Sopot Jazz Festival 2018 - an interview with Roxy Coss

Marta Jundziłł

1. Do you consider yourself a feminist? What is your definition of it?

Yes, I am a Feminist. I consider a Feminist to be anyone who thinks women deserve equal rights and equal treatment.

2. You are in charge of Women in Jazz Organization. What so far is its biggest success?

I don’t like to compare or rate successes. I feel like there have been many “successes” and benefits of having the organization so far, and we are working toward so much more. One of the most important reasons I started the organization was to create a place for women jazz musicians to get to know each other, share stories, and find support. This has definitely been achieved on several levels already, and is something we continue to build and improve on. I have been overwhelmed with the amazing sense of community I have experienced from the women in the organization. Our regular meetings, as well as some unofficial WIJO “Hangs”, and a WIJO FB group, have all contributed to this sense of community. One great outcome of this has also been that we are all able to hire each other more, making sure more women in jazz are gigging on a regular basis. We also had a member start a WIJO Reading group, to discuss a book “Women, Race, and Class” by Angela Davis.

Another reason I started the organization was to create change in the jazz community overall, and we have seen that happen in many ways. For one, the existence of the organization itself has started a lot of dialogue and raised awareness that there is an issue for women in jazz. This is very important - just to acknowledge that we have a different experience than men, and get people talking about the issues we face.

Another outcome of this heightened awareness is that younger women in the jazz scene see that there is a community for them, that it is a real option for them to pursue this as a professional career once they get into the “real world”. We have also created several programs so far. One is the WIJO Mentors program, matching professional women in jazz (WIJO members) with young women in jazz at university jazz programs. We also threw a WIJO Concert featuring WIJO members, to celebrate International Women’s Day in March. We have worked with several outside organizations to help make safer spaces for women in jazz, and also to promote women jazz musicians and their work. For instance, we have worked with a local jam session, a national radio show, the local musician’s Union, and more.
We are also working to connect with many local organizations, camps, and initiatives, so we can become more of a national and international movement, rather than remaining isolated in our important work. To get a better sense of what work we are doing, you can visit our website. In the Member section, there is a tab “Current Projects” that lists all of the work we do each month.

3. On the WIJO’s website I’ve read that one of your goals is “dismantling barriers and inequities in Jazz music”. Have you ever felt you’ve been treated unfair because of your sex? Did you experience discrimination as a woman in the jazz world?

Absolutely. Every woman in jazz I have ever talked to has faced some form of discrimination, harassment, or isolation because of her gender. That is the basis for the organization. My entire existence and experience of being a jazz musician has been colored through the lens of being a “woman in jazz”. Every single aspect of my career is affected, from my instrument selection as a child, to my time as a student coming up, to my everyday work in the professional field. The focus is not so much that there are isolated “incidents” of discrimination or harassment, although there are many! But rather, the focus is that there are so many incidents, small and big, that the overall experience is drastically different for women. So, yes I “​did​” experience discrimination, but also I ​continue​ to experience discrimination. This is why this work needs to be done.

4. What do you think about the idea of gender parity in jazz music? (e. g. the idea that women should take up a given percentage of a jazz band)

I think equality and equal representation is the ultimate goal in jazz, and in life. One of the biggest problems with Jazz is that women are underrepresented. That is an entire population of people who could be contributing to the art form, enhancing the music. Ultimately we should see a balanced number of women and men performing. This doesn’t mean every band has to be exactly 50/50 men and women, but we can all do our part to try to hire more women, because this is not something that will change over night, and in the meantime, women are dramatically under-hired.

5. I’m wondering about the fact that at the beginning of musical education process at musical schools most of the children are girls. How is it possible that, in spite of it, jazz music is mostly played by men?

There are so many reasons for this question, it is a deep issue with complex causes, and I could go on all day. Even recognizing what all of these elements are is part of the work WIJO is trying to do. We must be able to identify issues before we can address them, and eventually overcome them.

I’m not sure about Poland, but I wouldn’t say that “most children are girls” in the beginning. There is certainly a more equal balance of gender amongst younger students. But even from the beginning, most “jazz instruments” (ie trumpet, trombone, drums, guitar, bass, etc. even saxophone) are traditionally considered “male” instruments, so boys are encouraged to pick up those instruments more than girls are. The biggest exception would be piano, where we do see more of a gender balance in the professional field. Beyond instrumentation, we have to talk about the jazz culture. As a student gets out of learning the basics, and moves more into learning the intricacies of jazz, they are introduced to a culture that is deeply rooted in misogyny. There are no female role models or examples of female “jazz greats” being taught in most educational settings, aside from singers (and vocalists have traditionally been excluded from the same educational ​and​ performance experiences). And female musicians aren’t hired or featured as much, either, so girls can’t access as easily a live performance by a female jazz musician. So girls don’t see being a jazz musician as a real option.

