Black Women Jazz Musicians Speak of Their Transitions During COVID-19

Stay-at-home orders have caused several months of shows to be canceled. No one knows if or when people will be able to gather again which doesn’t allow women in jazz an opportunity to plan for their future. “I do not expect things to go back to normal.  The life we were living is now over. We have to operate with a new understanding and connect to each other in an entirely different way,” Ebony continues.

Since the emergence of jazz music, women musicians have faced difficulties from both the world at large and within the culture. Misogynoir is a day-to-day experience for these women and because of this, they have to use their energy to create mindsets and philosophies to help them overcome the existence of sexist conflicts.  “I don’t try to focus too much on the “struggles”. Yes, there’s sexism, ageism, etc. I choose to remain positive and hopeful. Right now, we have to thank all the essential workers who are out here on the frontlines risking their lives every day,” says cellist and composer, Tomeka Reid.

If gone unchecked, the presence of the COVID-19 can widen the gender gap by draining the already limited resources women of color in jazz receive. Without their national and international tours, the ability to network and collaborate with like-minded musicians, there is a chance that more male musicians will emerge stronger by living off royalties from top-selling albums, for example. There are systems set up to ensure the success of male jazz musicians via better media exposure and promotions which push their musical products to the forefront.

Women of color musicians have not been offered the same industry support system as their male counterparts pre-COVID-19,  which leaves them vulnerable when it comes to finding steady and sustainable work as jazz artists during and after this crisis lifts. “I think that I, like many other artists that rely on in-person work, have faced the reality of suddenly losing employment for an undetermined amount of time. We have no idea when things will return back to some kind of “new normal,” says harpist extraordinaire, Brandee Younger.  I’ve found that my rate of production is even slower than before when I was traveling regularly. It could be the emotional effects of the pandemic and the concern about no money coming in and covering bills,” Younger continues.

Nonetheless, there are grants that have been opened to help support lost wages and shows. The Jazz & Heritage Music Relief Fund, the Jazz Foundation Relief Fund’s COVID-19 Musicians’ Emergency Fund, and Louis Armstrong Emergency Fund for Jazz Musicians are just a few grants and funding opportunities for jazz musicians during this unprecedented time, and they offer some support to women of color artists who are working to stay afloat.

Throughout this season, though, the resilient perseverance and positive outlook of talented women of color jazz musicians, composers, and producers assist in moving the culture forward. If these women did not find ways to navigate and thrive in a male-dominated industry, we wouldn’t have access to the wisdom and unique artistry they bring to the table. When asked what she believes the future will look like, Bay Area harpist, Destiny Muhammad shares a positive point of view. “COVID-19 literally forced me into accelerated learning of audio-video recording to produce content for virtual events. As a Black Woman, my ancestors are showing how to humble myself and acquire applicable knowledge from my younger contemporaries to navigate through this shifting paradigm.”

With the combination of structural racism and sexism during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis and in general – women of color have found ways to survive and through any circumstance. We should never take their incredible vision for granted and honor what they’ve had to offer through the generations of Black music history. Their stories are rich and relevant and makes the world of jazz eclectic, vast, and undeniably interesting. “Many doors were shut due to COVID-19 for performances tours and gigs. I lost a lot of jobs and was really looking forward to traveling,” says the trailblazing multi-instrumentalist, Angel Bat Dawid. “But this pandemic also opened some amazing doors for me to focus on composition, recording, film scoring, and a number of wonderful projects that can all be done in the virtual world, she continues.

Through intelligence, positivity, and a bit of innovation, women of color jazz musicians will walk into a new era with their incredible talent and admirable outlook on the days, weeks, and years to come.

Let’s go a little deeper into what Black women jazz musicians Tomeka Reid, Brandee Younger, Angel Bat Dawid, Amorous Ebony, and Destiny Muhammad said.

Brandee Younger (Harpist and composer, New York, New York): In the beginning, I thought sure I’d come out on the other side with a pile of new music composed!  While I have written new music and been productive, I’ve found that my rate of production is even slower than before when I was traveling regularly.  Could it be the emotional effects of the pandemic?  The worry about keeping our families safe?  The concern about no money coming in and covering bills?  Being stuck in the same place? Thus far, I’ve kept myself afloat with a combination of grants from some arts organizations, live streaming on Facebook/Instagram,  my savings, and online lessons.  

Work-wise, I think we will be forced to adjust to something we’re not used to.  I was just joking this week that this pandemic has turned me from being just a musician into a musician, sound engineer, photographer, videographer, publicist, etc. All of this streaming from home requires so many skills!  However, I do think that we will have to be even more enterprising than we already are in our line of work.  We will have to look to new ways to make up for the live shows that we’ve become accustomed to.

