Jazz, Gender, and Iowa’s All-Female Jazz Orchestra

by Erin Wehr

On Friday, November 17, 15 women met at the 2017 Iowa Music Educators’ Association Conference in Ames, Iowa, for the first rehearsal of the Iowa all-female big band. The purpose of this group is to perform at middle school/high school jazz festivals and clinics in order to encourage young female musicians to find their voice in the jazz idiom.

The impetus for starting this group was my attendance last June at a performance by the all-female DIVA Jazz Orchestra in Glassboro, New Jersey. Even with my fifteen years of research in gender and jazz, and my familiarity with the group DIVA, nothing could have prepared me for the emotional response that I felt watching these women musicians live for the first time. In my research I have reported the possibility of a lowered confidence in girls to learn and perform in the jazz idiom which can be attributed to the perception of jazz as a male domain, a lack of female role-models and teachers in jazz, and/or the common occurrence of a girl often being the only one (the only girl), or one of just a very few, in jazz classes and jazz performing groups. Everything that I have learned about gender and jazz suggested that seeing DIVA perform live would be a moving experience, but the freedom with which these women played literally brought me to tears.

For over ten years I have published articles and presented ideas on how to include more girls in jazz education. The reality is that negative stereotypes of women still persist in jazz today. Even if such biases are a minority, negativity is so powerful that even great amounts of positive social support often can’t take away the sting of one pointed, judgmental comment. A defense against this awareness of negative social cues about girls in jazz involves the building up of girls’ confidence for playing jazz. Unlike the biases that girls experience in jazz groups and classes, their confidence level is changeable, and confidence is something in that teachers and students can both experience some level of control.

So how do we increase confidence? Albert Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy gives us a model for developing confidence in social environments. Many students, male and female, would benefit from confidence building in jazz improvisation. Something important to all students in jazz is what Bandura refers to as Mastery Experiences, or small successes. These small successes in jazz come from learning the jazz language, which happens aurally by mastering small chunks of vocabulary that the student can use as building blocks for speaking in jazz. What reduces confidence is giving a student a set of chord changes, or a scale, and telling them to just play something. Or, maybe you narrow the scale to just a couple of notes, and then tell the student to just try. Bandura refers to telling someone, “I know you can do it!” as a Social Persuasion, or a belief that someone else has for you. These types of positive messages from others are not effective unless combined with a successful experience. So, telling any student, boy or girl, to just keep trying because you know that they can do it, does not work unless the student does in fact have the skills to be successful. Methods that do build skills include call and response, demonstration, and imitation; the types of things experienced in individual jazz lessons and jazz combos that girls are often not invited to join.

Building confidence also comes from addressing specific issues for each student as all student needs are unique. For girls in jazz, there are specific issues related to finding success in a field that developed with specific gender role expectations. Bardura’s theory of Self-efficacy gives us two areas, in particular, that can be issues for women in jazz, Social Persuasions and Vicarious Experiences. Social Persuasions, as mentioned above, are what others think our capabilities are, or our perceptions of what others think of what we can or should do; and Vicarious Experiences involve observing role models whom we can relate to as they are successful at what we are trying to do. Girls have a different experience in jazz than boys do in these two areas. Sometimes understated, and other times more overt, the message eventually becomes clear to girls, that the feminine voice is less respected in jazz. The gender imbalance in jazz leaders, performers, teachers, adjudicators, and clinicians leaves girls without role models in jazz, and reinforces that in jazz there are specific roles for women, and those do not typically include roles such as lead trumpet, wailing trombone, or burning saxophone soloist. More accepted roles include supportive roles such as a piano player, or as a singer. It has been suggested to me more than once that I “should be a singer” in the jazz world, and always by people who have never heard me play trumpet, nor have they ever heard me sing. If I am a girl interested in jazz, then the implication is that my best hope is as a singer.

An additional predicament for girls in jazz is that even if they start out in a middle-school jazz band where there are many girls, if they continue to play and study jazz, they will eventually be “the only one.” Rosabeth Moss Kanter theorized in her book Men and Women of the Corporation that in a male dominated field where there is one woman (or just a very few), that the woman is stereotyped as fitting into one of four roles: 1) mother, 2) kid sister, 3) seductress, or 4) iron maiden. The mother is viewed as a care-giver, such as someone that other band members might go to for advice or support. The kid sister is related to as a friend that one can goof around with, but also one who doesn’t provide any competition. The seductress is someone you might want to date, and the iron maiden is often considered unsocial and possibly unfeminine. In other words, if a woman walks into a room full of men where she is “the only one,” those in the room fit her into one of these roles as a way of understanding how to work with the woman. In a jazz band, if there is one woman in the band, we try to fit her into one of these categories as well.

Women play a part in this role stereotyping as well. Girls sometimes put themselves in these roles as a way to fit in and be accepted. A girl in the band might take on organizing the music as a way of being a care giver, or hang out with band members in a kid sister kind of way. It is not uncommon for a girl to gain acceptance in a band through dating one of the band members, or dating the director, which relates to the seductress role. The iron maiden role allows one to be competitive without jeopardizing relationships because they often have no developed relationships in the ensemble, which can also hinder the iron maiden in that jazz performance is all about communication and relationships. When I presented Kanter’s theory as applied to jazz for a group of women at a brass conference, some women shed tears as they identified with these roles in their own experiences of trying to be accepted. One woman said sadly, “I have been all of these.” When I presented at a jazz conference, one man said, “I see these roles in all of the girls in my bands.”

