When you think of the jazz “greats,” most of the names that pop into your head are probably men: Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. The field has long been male-dominated, with a few women mostly making a name for themselves as singers, but not instrumentalists. Berklee College of Music hopes to change that.
This fall, the school will launch the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, spearheaded by Terri Lyne Carrington, a multiple Grammy Award-winning jazz drummer, composer and singer.
Carrington, the founder and artistic director of the new Berklee institute, said that there’s an “unspoken phrase” in the jazz world that has long steered the narrative: the men play the music and the women sing. But even beyond that, the field has been “historically biased,” on both the music and the business side, she said.
“That’s what we’re trying to change and that’s what we’re saying, ‘Isn’t there something wrong with this?’” Carrington said.
“Even down to the jazz standards” — widely known and performed compositions — “that we play, most all have been written by men, and it’s very difficult to find standards written by women,” she continued. “If you turn on the radio, the major radio stations, you’re still hard-pressed to hear a lot of women.”
Carrington received a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music at age 11. She’s toured with Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock and more, she was the house drummer on two late-night shows (“The Arsenio Hall Show” and “VIBE”) and she’s won three Grammys (best jazz vocal, best jazz instrumental and one for producing a best jazz vocal album).
She’ll draw on all of this experience in order to mentor young women at Berklee who want to enter the world of jazz.
“I started hearing the stories of students at the college and also women outside of the college that really disturbed me,” she said. “I think it was just hard for them to navigate this biased system in the music business and specifically in jazz, and a lot of people quit or were just discouraged.”
Carrington luckily had a lot of support in her career, and relationships that opened those jazz doors for her.
“I realized that I couldn’t stand back and not really do my part in trying to help in the same way,” she said.
Berklee Jazz and Gender Justice: How will the institute help?
The Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice won’t require a brand-new building on the Boston campus. The school tends to designate specialized areas of studies as “institutes,” so the activities for this particular venture will be held in buildings that correspond with music education and jazz studies throughout Berklee.
The institute will include a classes, like “Jazz, Gender and Society” (which won’t start until January) with the hopes of adding the topic as an eventual minor. It’ll also be home to research activities like the curation of a book of jazz standards written by women, as well as artist residencies, performances and community engagement events.
The institute will be open to students of all gender and sexual identities, per the school. Carrington wants to be there for young women, but she knows that the gender disparity in jazz is a societal problem, she said, meaning everyone has to work to correct it.
Solving that gender disparity will also help the jazz industry overall, she argued, by allowing the music to grow and change, thanks to more input from women.
“I’m hoping that we make a lasting cultural shift at the college, but one that goes beyond the college,” Carrington said. “It’s up to both men and women to do this work, and anybody that really cares about the music and cares about humanity will see the value in making it more equitable.”