DC’s Girls in the Band Tell Their Story

By: Ashley Edokpayi

Leigh Pilzer recalls a moment early in her jazz career. Her facial expression tenses up as she talks about a local gig in 1995, where she was hired as the lead saxophonist. But once she walked in the door, all the producer saw was a woman.

“I had one extremely, extremely ugly experience. The contractor said, ‘The minute you walked in, the guy looked at me and said, “Who’s that?”’ And I’m five foot nine, and I’m carrying a baritone saxophone, I’m not exactly invisible. And a baritone saxophone is pretty obvious what it is when you see one. So he walks in and says, “well who’s that what is she doing here?” and he goes “that’s Leigh, she’s your bari-player for the session.”

“Well, I can’t have a woman! I need somebody with a lot of force!”

Leigh is not alone. Kirsten L. Warfield says she has often felt marginalized as the only woman in the U.S. Army Band.

“I mean, boys like to play with boys. The ones who are running those bands, that’s how they want to operate it. For most gigs, men are calling the shots.”

It hasn’t always been this way for women in jazz. Dozens of all-girl jazz bands went on tour during the 1930’s and 40’s and were successful. But in the next few decades, they had seemed to disappear. For reasons such as men returning from war with connections to other musicians in the military, and many women going back to being homemakers, female instrumentalists fell into the background. If you weren’t singing or playing the piano, you were much less likely to be seen on stage.

“The majority of the visible women have been singers, maybe pianists. But there have always been instrumentalists. There have always been women instrumentalists.”

In music and other parts of American life, women have often been shut out or excluded. Long time jazz academic Peter Fraize, who is the head of the jazz department at George Washington University, says that jazz is no exception.

“I think considering just the origin and the environment the music was in for so long, I think that sort of boys club thing takes a while to change around. I mean the mentality still lingers, if you’re a girl and you’re in school, ya know, boy – here’s your guitar and your drum sticks and girl – here’s your flute. It’s still kind of that culture.”

Kirsten says she has gotten used to being with the boys. She doesn’t mind being the only female on the scene as long as it doesn’t stop her from performing.

“You’re always gonna be operating in a guy culture, so you’ve got the guy humor, and I go back and forth between – is it better because they don’t change their behavior because I’m around? And I have to put up with the smelly farts and the really ridiculous sophomoric behavior. Or would it be nicer if they did change their behavior?”

In the past couple of decades, more and more female instrumentalists have tried to enter the jazz scene, but there are still relatively few, especially in Washington, D.C. Kirsten says that out of the biggest bands in the city she can only think of three women instrumentalists. Because of this, women like her have to push harder to be seen.

“I usually deal with it in jumping up and being like ‘Hey! Don’t forget about me! I’m over here, okay! I can do this too!”

I try to fit in, but there’s certain ways that I’m just never going to be one of the guys.”

Both Kirsten and Leigh say that it’s more than just being accepted by male musicians, it’s also sometimes hard to be accepted from the audience.

“People usually don’t tell you right to your face, but I do get a lot of the comment of ‘Oh my God that thing is almost as big as you!’ or ‘How does a little thing like you play a thing like that?’”

There are other moments when being the only female is praised. Leigh remembers an encounter she had the last time she played at Blues Alley.

“A woman came up and she says, ‘Can I have your autograph? You’re just fabulous.’ And I’m well, ya know, it’s these guys around me. ‘But you’re the only woman, and I want your autograph!’”

Over the past few years, women have been getting more attention in D.C., partly in result of the Washington Women in Jazz Festival. The festival had its fifth annual success this past spring and has helped women gain recognition and make connections with other musicians in the area.

“Hands down, that made a dramatic shift in the visibility, and I got to know a lot of people through that festival.”

Jazz academics, like Peter Fraize, agree that the boundaries for women in jazz are diminishing, but at a slow pace.

“I think that barrier is less and less now.”

Younger female musicians entering the jazz scene have benefited from the progress that has been made so far. 21-year-old drummer Savannah Harris, a senior at Howard University and member of their jazz ensemble, has been playing drums since elementary school. She sees the shifts in jazz as well.

“I just think it’s changing. That’s not to say that I’ve never been discriminated against because I’m a woman, I’m not saying that. But I am saying that I’m gonna come and do my thing regardless, so I don’t stress over that as much as I stress over being a good musician.”

Even male musicians can sense this change. DC jazz saxophonist, Tedd Baker, who has played in DC and other major cities since the 1990’s, says that the number of women musicians in the years to come will increase.

“To me there’s no excuse of why there is not a lot of women. I think a lot of women, they’re smart and they can handle any situation. There’s plenty of guys that will be there to protect them too. In my opinion, I think it’s going to grow even more.”

As veterans in the jazz industry, Kirsten and Leigh offer a word of advice to younger women on the scene.

“Don’t wait until you’re good enough. Do it. Don’t worry about being a fool; don’t worry about not being good enough. Just do it.”

“I tell younger musicians just don’t look down. Don’t look down.”

Musicians like Savannah have gotten the message. She says to forget the stereotypes, and just come ready to play.

“It’s not like we can categorize all men and be like, ‘Oh those guys, they’re not gonna let us do that.’ I think it’s okay to be past that now. If you come and you’re honest, and you come and try to play and that’s what you’re there for, you show that you know your craft – I think that people will show respect to you.”

“You know, go up there and kill it. That’s what I try and do.”

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Leigh Pilzer

Leigh is currently the only female saxophonist in the nation’s Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. Founded in 1990, the orchestra is specially funded by the U.S. government to show appreciation to one of the key elements in American culture – jazz music.  This years’ series of concerts highlighted the music of some of jazz’s greatest composers and musicians from the 1930’s through the 1970’s, such as Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones. As shown above, Leigh played as the lead baritone saxophonist during the orchestra’s June 13 performance at the Museum of Natural History.

Kirsten L. Warfield

Kirsten played with the multicultural jazz band, Black Masala, at Villain and Saint restaurant and bar in Bethesda, MD this past June. She says what she enjoys most about playing with the band is their diversity in sound. With the U.S. Army Band, she rarely gets the opportunity to play in jazz ensembles with her trombone, since the band primarily performs at formal events which require patriotic ensembles. Black Masala allows her to musically fulfill her love for jazz and other international sounds. She performs with the band whenever they are in the D.C. metropolitan area.