There is a culture of toxic masculinity in the music, and that affects every part of the experience for a girl. Harassment and abuse has been condoned, encouraged, defended, and perpetuated both on the bandstand and in educational institutions for decades. It is a “boys club”. The social aspect is a cycle - if there is a group of 8 boys practicing together, and they are all best friends, it is fun for them ​socially​ to work on the music. A lone girl, eventually might feel excluded, or that it isn’t a fun social experience for her, at a crucial time in adolescent development when social experiences are the priority. So jazz becomes work rather than fun. And if she continues, she is usually the only girl around, and that makes her feel further isolated, but also leaves her unprotected to harassment.
The typical age when students start learning to improvise is the same age when girls are being socialized to act submissive, passive, and starting to only be valued for their sexuality, rather than their intellect, or traits such as leadership. Boys, alternatively, are being socialized to be leaders, to take risks, be the center of attention (take solos), and are awarded for their ingenuity, confidence, outspoken nature, and intellect. These are all traits necessary for a jazz musician to develop.

Then, there is the issue of hiring. When it comes time to be a professional, it has been proven that women are hired less. One reason for this historically was the conception that men “needed” the work, to provide for their family, while women were “taking jobs away” from men. This attitude isn’t so overt these days, but the tendencies prevail.
And as musicians grow into adulthood, many boys are used to just being around other boys, so they may feel uncomfortable with a girl in the band, feeling they have to be on their “best behavior”, and it is just easier to hire their (male) friends. (This goes back to the social element, as well.)

There is still a misconception that “women can’t play” as well as men, and this shades many men ​and women​ from even considering who the women are they could hire to play in their bands.
One of the biggest issues is the prevailing attitude that we should all just “focus on the music”. The problem with this sentiment, is that only the people in a place of privilege are able to do this. For everyone else, (women in this case), you can’t avoid ​being a woman. ​To “focus on the music” means to ignore who you are, and what you are facing. Just doing the work isn’t enough, yet. You not only have to be as prepared as your male peer, but more prepared. You also have to “put up with” being treated poorly, harassed, and isolated. You have to withstand the added pressure of representing all women every time you play. You have to go out of your way to get the information, because many times the quality of education you are receiving - the actual information - isn’t the same education your male peers are receiving. And the performance experiences are also less than the opportunities your male peers receive. You have to face the fact that even if you are equally qualified in the end, you may not get hired for other reasons, including the social aspect.

6. What happens with those little girls? Are they less talented or just less determined and too shy?

You are putting the blame on the child. I disagree. I believe it is the blame of the culture and society, the atmosphere the girl is in, that causes those girls to eventually quit. To put all the responsibility on the victim perpetuates the problem.

7. You will soon be in Poland during the Sopot Jazz Festival. You will perform with the AXON project that consists of three women and three men. Is equality of gender in this band just an accident?

I did not book the band, so you would have to ask the curator! However, I can say that it was not an accident that the front line is all women. That is the concept of the group. I am not sure if there was an attempt to hire a female rhythm section or not. But I look forward to working in a balanced environment! And it is an added bonus that the “leaders” or front line are all women.

8. Your last CD - “The Future Is Female” - is really great, not only because of the quality of music, but also because of the fact that your compositions have a social meaning (Mr. President, Me Too, Ode To A Generation). I really appreciate it and want to thank you for this kind of artistic expression. Why have you decided to share your personal attitudes in music? What kind of reactions do you receive from the audience?

Thank you so much! I am glad the messages are being appreciated and heard. I think the music can be more powerful if the audience knows why it was created and what message the artist is trying to convey. I write compositions based on concepts, so I like to share these concepts with the audience. After all, I am a performer and my job is to relate to an audience, to share an experience with them. The more information I can provide them with, the better. Jazz is just one form of expression, and I think adding words and ideas to that expression helps enrich the experience sometimes.
I had a young woman approach me after my last gig in NYC, and she said she was crying during my set. She said, “I didn’t know that feminist jazz existed! But I am so glad” She had never had an experience like that, and she deeply related to the music on an additional level.

9. What does your working place look like? (Do you create your music at home? Have you got any special place/room/time during the day to play? Do you follow any particular rituals while creating?)

My working space is my home. I have two desks and a piano at home, and all of my instruments. I compose mostly at the piano and computer. And practice in my living room or bedroom. In NYC, we don’t really have much luxury in space. I wish I had a separate work space, but do not have that yet. Hopefully someday I will have a studio designated for music and work. I don’t have any rituals, every day is different for me, because as a freelance musician, gigs can be any time of day from 7am, to 2am! So, I just try to prioritize, get done what I can in any given day, and then I start it all over the next day.

10. What do you like most about playing saxophone? Can you imagine any other instrument to play?

I have always loved playing tenor. It feels like my voice, and I feel at home on it. At this point, I definitely “hear” ideas in the Bb key, which translates nicely to soprano sax and bass clarinet, which I also love playing and performing on. I also really enjoy playing the flute, which I’ve played since high school, and alto flute, which is more in the lower range I hear. And I play clarinet, too. I play some piano, but have never had the same “feeling” from that as I have with the wind instruments, where there is a connection with the breath, and the way you feel the vibrations as it moves your head, body, and the atmosphere around you. It feels more like a direct “voice” being expressed with wind instruments, and I like the flexibility of tone I can create, and different effects, especially on the saxophone. Plus, when I tried to perform on the piano as a child, I would get so nervous that I would be shaking too hard to play! For some reason, this was never an issue when I started playing the saxophone.