Empowering Girls in Jazz

By Haley Zaremba

More than 100 years after the birth of jazz, women still remain underrepresented in jazz performance and jazz education programs.

This is not because of a lack of female talent. As long as there has been a jazz scene, there have been women trailblazers helping to set the standard for great jazz musicianship. 

A long legacy of pioneering female jazz talent has proven that women belong in jazz. Now, a new generation of jazz instructors and students are working hard to make jazz an equal opportunity art form – and they’re gaining ground. 

For this article, we spoke with five exemplary women who have achieved success in their careers as jazz musicians, and who are working hard to inspire, encourage and empower the next generation of girls in jazz. They share thoughts on barriers women still face in the jazz world, as well as some of the ways these barriers can be overcome to create a safer, more inclusive, and more creative jazz scene. 

Obstacles faced

Gender stereotypes that classify jazz as a masculine genre along with a lack of female representation can make jazz uninviting and intimidating for young women.

And for those who are brave enough to enter this male-dominated musical genre, the challenges may not stop once they’re through the door. Unwanted attention or being expected to prove oneself in a way that male-identified jazz performers aren’t expected to are not uncommon.

Many women jazz artists report being reduced to their gender rather than treated as individual artists. “It is sometimes exhausting wondering how one’s playing would be assessed if folks weren’t noticing the ‘female’ aspect of it,” describes jazz drummer and educator Clare Church. “Are they looking at me like a novelty act? Are they actually being easier on me? Are they even really listening to the playing outside of the fact that it’s coming out of a woman, and in my case, an older woman, especially one who is (gasp!) playing the drums?” 

At the same time, a gender-blind approach to jazz has its own trade-offs. It is important to recognize that women face gender-specific barriers and challenges. Naming these challenges is the first step to fixing them. 

As an example, women performers have to think about safety concerns that their male counterparts may not worry about, says Olivia Hughart, saxophonist, woodwindist and composer. “Before taking a gig, you might have to spend more time thinking about whether the people on the gig are cool to be around or if you have found a safe way to get to the gig that won’t leave you on a train alone late at night,” she says. “Women also have to think about going to jam sessions alone or finding somebody to go with, just in case others at the hang have other motives besides playing the music.”

Creating a more welcoming space

When asked about how to inspire young women to become involved in jazz, the musicians we interviewed talked about the importance of seeing and working with other women in jazz. 

Entering into a male-dominated space can be daunting, but with the guidance and support of women role models and peers, it can be a whole lot easier. 

Turning to females of your own age group can be one empowering approach. Hughart noticed that girls were few and far between in her middle school jazz program. With the help of her teacher, she created Key of She Jazz for girls in her school district to support girls in jazz, from middle school through college and beyond. 

“I found that facilitating a space like this creates more enthusiasm and encouragement between girls trying to pursue jazz,” she says. 

Role models are essential

A lack of confidence can be a major barrier for girls who want to get started in jazz. They may worry they don’t belong or don’t have what it takes to succeed in a system that isn’t built for them. This is especially true if girls have seen few women jazz performers out in the world. 

“Girls need to see other girls succeed in order to envision themselves doing what they want to do,” says Hughart. 

Representation, community, and mentorship are key to providing girls with the support and confidence they need to succeed. “In jazz, taking improvised solos can feel like taking a leap of faith, and if girls do not feel supported or encouraged, we may not see as many girls out in front of the band soloing,” Hughart shares. 

Jazz pianist/composer and educator Annie Booth echoes this sentiment, stressing the importance of representation. “Having role models both in proximity to and from afar can make an immense difference in the self-esteem of young women learning such a heavily male-dominated art form,” she says.  

The importance of mentors

Booth urges young women in jazz to seek out female mentors. She created the SheBop Young Women in Jazz Workshop through the Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts specifically to bring female and non-binary young women together to play jazz in a safe and welcoming environment. Now as co-owner and co-founder of Brava Jazz Publishing, Booth offers a platform to publish and distribute the music of women composers and arrangers in big band jazz. 

“Mentorship is super important, especially when starting out,” says Hughart. “When I was able to meet other women who were making it on the scene and playing jazz professionally, I felt more inspired and was able to see myself pursuing a career similar to the ones that my role models and mentors had made for themselves.”

The value of college for pursuing jazz performance

College-level music school is helpful for meeting other women jazz musicians and mentors. This can facilitate professional connections and build a support network of like-minded, talented women who can advocate for each other and provide moral support, solidarity, and professional opportunities. 