Tomeka Reid (cellist, composer, producer, Chicago, IL): I don’t try to focus too much on the “struggles”. Yes, there’s sexism, ageism, etc. but as my good friend, Ugochi Nwaogwugwu always says, “don’t mind them.” You can’t eradicate all the bullies. You gotta keep doing what you believe in, no matter what. You keep pushing and open or create your own doors and if you’re in a place where you can help others, you do. I do wish that there were more black women musicians being represented and presented. It still seems to be uneven in that way. 

Much of my performance work, which is the bulk of where my earnings come from, have been canceled for the foreseeable future in the US. I have some work that is still scheduled abroad but I’m not sure if that will actually happen. Our country is not doing a very good job in handling this situation so I wonder if other countries will even allow us to come there and perform without quarantining for a length of time which might severely impede the ability to even make the trip.

Right now, we have to thank all the essential workers who are out here on the frontlines risking their lives every day. I think after all this is done folks will want to hear live music and see art and just be out to witness things. There’s an abundance of live streaming of concerts online but it really only goes so far. There’s nothing like being there to actually witness an event if you are able to do so. So, I’m hoping that we will all keep practicing and composing so we can share our music when the time comes. 

Amorous Ebony (vocalist, Baltimore, MD): COVID-19 has put a mental strain on my work because as a musician, I love connecting with my audiences and I love to socialize with my fans and those who I encounter in performance settings. I also do not have a home recording studio, though I do have my own vocal machines, mic, and amp to create. I’ve had to cancel gigs as well.

As an art instructor, it has been difficult to teach online and convert all of my lessons to quick and minimized versions of what I planned to do for the remainder of this year. Student performances have been canceled and many of them have been disappointed about this. This overall has been a blessing and an annoyance. I am happy to get a break from my bustling life but I am even more appreciative of each component.

I do not expect things to go back to normal, the life we were living is now over. We have to operate with a new understanding and connect to each other in an entirely different way. This is and has been hitting many of us hard. If it hasn’t already done a number emotionally, physically, or financially on you in some way, it will, and to be honest you are not alone. We need to keep the ball rolling with support, energy, and self-care. We got this, but only together.

Angel Bat Dawid (ClarinetPiano/Voice, composer, producer, Chicago, IL): The biggest struggle I face being a Black woman jazz musician deals mostly with maneuvering through stereotypes, microaggressions, and white supremacy. Working and living in a subversive perverted white supremacist music industry and culture, there seems to be this prevailing belief that if a woman, especially if a Black woman is a musician, that must be a singer or dancer. Now that is by no means disrespect to all the incredible vocalists and movement artists of the world. In fact, I am a singer. What I am challenging has to do with this underlying and disturbingly invisible white supremacist ideology that continually undermines the brilliance and intellect of the Black woman and underestimates her by assuming that she does not have the mental capabilities, skills, and ingenuity to be a composer, a multi-instrumentalist or an audiophile. 

Many doors were shut due to COVID-19 for performances, tours, and gigs. I lost a lot of jobs and was really looking forward to traveling. But this pandemic also opened some amazing doors for me to focus on composition, recording, film scoring, and a number of wonderful projects that can all be done in the virtual world. 

Destiny Muhammad (harpist/vocals, composer and producer, Bay Area, CA): COVID-19 affected my work by shutting down all of my scheduled performances from March 2020 on. Concert lectures, private engagements, and recording sessions were canceled. As a Black woman, I have chosen to call on the wisdom of my ancestors to guide me through this ‘crisis/opportunity.’ Their guidance is showing me how to humble myself and acquire applicable knowledge from my younger contemporaries to navigate through this shifting paradigm. What I am learning in real-time is how to merge the past ideas and techniques with present and future ideas and theories in collaboration.

For musicians, composers and producers, there are greater opportunities for our voices to be heard and experienced by a larger audience whose spirits will be refreshed by a tone and sound that hasn’t been fully heard and experienced before. We will seek and be sought out. What we must remember to honor, revere, and respect those who paved the way before us: Hazel Scott, Dorothy Ashby, Alice Coltrane, Melba Liston, Mary Lou Williams, Geri Allen and so many beautiful excellent powerhouse unapologetically Black woman jazz composers and producers. I see success as the long term effect if we honor our ancestral legacy and learn, share and collaborate with our younger contemporaries. We can utilize the digital landscapes to keep in contact with our supporters, fans, and family. I see success as our long term reality. – Jordannah Elizabeth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s