The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is one of the world’s leading big bands, and the only full-time jazz big band in the United States that offers pensions and salaried positions. However, in its 28 years of existence, it has never had a female member.
Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) has pointed out that its faculty is one-third female, and that it presented more than 125 female performers during the 2013-2014 concert season. However, according to jazz musician and activist Ellen Seeling, they still haven’t done enough.
The first woman to earn a degree in Jazz Studies from Indiana University, Seeling has recorded three platinum albums and currently teaches trumpet at UC Berkeley. “It’s outrageous that the richest, most powerful big band in the world has refused to include women,” Seeling says. “The boys-only culture of jazz is killing the music.”
Seeling organized a rally on April 29th in front of the Lincoln Center to call for equal opportunities for female jazz musicians. Seeling’s non-profit organization, JazzWomen and Girls Advocates, has called on JALC to advertise job openings and hold blind auditions. The organization also characterizes the Lincoln Center’s hiring process as discriminatory, and claims that it violates federal employment law.
“We need to remove Wynton [Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center] as the sole arbiter of who gets into the band,” Seeling says. “Once there is a transparent audition process, I have no doubt that women will be able to get in on every instrument.”
Seeling’s organization may have won a small victory. JALC recently announced a new selection procedure for its members. “We will post detailed job descriptions for each position and a repertoire list from the current season, identify job openings, clarify a formal application process, and hold live auditions, a portion of which will be screened (i.e. “blind”),” they said in a statement. “We will implement these changes before the end of the current 2014-2015 season.”
Whether JALC’s new hiring policy will change the composition of the orchestra remains to be seen. Activists have been advocating for greater inclusion of women in jazz since the 1970s, and Seeling admits they haven’t sparked the change they have hoped for. However, activists like Seeling hope that having female role models in prominent positions will inspire more young women to pursue a career in jazz.