‘Good for a girl’ and other destructive phrases: Sandy Evans on Women in Jazz

Sandy Evans is one of the most well-respected jazz musicians working in Australia today. Notice how I purposefully left out the prefix “female”. Why is it that people feel the need to introduce women with their gender? No one ever says, “one of the greatest male saxophonists of our time”. No, because just like “his”-story, the male gender is the expected norm.

These kinds of subtle uses of language are what are continuing the worldview that women’s creative pursuits are somehow less legitimate than men’s. The term, “She’s good for a girl” is one of the worst. Not only does it undermine a woman’s ability but it perpetuates the stereotype that women are just “okay” or “good enough”. These phrases are very destructive because no matter how ridiculous they sound, they become so ingrained in our culture that we start believing them.

I remember when I first started learning the guitar and I thought, “Oh I’ll just learn a few basic chords, I’ll just be good enough.” But as my musical journey has progressed it has been harder and harder to use that excuse – the kind of excuse that stops me from working to my full potential. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but the thought has crossed my mind, “I’m just a female guitar player, I don’t have to be that good.” Hmm, I wonder where that comes from…?

There are many reasons why there aren’t as many female musicians as there are male musicians, why we aren’t taken as seriously and why our impact on the history of music has not been as appreciated as our male counterparts. In this series of interviews, I hope to start to uncover some of those reasons so we can move on with being badass bitches who work hard, show up and become the very role models we always needed.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sandy Evans to talk about women in Jazz. (Note: Jazz is a specific example but this discussion is just as relevant to all mediums). Sandy has been at the forefront of pushing for Australian women’s involvement in jazz. In 2002 she started the Young Women’s Jazz Workshops which has helped hundreds of women to learn and grow in a supportive environment. This initiative alone has seen a huge increase in the number of women accepted into the Conservatorium Jazz program. She leads her own band and plays in The Catholics and The Australian Art Orchestra, to name a few. She has composed many pieces for different groups including The Sirens, an all women jazz band and has won countless awards for her achievements as a saxophone player and composer.

Here we touch on Sandy’s experience as an improviser, the value of gender balanced ensembles, and the importance of “never giving up”.

What were some of your early experiences with improvised music?

Creativity for me has always been about exploring sound and experimenting. My earliest memories are of being a very small girl in our backyard and just making up songs. My mum taught me the piano and she always encouraged me to just muck about.

When I was a teenager I formed a group called The Birds where I would write graphic scores and conduct them with a tree branch, dressed up in my best friend’s kimono.

I also joined a big band which was a much more male dominated arena and I really enjoyed that as well but I found it much more like being a part of a football team. I felt socially less comfortable there and struggled to figure out how I would express my creativity there.

Were you treated differently in that situation because you were a woman?

It’s very interesting, it’s hard to say. What I have come to think is that the social context of how a mixed group of men and women behave together is very different form a context of men with one or two women in it, is also very different from a group of all women. Those dynamics are extremely powerful and particularly at a teenage level. I mean, it continues all the way through life but I think it’s especially when you’re a teenager and in your early twenties and you’re still figuring out your relationship to the world and in a lot of ways, who you are. I don’t think anyone, with one or two very rare exceptions has ever treated me differently because I was a woman. There have been, a couple of people who are very misogynous but they tend to be people who have a lot of other issues going on as well.

Do you think women have a part to play in somehow undermining ourselves?

Totally. That’s a very big issue. I don’t like to place the responsibility onto women. I think certainly by nature I do that myself and I see that a lot in women, I see it in men as well though. I think two things are important. I think the belief of teacher and authority figures in the persons potential is really important. That’s been proven in education – they call it the pygmalion effect, where it’s shown that if, even subconsciously, the teacher doesn’t expect that person to succeed in the same way that they expect another person to succeed, it’s often how to turns out. Because teachers haven’t had the same examples of females succeeding in jazz as instrumentalists, they may be on a subconscious level haven’t tended to believe that the woman can’t progress to the same level, it’s very subconscious, I don’t think anyone would do that consciously.

It’s certainly cyclical though.

It’s totally cyclical. To break the cycle to change it, does take a considerable amount of effort and I think it’s about women’s belief in ourselves, it’s about other peoples belief in us and it’s also about role models and social context. When women are either in a more gender balanced group or in an all women group that makes a very big difference.

