Temple senior presents research on women in jazz at national conference

Bell Thompson’s Diamond Research Scholars project investigated why young women drop out of jazz bands.

Bell Thompson, a senior jazz studies performance major, presented research on women in jazz at the 13th Annual Jazz Education Network Conference in Dallas, Texas, on Jan. 6. | JOE LABOLITO / COURTESY

Growing up in Seattle, Washington, Bell Thompson – then in sixth grade – was one of many girls in Washington Middle School’s jazz band. Throughout the years, however, the numbers dwindled.

“Playing music and playing jazz specifically, where there’s so much improvisation and, even when you play a solo, I felt like it was hard for me to feel like I was good enough,” said Thompson, a senior jazz studies performance major.

Thompson began working on her research project, Gender and Jazz: The Experience of Young Women in Jazz Education, in March 2020 as part of the Diamond Research Scholars program. She presented her research with a poster at the 13th Annual Jazz Education Network Conference in Dallas, Texas, on Jan. 6. She hopes her research will start a conversation about sexism in jazz.

The project consists of interviews with 16 female high school students in jazz bands in the United States and Canada, who described feeling out of place in a male-dominated field. Thompson also synthesized existing research about the experiences of young women in jazz and the barriers preventing them from pursuing the genre, like peer pressure to avoid traditionally masculine instruments. 

Thompson always loved music but wasn’t familiar with jazz until middle school, when one of her teachers, Owuor Arunga, suggested she play “Satin Doll” a song by Duke Ellington on the trumpet, Thompson said. 

Joining her middle school’s jazz band only fueled her interest in the genre. Thompson continued playing jazz, joining her high school’s jazz band and JazzED, an organization that provides jazz lessons outside of school. 

Thompson became interested in gender studies when she noticed how few girls from her middle school jazz band continued to play in high school. 

“I wanted to interview female jazz musicians to help educators and people in the community to have some basis of information to work off of in trying to come up with ways to work on this issue,” Thompson said. 

Though she had never conducted a research project before, Thompson was eager and motivated, said James Earl Davis, an education and human development professor and Thompson’s Diamond Research Scholars mentor. 

Initially, Davis was concerned because Thompson didn’t have a background in social sciences or humanities. However, she was a quick learner. 

“She felt she had to quickly develop her research skills, and she aggressively did that and attacked this project in such a thoughtful and rigorous way,” Davis said.

As a jazz musician, Thompson has experience with improvisation – creating her own melodies on the fly – which she translated into the interview process by spontaneously coming up with new questions about her interviewees’ experiences, Davis added. 

“Embracing who she is, as a jazz artist, actually complimented her as a social science researcher,” he said. 

Thompson was surprised by how enthusiastic interviewees were and noticed many similarities between their experiences and her own. For example, because jazz is a male-dominated field, Thompson and the interviewees felt out of place and socially isolated when male peers didn’t acknowledge them. 

“I feel like I was really lucky, my high school band teacher was really supportive of me,” she added. “But it felt sometimes hard with my peers to not get invited to things.”

Although the number of Top 50 jazz albums led or co-led by women is growing, only 34 percent were led or co-led by women in 2019– the highest percentage since 2007. In previous years the percentage of albums led or co-led by women never exceeded 20 percent, NPR reported

The interviewees also spoke about feeling judged by their male peers. They never heard discussions about sexism in jazz and did not realize it was a universal issue, instead viewing it as a personal failing, Thompson said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Thompson to conduct her research through Zoom, which allowed her to talk to a broader range of women than if she held in-person interviews, Davis said.

Thompson is sweet and humble yet determined to claim her space in the jazz world, said Monika Herzig, an arts administration professor at Indiana University and founder of Sheroes, an all-female jazz band. 

“It’s okay to be humble and you get still acknowledged as a great player,” Herzig added. 

Thompson met Herzig when Sheroes performed at Temple in 2018, and the two were featured in “In Her Hands”, a 2020 documentary about sexism in jazz.

While the work was challenging, Thompson is excited to keep sharing her research and hopes to expand to other projects. 

“I think it would be really interesting to build off of this project, and maybe interview people of more different age groups,” Thompson added. 

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