Women in jazz are generally relegated to the role of vocalist or pianist. I'm not sure why this happens. ... [Now] there are a number of movements to help promote women in jazz. - Michele Jansen
by Michele Jansen
Artists and musicians have always attracted my attention, so I feel blessed to be the general manager of KBEM, a Twin Cities radio station that plays jazz and roots music. I couldn't play an instrument well enough to entertain people, but I've spent my career presenting other people's music and entertaining people through radio. It's my way of touching the creativity that I can't express myself.
When I started in radio, there were very few women on the air. However, because stations were interested in becoming more diverse I knew I would be the token woman on staff. It's not an ideal way to get a job, but I wanted to get my foot in the door.
Working around a lot of men was never an issue for me: I have three older brothers, and I was constantly tagging along with them and their friends. It felt natural to be around men. What I didn't expect was the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, sexism - and sometimes downright harassment. In the late 1970s and early '80s there was no recourse for that kind of behavior. Women just had to tolerate it, or lose their jobs.
Jazz is also dominated by men. Women in jazz are generally relegated to the role of vocalist or pianist. I'm not sure why this happens. Many young girls and women play other instruments in high school and college, but do not pursue music as a career. There are a number of movements to help promote women in jazz, one of which is JazzWomen and Girls Advocates. This group has organized a peaceful protest outside New York City's Lincoln Center, because there has never been a long-term female player with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Not a lot of people in radio get to play the music they love. I love jazz, and I love the jazz community here in the Twin Cities. It's also a bonus that KBEM is housed in North High School in Minneapolis, where students may take the radio class as an elective. Many of them have never heard jazz, or sometimes they'll tell me "My grandma listens to it." Ouch.
Despite that, introducing America's indigenous music to high school students is rewarding and important. Both girls and boys are getting unique access to being on the air and learning communications skills. I give encouragement and mentorship to all of the students, but I do pay special attention to the needs of the girls in the program. I'm always hoping to introduce the world to that next great female leader.
Michele Jansen is general manager of member-supported KBEM-FM, Jazz 88. www.jazz88fm.com.