Girls Are Outnumbered in Jazz. At This Summer Camp, They Run the Show.

COPENHAGEN — On a morning in late June, 16 girls arrived at an urban courtyard for the timeless summer ritual of camp drop-off. Some came clutching their parents’ hands; others raced ahead to greet old friends. One young teenager with strawberry-blond curls, who had come because her working parents told her she couldn’t sit home alone all day, stood nervously waiting for things to get underway. But it wasn’t long before the 13-year-old happily joined an ice-breaking game. “Hi, my name is Anna,” she chanted, as she clapped out a rhythm that the others repeated back to her: “Ba-BAH-ba-ba-BAH.”

The campers, who ranged in age from 9 to 15, had just gotten their first lesson in jazz. Over the next four days, they would learn about the genre’s distinctive rhythms and melodies, and try their hands at improvising on a number of different instruments. But perhaps the most important lesson for the students at Jazz Camp for Girls is that there is a place for them in jazz at all.

Plenty of art forms have a gender imbalance, but in jazz, where men heavily dominate the industry’s production, consumption and education, the inequality is especially pronounced. From 2007 to 2018, women musicians led or shared the lead on less than 20 percent or so of the 50 best albums in the NPR Jazz Critics Poll. One recent study found that just 4 percent of notable jazz musicians in the United Kingdom are women. And even in supposedly egalitarian Denmark, the proportions have been thoroughly uneven; a 2012 report found that women made up only 20 percent of the rhythmic music industry there.

“It was a shock,” said Agnete Seerup, deputy director of JazzDenmark, an organization that co-founded the girls’ camp in 2014 in response to that damning study, and today oversees the program alone. “So we created the project to encourage more girls to play rhythmic instruments. And hopefully change the gender balance down the road.”

The jazz musician Johanna Sulkunen was thinking of the effects of that imbalance when she enrolled her daughter in the Copenhagen camp. “You’re not taken seriously,” she explained. “You don’t get solos. You’re not seen as a musician.” Saying goodbye to Alma, who is so small that she has to rest the bottom of her saxophone on a stool when she plays, Sulkunen said she hoped things would be easier for the 9-year-old. “I really hope that for her, it can just be about the joy of making music.”

This year’s camp was held in 11 cities across Denmark from June 27 to 30. Grouped into eight-person bands, the girls were taught by instructors who are also working musicians. The four days culminated with a concert for family and friends.

On the first day of the Copenhagen camp, held at the Rytmisk Center music school, the girls gravitated to instruments they knew — Lola Engell, a 10-year-old in a Rolling Stones T-shirt, tapped out a beat on drums while Flora Aaris-Hoeg, 11, strapped on an electric bass. Jazz Camp focuses on rhythmic instruments to counteract the historical relegation of women in jazz to singing, which was often cast as “entertainment” rather than the serious art practiced by men. And it makes a point of moving the girls through a number of them.

“Rotation is a big part of what we do,” said Cecilie Strange, an instructor and saxophonist. “We’ve had girls who have never sat behind a drum set, and when you ask them to play it, some of them will be like, ‘I don’t think so.’ But it’s really important to get everyone to try everything. And sometimes you see really fast that a girl has a knack for an instrument she had never tried before.”

The emphasis on rotation is also intended to help the girls overcome the self-consciousness that sometimes limits them. “Girls naturally have almost the same interest in the instruments as boys,” Strange said. “But they need more control: they worry about how they look and don’t want to make mistakes. That can be a barrier.”

Flora, the 11-year-old whose first instrument is bass, said she liked not having boys around: “It just makes you more comfortable.”

Encouraging the girls to improvise — there is no sheet music at the camp — builds confidence while also introducing an important aspect of jazz performance. Strange taught the girls to play a few classics from the jazz repertoire, like Sonny Rollins’s “Sonnymoon for Two,” but the camp’s other instructor, the saxophonist and composer Carolyn Goodwin, took the girls in a more experimental direction. “I want these girls to feel like even if they don’t identify with the traditional approach, that they can still find themselves in the music in another way,” she said.

On the camp’s second day, Goodwin got the girls started on their own improvisation by playing a selection from “Zodiac Suite,” and asking if anyone knew the composer. When none of the campers raised their hands, Goodwin told them that women composers were part of jazz’s history even if they weren’t well known. “This one is by Mary Lou Williams,” she said. “Can you say her name?”

Viola Sisseck Rabenhoj, 10, had a knack for composition; even before camp, she and her fellow camper Alma had written a piece about Alma’s pet hamster, Vinny. Now, Goodwin took a melody that Viola had created, and asked the girls to follow Williams’s example and riff around a Zodiac sign both by playing and by writing a short text. They later put the elements together into a song with spoken-word lyrics. Practicing it on the final day of camp, Aya Knudsen Rein worked a flourish into her drum solo, then smiled proudly.

Years after participating in the 2014 and 2015 Jazz Camps, Kathrine Stagsted Lund, now 23, remains grateful for the experience. “It most certainly had an impact on me,” she said. “I got introduced to the double bass, which I continue to play. I volunteer at a jazz club and always seek out the jazz concerts in Copenhagen.” More than anything, though, the experience helped her navigate playing in rhythmic ensembles: “As a young female instrumentalist always outnumbered, it gave me a sense of confidence and courage.”

For the first time this year, Jazz Camp for Girls will also be held in Finland, Poland and Sweden. But for all their anecdotal success, the programs still have some ways to go before their impact is measurable. Last year, JazzDanmark studied why the needle hadn’t moved much on the 80/20 gender distribution. “We found out that private networks really matter in jazz,” Seerup said. “Many jobs in the music industry are given out one night at a bar, and if you’re not part of that private network, you’re less likely to get one. What we’re focusing on now is creating strong relationships between girls now, so they might become networks later.”

On the final day of Jazz Camp, those networks seemed to be off to a good start. Anna Kirkhoff Eriksen, the strawberry-blond drummer who didn’t know anyone when she arrived at camp, had become fast friends with Sarah, who played keyboards, and Liva, who thrilled the audience at the final concert with her trumpet solo. And Flora, who was comfortable on the bass but had been nervous to be performing her first drum solo, was delighted with how it had all gone.

“That was great!” she gushed, as she exchanged phone numbers with her new friends, Aya and Lola. “We should form a band!”

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