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: