. R.J.R. on June 18, 2018 at 4:58 pm

    It shouldn’t matter what the gender make up is on stage. What should matter and is important is the competency of the musicians. These are (some of) the best jazz musician in the world and they have worked hard to earn their position in JLCO. In addition, there have been females in the saxophone section of JLCO in the past. The author would only be satisfied if the make up was 50/50 and even then she’d complain about something else. There is NO gender discrimination in the JLCO orchestra. Commentaries like this do nothing to support and/or promote gender equity. They are part of current societal trends to stir up controversy where there is none. I know Wynton Marsalis and to suggest he has any gender bias is simply ridiculous.

    • Clea Simon on June 25, 2018 at 1:38 pm

      Hi RJR. If you’d care to leave your contact info, I could send you information that would support my argument.
      Thank you,
      Clea Simon

    • Ellen Seeling on July 2, 2018 at 12:29 pm

      R.J.R. There has never been a woman permanent member of the JALCO in 30 years. There are plenty of women jazz virtuosos active in the music today, and absolutely no reason some should not be in the Orchestra. They work just as hard and play just as well as the current band members. They deserve to be i this band, and the only reason they’re not is because Wynton chooses all men all the time. There are no auditions or job postings…hiring has been by cronyism. This is the same reason the American Federation of Musicians mandated blind auditions for American Orchestras back in the 70s.

      It is illegal for employers, including music employers like JALC, to not provide equal access to their jobs for all qualified applicants. If it is the case that only men are good enough to be in this band, then blind auditions shouldn’t threaten you, should they. What are you afraid of?

  8. Angela Wellman on May 7, 2019 at 10:15 am

    I am just now reading this article nearly one year later. Thank you so much for this! When I was growing up in Kansas City, MO back in the seventies, I and Karita Baskin were the only female jazz trombonists I knew of in our neck of the woods and we are African American. As I reflect on it now, that was quite amazing. Guess we came by it honestly as we were standing on the shoulders of Melba Liston, also from Kansas City. My experience as a player has been a mixed bag and I, quite frankly, could not do it anymore. I often feel like I came along a decade too late. It was hard enough being the only woman in most of the bands I played in and coupled with being the only African American many times made it even more challenging. Touring with all-white bands presented a whole other level of adjustments I had to make. This was my experience when I toured with DIVA, one of the most musically challenging experiences of my life I might add, and if I could, I’d do it all again.

    The point I am making here is while we discuss the dearth of opportunities for women instrumentalists, I am struck that in the 21st-century bands like the Montclair Women’s Big Band and DIVA remain predominantly, if not completely, all white or perhaps I should say, have zero to few African American women. It’s an issue that I’ve been grappling with most of my life as a performer, which is why I started a program called Black Girls Play at the school I founded, the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music. I know that music education is expensive and believe economics play a large role in access to music education, thus why there are few African American women players, but we have to face it, we still have to deal with the issue of racism just as we have to confront sexism head-on. It’s not an easy conversation in which to engage, but we have to figure out how we women are going to address it and look forward to bands like Montclair and DIVA have greater representation of African American women. Until we do, what is the difference? What are we doing? It echos the arguments from suffrage, the feminist movements where the conversation really did not include African American women and once white women were able to walk through certain doors, experiencing a modicum of victory, while their black sisters were still on the other side of the door. We’ve got to do better. I appreciate the opportunity to include my voice in this critical conversation.

    You can read about Black Girls Play here:

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