Vail Jazz column: Gabriela, come blow your horn
July 15, 2016
Gabriel was an angel who used his trumpet to deliver important dispatches from all on high. Not a bad gig, if you are serious about playing the trumpet. The expression "Gabriel come blow your horn," derived from the Bible, and references to Gabriel and his trumpet are numerous in literature and song down through the ages, including Cole Porter's 1934 tune "Blow Gabriel Blow."
However, a real life Gabriel was already on the scene in New York — Louis Armstrong. Not sent from heaven, he was born in New Orleans and became the most important jazz musician of his era. For the decades that followed, Armstrong was at the pinnacle of the popular music of the day: jazz.
And the Gabriels who followed were Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, to name a few. You know their names, but do you know Valaida Snow ("Little Louis"), Billie Rogers or Clora Byrant? Of course you don't know these Gabrielas, even though they were all great trumpeters, because they were women.
Sexism and music
In the world of music, sexism has existed for a very long time — probably all the way back to Gabriel's day. From the early days of jazz, it has been almost exclusively a man's domain, not very hospitable to women. Starting as singers, and then pianists, women made inroads into the jazz arena as performers, and continue to flourish in these areas, but that is where it pretty much stopped until very recently.
Sexism and racism limited the opportunities of women in jazz, and it is only lately that a few women instrumentalists have become jazz headliners. Why, in this day and age when the barriers to the entry for women in most fields are being toppled, are women not joining the ranks of the prominent instrumentalists? Could blind auditions be the answer?
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In the world of classical music, attempts to overcome gender bias have been successful by the use of the blind audition — judges can hear, but not see, the performer and therefore her or his gender. In 1970, less than 5 percent of the musicians in the top five U.S. orchestras were women. But that began to change in the 1970s and 1980s when orchestras began to use blind auditions. Today, the New York Philharmonic is composed of 44 percent women, and in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, women out-number men.
"Ah ha" you say, blind auditions are the answer, and if the jazz world would only adopt them, we would have a much more equitable outcome. But would we?
More complicated issue
With women approaching equality in representation in major orchestras through the use of the blind audition process, you would expect to find an equal distribution of women in each section of the orchestra — 50 percent of the strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, etc. But instead, certain sections of the orchestra remain disproportionately populated by males — brass, percussion and string bass. What's going on?
Studies have established that after the third grade, children attempt to align their identities with their gender's perceived norm, and this carries over when they select instruments to play. Unfortunately, certain instruments are perceived to be masculine and others feminine. This sex stereotyping of instruments leads to boys playing trumpets and girls playing flutes. Gender categorization impacts the music education of young girls and is the root cause of the disparity in the outcomes, whether in the world of classical music or jazz.
Enter the women
It is slowly changing. In the classical realm, there is Susan Slaughter, who retired from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 2010 after a 40-year career, 36 years of which she was the principal trumpet of the orchestra. She was the first women to ever be so named in a major orchestra.
A bright star in the classical world is Alison Balsom, a British trumpet soloist who has taken on rock star status in Britain. She recently appeared at the Shakespeare's Globe theater acting and playing trumpet in "Gabriel." So maybe Gabriela has arrived in Britain. As the Observer said, "She has blown away the stereotype of the male brass player — and is a role model for many a young woman keen to blow her own trumpet."
In the world of jazz there are now several great women trumpeters on the scene, with two Canadians, Ingrid Jensen and Bria Skonberg, the most prominent. Both of these great players have performed for Vail Jazz in the past, and this year Skonberg returns to Vail on Wednesday and Thursday.
Skonberg started out playing piano but was encouraged to switch to the trumpet in the seventh grade by her father, who had played trumpet in his school band. She also sings and has performed at jazz festivals throughout North America, Europe and Asia. Will Friedwald, jazz writer for The Wall Street Journal, put it this way, "Bria Skonberg looks like a Scandinavian angel … (and) plays trumpet like a red hot devil."
Skonberg is clearly on her way to becoming the Gabriela of jazz.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 22nd year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit http://www.vailjazz.org for more information.