The problem with these roles in the jazz idiom is that none of these roles are synonymous with jazz musician, but rather these roles stereotype women. Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson demonstrated that a social-psychological concept called stereotype threat can lead to lower achievement and lower performance level. Stereotype threat occurs when one is fearful of confirming a negative stereotype. For example, “girls can’t run” could be considered a stereotype about girls. A girl might avoid running in front of boys to avoid being told that she “runs like a girl,” which would confirm the negative stereotype. In jazz, if a girl takes a jazz solo, trying to find her own voice becomes an issue of stereotype threat. Sounding like a girl playing jazz is negative. If one sounds like a mother, or sister, or seductress, none of these are acceptable voices in jazz unless one is a singer. Alternatively, if a girl takes a solo and imitates what she hears men do in jazz, then she is not considered to be feminine, and that can be difficult for a young girl or woman to handle. This Catch-22 makes it impossible for a girl to find her voice in jazz until she has the confidence to rise above the issue of stereotype threat and play without the concern of how she is being judged, stereotyped, or mocked.

Albert Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy has one more contributor to confidence which is Physiological States. Musicians know the negative version of physiological states as performance anxiety. More anxiety contributes to less confidence, and less anxiety contributes to more confidence. Being the “only one,” facing stereotype threat, perceiving negative thoughts of others, hearing negative feedback from others, and a lack of role models all contribute to anxiety for girls in the jazz field. Anxiety can create cognitive block making it difficult for information to get in to the brain in classes, and difficult to think and play in performances. Anxiety can also contribute to a choice to discontinue participation in jazz if unmanaged. If girls stand a chance at achieving in jazz, all of these issues need to be addressed in order to reduce potential anxiety. According to Kanter’s theory, when there is greater than 15% women in the group, the phenomenon of being placed in one of the stereotyped roles diminishes. Therefore, there should be less issue of stereotype threat in jazz groups and classes when there are more girls in the group, and girls should have more confidence to learn jazz skills in such environments.

During the two-day drive home from seeing the DIVA performance, I reflected on the freedom with which the musicians of the all-female big band played. Every woman in this group has a story, a memory, an experience, where her femininity was an obstacle in her musical development. In this band, however, there is no sense of solidarity, no fear of being stereotyped, no anxiety from negative social messages. Instead, there is a stage full of role models and sincere musical relationships. For hours while driving I contemplated how I would have made very different choices in my education, and even played differently, had I seen DIVA as a young musician instead of just all-male groups during those years earning my music degrees. This was when I knew that I had to start an all-female band in Iowa.

At first, filling this band seemed impossible. There were so few women in my age group who continued participation in jazz. Then I met Toni LeFebvre who is now managing the band membership. Toni entered the University of Iowa as a graduate music education student in Fall of 2017 after teaching at Okoboji High School and placing 3rd with their jazz band in the Iowa Jazz Championships (IJC) for the previous two years. Only a few years out of UNI, Toni is connected to a generation of young musicians in the beginning of their careers. Toni and I reached out to women in Iowa with jazz experience, and have yet to have someone say that they are not interested in the project. The group is not intended to be exclusionary, and anyone identifying with jazz and gender issues is invited to be a part of this project. The purpose of this all-female band is to provide role-models for girls in Iowa jazz programs, to demonstrate that girls can play jazz, that this is what girls sound like playing jazz, and that girl voices in jazz are valid and meaningful. With over 20 women from all over Iowa committed to the group, rehearsals are being planned around music conferences and festivals centrally located in the State.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Bandura, A. (1999). Exercise of personal and collective efficacy in changing societies. In A. Bandura (Ed.), Self-efficacy in changing societies, (pp. 1-45). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kanter, R. (1977). Some effects of proportions on group life: Skewed sex ratios and responses to token women. The American Journal of Sociology, 82(5), 965-990.

Kanter, R. (1993). Men and women of the corporation. New York: Basic Books.

Wehr, E. (2007). An exploratory model of jazz self-efficacy and gender. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (Accession Order No. UMI 3281418)

Wehr, E. (2016). Understanding the experiences of women in jazz: A suggested model. International Journal of Music Education. 34(4), 472. doi: 10.1177/0255761415619392

Wehr-Flowers, E. (2006). Differences between males and females in confidence, anxiety, and attitude towards learning jazz improvisation. Journal of Research in Music Education. 54(4), 337. doi: 10.1177/002242940605400406

Reprinted with permission from the Jazz Educators of Iowa (JEI) Newsletter, 16, January, 2018.

Erin Wehr, Ph. D., currently teaches courses in music education and music psychology at The University of Iowa, and directs the Iowa City New Horizons Band Program including the Silver Swing Big Band. Erin publishes and presents on issues in jazz education and jazz pedagogy, often from a social-psychological perspective.