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New initiative aims to make world of jazz more inclusive


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Amna Nawaz: When most people think of jazz greats, few faces of women and nonbinary musicians likely come to mind, but a new program is working to change that.

Jeffrey Brown takes a look at a pipeline being developed to pump talent into clubs and onto stages across the country and the world.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: A recent jazz performance at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage in Washington, D.C.; 28-year-old pianist Anastassiya Petrova says she came to love jazz as a girl in Kazakstan, when she heard a teacher play a ballad by Bill Evans.

Anastassiya Petrova, Keyboardist: I loved it from the first seconds. I decided for myself, I want to have a piece of that freedom.

Jeffrey Brown: You use the word freedom. What does that mean?

Anastassiya Petrova: Freedom under his fingers. He did not have any sheet music in front of him. He was just playing out of his head. And I could not believe that this was possible.

Jeffrey Brown: Thirty-year-old Ivanna Cuesta Gonzalez grew up listening to music with her father in the Dominican Republic, then one day came across a drum set in church.

Ivanna Cuesta Gonzalez, Drummer: I saw the drums, and no one could play it. So, I was like, I can do it. So they just gave me like two classes. I learned the first rhythm and the first field, and that is it. And that was just like the beginning, I would say.

Jeffrey Brown: Years later, for these early-to-mid-career professionals, the love is still there.

But while the road to making a life in jazz is hard for anyone, some face lingering cultural and other barriers.

Anastassiya Petrova: I approach the stage, and a male musician immediately asks me, are you going to dance today or sing? So, that immediately diminishes my skills as a pianist. And if I don't have someone introducing me to the band, to the house band, there is no way I could join a jam session.

Jeffrey Brown: Thirty-one-year-old Swedish-born guitarist Loke Risberg identifies as a trans man.

Loke Risberg, Guitarist: You get the feeling, or sometimes people say it out loud, like, oh, can you really? Can you? Like, they question even.

Jeffrey Brown: I mean, can you really play?

Loke Risberg: Yes, and in a way you would not question someone who is a cisgender male.

And that puts it in my head, that can I really? And that is the worst thing I think you should have in your mind when you go up to play a concert or a jam session.

Jeffrey Brown: These musicians are now part of a new program focused on women and nonbinary jazz artists started by veteran drummer Terri Lyne Carrington.

Terri Lyne Carrington, Musician: Your average musician, or how I really like to say it is, your marginal male musician will be supported and have work opportunities more than a woman that actually excels because of the culture and all the stereotypes that she has to face before she even plays a note.

Jeffrey Brown: Carrington, who was performing with her band, Social Science, in one of the Kennedy Center's main theaters that night, is a three-time Grammy winning drummer, composer and producer, who has played and worked with legends, including Woody Shaw, Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock, and a long list of others.

She comes from a musical family. Her father, Matt Carrington, a saxophone player in Boston, introduced his young daughter to the art form and many of its leading practitioners. She played her first professional gig at age 10 and has not stopped.

She is also a noted educator, teaching at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where we met recently. She says she used to advise young women to just put their heads down and push past the barriers, but no more.

Terri Lyne Carrington: Because everybody does not have the same personality. Everybody does not have the same confidence. Everybody does not have the same support. Everybody does not have the same access that I had.

Jeffrey Brown: At Berklee, Carrington heads the Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice and has created the Next Jazz Legacy program.

Terri Lyne Carrington: What I tried to do is think about what helped me to develop as a musician. What were the most important things? And it was really the musicians that gave me a shot even before I was ready. And I think that those opportunities are more far and few between for women than they are for men.

Jeffrey Brown: One statistic, in a 2019 NPR jazz critics list of top 50 albums, almost 60 percent had no women at all in the lineup of instrumentalists. A similar proportion of all jazz albums had no women musicians at all.

Vanessa Reed, President and CEO, New Music USA: We know there are some fantastic female vocalists who have become very famous and very successful in jazz, but there is a particular problem with instrumentalists and improvisers, who that's the backbone of that community.

Jeffrey Brown: Next Jazz Legacy was co-launched by the advocacy group New Music USA headed by Vanessa Reed.

Vanessa Reed: It is about ensuring that women and nonbinary instrumentalists can see that they have role models that they can follow. But, also, it's about building alliances with men, because, if we don't work with the people who currently have the most power in jazz, then we are never going to effect change.

Jeffrey Brown: The emphasis here is on apprenticeships, band leaders offering yearlong hands-on work, and mentorships.

Jen Shyu, Musician: I have found myself holding it like this, signifying the freedom.

Jeffrey Brown: In which participants, seven in the first cohort, are matched with more experienced musicians.

Here, Kalia Vandever worked with Jen Shyu recently in a New York City park.

Kalia Vandever, Musician: You are going to do your own thing as well.

Jeffrey Brown: They also receive guidance on the business end of the jazz industry and a $10,000 stipend.

Some top talent has signed on to help. Ivanna Cuesta Gonzalez is now working with Esperanza Spalding, one woman who has broken through to stardom in recent years. And she will soon work with sax player
Wayne Shorter, a long-established giant in the field.

Ivanna Cuesta Gonzalez: I mean, this is like kind of a dream for me, being with both.

Jeffrey Brown: And what is it you hope to get from them?

Ivanna Cuesta Gonzalez: For me, it is like to see how authentical they are. And I actually want to be like that. Like, don't be afraid who -- of my own ideas and try to put it there. And if people accept that, it's fine. If not, it is fine too.

So, I think both, in a way, they have been doing that in their own generation.

Jeffrey Brown: The world of jazz is changing, Terri Lyne Carrington says, just not fast enough. This program, she hopes, will help individuals, but also impact the sound of jazz itself.

Terri Lyne Carrington: I never looked at, well, I'm a woman, what does that mean in this music? What does that sound like? Does it have a sound?

I never looked at that because I was always trying to imitate men playing the music, because that is all we have ever heard. We have yet to see that happen because there is not enough of us yet that people are trying to imitate.

Jeffrey Brown: Stay tuned then for that next jazz too.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Amna Nawaz: That's a beautiful note to end our show on.

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