These programs can:

  • Break down some of the key barriers described above
  • Build skills in an academic setting to foster confidence
  • Facilitate taking creative risks in a male-dominated world
  • Teach professionalism
  • Refine talent
  • Hone musical skills
  • Provide ways to stay a step ahead of the talent pool and stand out from the crowd, which many women jazz musicians will tell you is especially important when outnumbered gender-wise

Finding the right program

There are still lots of programs that are heavily male dominated in terms of both students and faculty, and it’s good to be mentally prepared for this reality. You may want to take these factors into account while searching for the best fit college for studying jazz.

1. Check the gender makeup of the faculty and previous cohorts. This can tell you a lot about the program.

2. Reach out to former women students for important insights into how they fit with the program’s culture.

“I found that when I was applying to colleges, I had to think about other things that my peers did not,” says Hughart. “I had to think about whether the program was going to be ‘bro-y’ or if it was going to be a safe and comfortable environment to learn in.”

3. Look into existing gender initiatives at schools you consider. Otherwise, there’s a significant chance you’ll be one of very few women in your program.

Parting thoughts

It’s clear that jazz still has a lot of evolving to do in order to become a safe and welcoming space for anyone with passion and talent. But things are slowly changing for the better thanks to talented women jazz musicians who continue to push boundaries.

Believing in yourself, as well as advocating for yourself and others, can help women and girls stay on the path despite the challenges they still face.

“So many jazz greats have said to me over the years, ‘Just keep doing it,’ which sounds so simplistic, but really is true,” says Clare Church. “If you don’t give up and consistently have a growth mindset, are open-minded about all kinds of music, and keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities, you’ll continue to grow as a musician your entire life.”

Annie Booth adds, “My biggest advice is to be yourself and stay curious about the music! I can see now that early on in my career I had an image of what I thought I should be doing and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun leaning into what makes my musical voice special. Everyone has something special to contribute and it’s all about working on your skills so that they can be tools in strengthening and adding clarity to your unique musical voice! There’s room for everyone in this art form.”

“Focus on your goals and celebrate your successes,” says  Jenny Neff, conductor, horn player and Lead Advisor for Key of She Jazz. “Don’t be afraid to have those difficult conversations (in a respectful way) that help teach others how everyone should be accepted and treated.”

Composer/arranger and jazz drummer Sherrie Maricle emphasizes, “Be aware of gender bias and misogyny and work hard to rise above it, confront it, and help fix it, whether it’s coming from a teacher, band director, friend or peer. Practice hard and be great at your instrument. Music has no gender. As my mentor Stanley Kay said ‘If you can play, you can play.’” 

Haley Zaremba is a writer and researcher with an MFA in Food Studies from American University of Rome and a BA in Media Studies from University of San Francisco. Her writing ranges from music and culture to energy and the environment.

Photo: Olivia Hughart of Key of She Jazz/ Photo credit: Manasa Gudavalli

Check out these excellent resources:

Brava Jazz  

Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts 

Jazz Education Network – Sisters in Jazz

Key of She Jazz

Special thanks to these extraordinarily-talented mentors and leaders for contributing to this article:

Annie Booth, jazz pianist and composer, faculty at University of Denver Lamont School of Music and co-founder of Brava Jazz Publishing.

Clare Church, jazz drummer, faculty at University of Colorado Boulder College of Music and co-founder of Muse Performance Space.

Olivia Hughart, jazz saxophonist/woodwind doubler, composer, and founder of Key of She Jazz.

Sherrie Maricle, jazz drummer/composer/arranger and leader of DIVA Jazz Orchestra

Jenny Neff, Program Director and Professor of Music Education at University of the Arts 


  1. Marlena

    East coast girls, check out The University of South Carolina’s School of Music JAZZ GIRLS DAY. Dr. Colleen Clark’s Jazz Girls Day began in January 2021 at the University of South Carolina. Since then, and due to help of a few University of South Carolina internal grants, the program expanded to three Jazz Girls Days in South Carolina, covering not only the Midlands, but also Upstate and the Lowcountry. Due to the success of Jazz Girls Day in South Carolina and Clark’s JGD: Vision 2030, JAZZ GIRLS DAY is now expanding nationwide, with the goal of hosting at least one University of South Carolina Jazz Girls Day in all 50 states by 2030.

    JAZZ GIRLS DAY invites and inspires girls for a day filled with learning, playing, and performing. One of the goals of the day is to help girls prepare for their All-State jazz auditions, although this is not a requirement to attend. The idea behind JAZZ GIRLS DAY is not only to welcome girls to start or continue playing jazz but also encourage music educators to encourage girls to play jazz.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *