We studied the ‘bibles’ of jazz standards—and found sexism lurking in the strangest place

Knowing jazz standards is your ticket to joining ensembles. Credit: Josephine Bevan/Unsplash

We are two female jazz singers, jazz researchers and jazz lovers. And we’ve found that jazz has given us another shared experience: sexism.

We both suffered from sexism in the garden. Wendy was asked by a male school principal if her recent marriage meant she would quit teaching to start a family. Melissa was passionately advised by a male audience member to swap her comfy outfit for a “glamorous dress” while singing jazz.

But as university music students, neither of us thought that something as innocuous as a key signature in a textbook could be a symptom of gender discrimination.

A key tells musicians what sequence of notes a song uses. When singing, a key determines whether the notes are sung in the low, middle or high part of the voice.

But when we looked at which keys the “biblicals” of jazz standards used, we found a hidden form of sexism.

The real books

This unusual story begins in 1975 at the Berklee College of Music in the United States. Two music students, tired of reading sloppy, error-filled song sheets, created The Real Book to accurately record jazz songs. Sold illegally to evade copyright, it was a phenomenal success.

After years of covert worldwide circulation, publisher Hal Leonard transformed The Real Book into a… legal edition. In 1988, Sher Music joined the act and produced The New Real Book. Despite similar titles, Sher’s book had nothing to do with each other, but it mimicked the idea of ​​clearly noting jazz songs.

Together, the two books conquered the market.

The real books remain the bibles of jazz musicians everywhere because they contain hundreds of songs that standards.

Norms are common jazz songs that jazz musicians are expected to know. Knowing them allows you to join jazz ensembles, which is why universities use these books to educate students.

However, few educators realize that one decision in 1975 about noting standards cemented a practice of excluding women.

Jazz is valued as a “conversational” style of music in which musicians express personal ideas and real stories. “Authentic” jazz singing is associated with the lower voice we use when speaking.

The human voice is a biological musical instrument comes in various sizes, with the male larynx (or voice box) generally being larger than the female. This means that men generally sing (and talk) in lower pitches, and keys that are in the middle of the man’s voice are usually too low for women to sing.

When our Berklee students and Sher Music wrote down songs, they chose keys used by jazz musicians. And at that time, male instrumentalists and male singers dominated the jazz community.

So when the real books were being developed, the editors didn’t pick keys that matched female voices.

What’s in a key?

Our research examined the recordings of 16 renowned female jazz vocalists, including: Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

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We sampled 20 songs from The Real Book and 20 songs from The New Real Book and compared the keys in the books to the keys on the female recordings.

Less than 5% of the 248 shots fully matched the printed key.

If women sing songs straight from The Real Book or The New Real Book, they are probably singing too low for their voices. And when they slide the male key up one octave

it will be too high.

As a result, female jazz singing students are disadvantaged. If they live up to the keys of the iconic lyrics, they don’t sound as “authentic jazz” as male students. The male voice will produce the easy-going tone we are used to from jazz; the female voice will be too low or too high for this conversation style.

The female professional singers we studied transposed the standards to keys that fit a jazz style. But this skill takes time for students to learn. To transpose you need to understand music theory and have the confidence to advocate for your needs as a singer.

Experienced jazz singers inevitably acquire these skills, but what about aspiring singers?

For many young singers, their introduction to jazz is colored by keys that do not match their voice. Put them in a band where the instrumentalists are mostly men with little understanding of voice production, and it’s an awkward situation for aspiring singers.

Fortunately, technology has advanced to the point where many standards are available on phones and can be converted immediately. But this won’t happen until music teachers and jazz musicians understand and respect singers by using the right keys.

So, can a key signature be sexist? Yes, you can if it is presented as the only key for female students learning jazz standards.

It’s time to update our jazz bibles with sources, including keys used by Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, and recognize that sexism has been hiding in the strangest place.

The secret of swing, treated in the lab

Provided by The Conversation

This article was republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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