Jumping hurdles ... Christina Fuchs of No Tango. Photo: Supplied
HAVING not had the easiest time being accepted as equals in jazz, women remain comprehensively outnumbered. The wheel, however, slowly turns, and now a new jazz festival spotlights nine female-led bands, both international and local.
At its inception a century ago, jazz was frowned upon as an activity for polite young ladies. When women did break in they soon counted among its greats, including such singers as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. But the leading Australian musician Sandy Evans believes singers have been undervalued, contributing to a perception of women being at the margins of the main jazz swell.
In Sydney it has been no different. The outstanding pianist Judy Bailey carried the flame in the 1960s and '70s, before the likes of Evans (saxophones) became role models in the 1980s, and gradually the situation has improved, although it lags far behind parity.
'You have to fight your way in the beginning when you're a woman'' ... Cyrille Aimee. Photo: E Dell'Erba
Hoping to aid the cause, the Sydney Improvised Music Association and the City of Sydney are mounting the inaugural Sydney International Women's Jazz Festival. The association has run Young Women's Jazz Workshops for a decade, and meanwhile the annual Jann Rutherford Memorial Award has turbocharged the careers of several emerging female artists.
Among those is Hannah James, whose trio plays in the festival, and who believes women still start out on the back foot.
''The dominant assumption is that you're probably not going to be as good a player,'' the bassist says.
While this can be disheartening, she suggests it can also spur one to prove the assumption wrong, and adds that ''you don't want to be the one perpetuating that perception''.
Although the quality of young women players is clearly surging, Evans longs for the day when the discussion is simply redundant. As to its reasons, she chooses not to reduce such complex gender issues to neat theorising, preferring to try to effect change through education and mentorship.
Evans sees the existence of Sydney's all-women Sirens Big Band as a significant step.
''It provides a social context, gives them confidence, and allows them to relax and find their own ways of doing things,'' she says.
''You have to fight your way in the beginning when you're a woman,'' says festival star Cyrille Aimee, ''just to prove you are a musician.''
Having jumped that hurdle, the French singer faced another by moving to New York - ''Anywhere is easier than New York!'' - and a third because she agrees that being a singer makes it even harder to be taken seriously.
Another festival highlight is Trio M, led by Myra Melford. The leading New York pianist thinks it easier for women to break through now in the sense that the existence of exceptional female players is readily accepted, even though the arts environment itself is more hostile.
''There are definitely more women on the scene than when I first started,'' she says, ''and that's very encouraging.''
For all the artists, any thoughts of tokenism tend to be swept away in the pleasure of the chance to play.
The Sydney International Women's Jazz Festival runs from November 7 to 17 at the Seymour Centre's Sound Lounge, Chippendale.