Why Don't More Women Play Sax, Trumpet, or Bass?

Recently I received two new cd’s by artists playing brass and reed instruments:  Bria Skonberg is a trumpet player, while Hailey Niswanger is a sax player.   You don’t get this stuff everyday;  usually women are singers or pianists.  Thank goodness for the exceptions:  teenager Grace Kelly (yes, that is her name) plays alto sax and was a star student of Phil Woods) Terri Lynne Carrington the great drummer, the immensely talented Esperanza Spalding, who plays upright bass and who won the coveted  Best New Artist Grammy a year ago.  And going back we have trombonist/arranger Melba Liston and alto saxophonist Vi Redd.  But usually women do other things in jazz.  Like sing.

Do parents or teachers assign instruments they think fitting for their daughters?  You don’t want your girl to play trumpet or tenor but the harp, flute, or piano is okay?

As an aside, I must mention a few of the great pianists:  Nina Simone with her Bach-like improvisations, the understated voicings of Shirley Horn, whom Miles loved;  Geri Allen’s harmonic genius.  And many others, such as Renee Rosnes, and a recent import from Azerbaijan, Amina Figarova.


In classical music women play lots of violins, pianos, harp, cellos,  flutes and other wind and brass instruments.   Not so much contrabass, tubas, percussion.

Why is this?  Are there some type of unwritten gender rules when it comes to what instruments women play?  I confess I have no idea.  Are some instruments, say flutes, more feminine than trumpets or saxophones or upright basses?  I remember some Greek philosopher said that the lyre was preferable to the flute because the face wouldn’t have to be contorted in playing.  Is that why women don’t play saxophones and trumpets, because it somehow isn’t comely?  No, I don’t think that’s the case here.

Getting back to Hailey Niswanger and Bria Skonberg:  Hailey starts out on her new album The Keeper playing a straight-outta-Coltrane piece called “Scraps”.  There are also more straight-ahead blowing tunes and standards like “Milestones” and “Night and Day”.

Bria Skonberg, meanwhile, plays a mean old-school New Orleans trumpet reminiscent of Satchmo.  Here she is playing a classic from the great New Orleans composer W.C. Handy, who wrote one of the most famous New Orleans songs, “St. Louis Blues”


Here’s a clip of Hailey Niswanger’s Quartet in a club datge playing a nice ballad:



  1. tomschnabel
    December 22, 2016, 1:42 pm

    cool, keep playing it. listen to Ron Carter's work with Miles Davis, and there are so many other great bass players too!!! good luck!

  2. Sofia Unicorn
    December 22, 2016, 1:02 pm

    As a 15 year old girl people are often shocked to see me carrying around a contrabass, but it's so worth it!!

  • Terry Swart

    My niece had 4 band classes in her senior year at Broken Arrow High School – she played bass clarinet in wind ensemble, contrabass clarinet in symphonic band, trumpet in concert band and baritone sax in jazz band. She still plays bass clarinet and trumpet at the University of Tulsa. I think the young women are there; just not on the radar yet.

    • tom

      way to go. nice to hear this Terry!

  • Claudia Gomez

    Very nice article! I showed this to my little sister who plays alto sax in her high school marching and concert band and thought maybe the weight of the instrument is a factor? She plans to play a lower brass instrument next year, and even hopes to make a career out of it. Whatever the reason, artists like the ones you mentioned, still provide the talent, dedication, and inspiration so that girls like my sister and other girls alike can proudly play anything they want. Thanks for putting such ambitious women in the spotlight.

  • tom

    it's not that it's a gender issue…not at all. just asking why. do you have an explanation?

    • srbenedicta

      Sorry to have sounded so snippy, Tom. I know I play clarinet because I like carrying a black and silver stick! Seriously though, weight may play a role in why tubas, etc are not popular with us fems.

  • tom

    fair enough. certainly weight must have been a factor. but there are women firefighters carrying bodies out of buildings, female lifeguards (there were much fewer when I was a county beach lifeguard). I just want all gender considerations to go away and women–and men–play the instrument they love.

    • tom

      when i started out as a county beach lifeguard (made famous by Baywatch), there was only one woman and it wasn't easy for her. today many women are beach lifeguards here.

      as far as firefighters go, it is certainly easier for play a trumpet or a contrabass than it is to pull somebody out of a burning building.

      thanks for your comment.

  • srbenedicta

    Hi, Tom. Happy to see this conversation continuing down the yellow brick road!

  • MarkInCA

    Daughter is learning to work the saxophone…she plays just what she feels 🙂

  • Sofia Unicorn

    As a 15 year old girl people are often shocked to see me carrying around a contrabass, but it’s so worth it!!

    • tomschnabel

      cool, keep playing it. listen to Ron Carter’s work with Miles Davis, and there are so many other great bass players too!!! good luck!