In the history of Jazz, the contribution of women has been undervalued. Instrumentalists who have been there throughout the history of music have largely been ignored but worse than that I think the tendency to think that it’s an instrumental music first and a vocal music second means that the way the history has been written has given much greater weight to the male input and for whatever reason, women’s input has been most influential in vocal music. Of course people recognise the greatness of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae but it’s often as a sort of secondary category to the “real thing” in the way the history is presented.

I think there’s something very clear in that which speaks to the way women have been viewed historically and also, perhaps it is at the core of what you’re exploring, for whatever reason, women have expressed their creativity more confidently in that arena whether that’s social acceptance or whether there are other factors involved as well I don’t know.

I know for me, directing my own band and being the only female in the group has been a challenge. What is your experience of being a band leader and taking charge in that context?

My first proper band was called Women and Children First (cool) and we had three women in it. One of the women Clayce Pearce was the one who showed me how important it was to believe in my creativity. She’s very much about trusting her own voice. I think having her as my colleague in a band early on helped me a lot. I really had no confidence. When it actually came to the music, to having a clear vision and believing in my vision, especially if other people had a different vision, it was very challenging.

How did the Young Women’s Jazz workshops come about?

In the Jazz scene it’s only by being proactive about the role of women that change is going to occur. I’ve watched for a long time without proactive steps being taken and nothing was changing. That’s when I started the workshops

The most wonderful thing is to watch the workshops develop. And there’s the Jane Rutherford awards and the mentorship scheme in high schools. Every so often you question whether these things are necessary and every so often you get flack from people saying, “Well why aren’t women better? They have all this extra support.” But I don’t think that’s a productive attitude. I think there are probably some very deep seeded reasons but proactive support is helping.

It takes courage for a group like The Sirens to exist because people question, “Why do you want to have an all women band?”

There are plenty of all men bands.

Exactly. And just through taking action like that the ramifications become really widespread.

What about the term, “She’s good for a girl.” How do you feel about that?

I often say to guys, “Not bad for a bloke.”

It’s one of those little phrases, people don’t think about it but it does undermine the value of women. I think that’s a very destructive phrase and we should question it whenever we hear it.

The way women behave, our natural tendencies, not all women but particularly if you’re not feeling confident in the first place, there’s a tendency to withdraw and that’s why I think all women situations are really good for women who are trying to build up skills in an area where they’re feeling vulnerable.

Do you think the reaction to withdraw is connected with shame?

Yeah. Definitely, “I’m not good enough,” which then can translate to, “I’m a bad person.” It can reinforce a negative self-image. I experienced that myself. I still do. If I make a mistake or don’t feel I’ve played as well as I want to then I definitely notice those tendencies.

It’s so easy to associate your self-worth with your playing, but really they’re separate things.

Exactly. And I think that’s a really big struggle and it’s important to find the separation between those two things. But it can be very challenging. Especially if you’re vulnerable in your life.

I think a lot of creative people are.

Absolutely. Historically speaking, part of the reason behind a lot of drug and alcohol abuse, within the jazz scene anyway.

What kind of advice would you give to young women in Jazz?

My number one piece of advice is don’t give up. Because most women who just keep at it and are dedicated with it, break through enough barriers to really have a good time. And it is a very amazing life path. To be able to create improvised music with your friends. That’s basically what we do. It’s amazing.

Any time that you find the negative emotions coming in, use it as a motivation to work on those nuts and bolts and get it outside of yourself. You’re not a bad person just because you played flat or you played out of time or you missed the chord changes. Go and work that out and then celebrate the fact that you worked it out. And that’s the building block of confidence. And you don’t lose it. You might get a bit rusty but it’ll come back.

You do it for yourself. You don’t do it to get appreciation or recognition from others. And don’t compare yourself to others. Valuing the fact that whatever you bring to it is really important, worthwhile and different from everyone else. That’s what’s so fantastic about Jazz and improvised music, difference is celebrated in a way that can include everybody.

One other thing I find helpful is I really like hearing other women perform. I find I get a different sort of sense of myself from that. Somehow watching women play gives me a different sense of what I can do. There’s something in that. That’s why female role models are so important. Getting excited about what other women are doing and supporting each other but not to the exclusion of men by any means. The beauty of supporting each other, it’s an important thing to nurture.

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