Photo depicting a group of female-presenting individuals in black concert dress holding up their hands and instruments along with their black music books up in the hair in celebration.

Jam Session in South Seattle Next Week Aims to Improve Gender Parity in Jazz

by Ben Adlin

The young musicians of Seattle JazzED’s Girls Ellington Project are inviting community members to an evening of improv and live music on Tuesday, March 15, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the Royal Room in Columbia City. 

The free event is geared at empowering “women and nonbinary people within the wider jazz community to be seen and heard,” the group said in a press release. “Femme instrumentalists and vocalists that wish to jam will be welcome on stage” to join the all-girl high-school jazz band and other Seattle musicians.

The community jam session is part of JazzED’s broader goal of promoting gender parity in jazz and music education generally, said Laurie de Koch, executive director of the music education nonprofit, which is currently enrolling students in spring classes. The organization launched in 2010 in an effort to address inequities in student access to arts education in Seattle, focused especially on students of color, low-income families, and girls.

“The girls thing became more prominent after two years,” de Koch said. “We noticed that 80% of the students were male. It was a small group of girls who were participating.”

Kelly Clingan, JazzED’s education director and the founder and director of the Girls Ellington Project, said the gender disparity is apparent in jazz education broadly. “Ten years of doing this, it’s still amazing to see five girls in a 20-piece band,” she told the Emerald. “When I go to adjudicate, I am the only female adjudicator in the room. Always.”

House bands are often all men who emphasize that they want to be inclusive but struggle to get women to turn out. “I see awareness, but I see very little changes being made by my colleagues,” Clingan added. “Organizers keep pushing it like, ‘Come out, it’s for everybody.’ But everybody’s not coming.”

Clingan founded the Girls Ellington Project, which she describes as “an all-star, all-girls high-school jazz band” in 2012. From year to year, it typically consists of 15 to 20 students from around the region. Costs, including possible out-of-state travel to the Essentially Ellington regional jazz festival, are set on a sliding scale.

Jam sessions like the one on the 15th are a nod to the get-togethers that were essential to the creation and evolution of jazz in Black America, however, this one aims to center women, trans, and nonbinary artists. “What happened over the evolution of jazz,” Clingan said, “would be big bands, playing all of the swing classics for dancers, you know, not really being stimulated by that, and then staying later and playing together.” 

These jam sessions — and much of jazz culture itself — were historically dominated by men. Often used as impromptu auditions, “they were created by a specific group of people to do a specific thing,” Clingan said,” and none of them were women.” 

The upcoming community jam session is one of a string of weekly jam sessions the Girls Ellington Project has been holding this year after finishing preparation for the Ellington festival in late January. Local musicians Marina Albero, Liana Green, Kate Olson, Haley Freedlund, and Kelsey Mines — who are scheduled to be at next Tuesday’s event — have helped reinvent jam sessions with the group.

Each Tuesday a different musician leads a session with the group. “And next Tuesday, we’re gonna figure out how we’re actually going to present this to people,” Clingan said. 

JazzED serves more than 1,300 students across 100 regional schools, with more than 40% of students receiving free loaner instruments or tuition subsidies. The organization is also working on fundraising for a new building in the heart of Rainier Valley, set to open in spring of 2023.

Clingan, who in a 2017 article for VOICE, a magazine for music educators, asked “Where are the Girls?” in jazz band education, says her goal with the new jam sessions are to discover how to better welcome “gals and our nonbinary pals” into music culture and pedagogy. Eventually, she wants to create a program “that we could be doing regularly at JazzED and that we could be making tool kits about for teachers around the country.”

Seattle JazzED has already helped create and popularize Girls Jazz Day, a free daylong event aimed at supporting girls in jazz. The group’s sister website has free resources available designed to make it easier for other groups to set up their own local events.

For the young musicians in the Girls Ellington Project, the goal of the jam sessions “is to have fun improvising, because they haven’t before, and they want to know what that feels like,” Clingan said. As the program ramps up, she added “they are having fun,” which comes as much from a newfound sense of belonging as it does from the music itself.

Tickets are available online for the March 15 event. Doors open at 5 p.m., and seating is limited. The venue is all ages until 10 p.m. Masks and proof of vaccination are required.

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured Image: The Girls Ellington Project will host a live music and improv jazz jam session on Tuesday, March 15, at the Royal Room in Columbia City. (Photo: Kelly Clingan/Seattle JazzED)

Before you move on to the next story …

The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With around 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible.

If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn’t have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference.

We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!