In the 2019 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, five of the top 10 new releases were recordings led or co-led by women artists — a startling 50%. In fact, it is the largest number of projects led by women in the top 10 since the annual poll began 14 years ago, surpassing 2018, when women comprised a third of those rankings.
That would seem to be good news for a musical community that has been frustratingly slow to embrace women musicians. Women in jazz have traditionally been singers, a role that allows them to be dismissed as entertainers who are not fundamental to jazz as “serious” art. Few female instrumentalists — or, for that matter, composers, arrangers and bandleaders — have become part of the music’s story, one that stretches back to the late 19th century.
But with the results of the 2020 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll only days away from publication, it is an opportune moment in which to revisit — and question — claims of women’s progress. Any of the optimistic assessments occasioned by this poll, and in the wake of jazz’s #Me Too stirrings in recent years, are likely to be premature. Only when women’s participation in the music has been clearly defined, documented and measured can we be certain of any improvement in their collective status — or lack thereof.
To that end, NPR Music commissioned Lara Pellegrinelli and a team of independent reporters to analyze the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll and see what concrete data could reveal about the role of gender in this particular critics’ year-end list and the status of women jazz artists generally speaking. Although the findings are currently limited to a gender binary, dividing artists into unequivocal categories for women and men, we acknowledge the presence of a broader spectrum of identities than our project was able to capture, including cisgender women and men, transgender women and men and those with non-binary, gender non-conforming and gender queer identities.
By definition, lists are hierarchical. The politics of the communities who create them can be found embedded within them. The issues raised by this poll have relevance well beyond jazz for all sorts of critics’ year-end lists. Like NPR Music’s Turning the Tables, a feminist intervention in the popular music canon, our inquiry also offers an opportunity to challenge list-making as a means of arriving at critical consensus that results in new musical histories and potentially perpetuates the conditions that enable the erasure of women musicians.
Historian Sherrie Tucker writes that jazz history is typically told as the history of records, the residue of living, breathing musical creation — an observation that could be extended to all kinds of music histories in the 20th and 21st centuries. But recordings are also made and circulated within a male-dominated industry and media. So the year-end polls that rank those projects — and empower “experts” to anoint or dismiss the artists who make them — warrant our skepticism and scrutiny.
And we well know that year-end lists have additional lives as listening lists, shopping lists, booking lists and hiring lists. Artists inevitably benefit from the prestige that the polls confer, creating a feedback loop that validates and fosters the visibility of their future labors. It is therefore important to understand whether or not they are reproducing and reinscribing gender bias.
The NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll is particularly well-suited to close study. Founded by Francis Davis in 2006 and published by NPR Music since 2013, it is the largest annual jazz critics poll, drawing the participation of up to nearly 150 critics who contribute to a range of media outlets. As such, it arguably provides the broadest picture of jazz criticism in a given year. Although the published results on NPR Music highlight the top ten new releases, interested readers can access a complete list of the hundreds of albums for which critics cast votes, as well as their individual ballots.
Aside from clarifying voting categories and the particulars of ballot submission, Davis is hands-off in his management of the poll, not wishing to influence the results. He defines the activity simply: “It’s the way a critic takes a stand and says this is what is best,” he explained in a recent interview by phone.
Rather than steady progress, this wealth of data indicates that women’s critical recognition through the poll has remained static over the years. The percentage of projects led or co-led by women in the top ten has ranged from 0% to 50%, but has not made consistent gains.
This is, however, a narrow sample. Broadening the base for analysis to the top 50 new releases offers a clearer picture. The percentage of projects led or co-led by women over the life of the poll has ranged from 8% to 20% — until 2019, when it jumped to 34%, perhaps the result of recent #MeToo consciousness raising or the happenstance of a particularly strong year for recordings by women musicians. It is not possible to say whether or not last year’s poll represents a significant difference in the status of women or is an outlier until the 2020 poll data is available.
For the poll’s three most recent years (2017, 2018, 2019), the team analyzed every new recording that received a vote, as many as 500 recordings per year. The total number of projects led and co-led by women artists represented in the poll over that time span was between 18% and 22%, in keeping with the representation of women in multiyear analysis of the top 50. Although the number of women in the top 10 in 2019 was 50%, and higher than it had ever been before, the number of projects led or co-led by women overall actually declined slightly from 22% in 2018 to 21% in 2019.
This information does not suggest a jazz landscape where women and men participate equally, but where a small, selective group of women sometimes receive attention as exceptional talents. The names of female artists who frequent the top of the poll would likely be familiar to jazz fans: big band leader Maria Schneider, saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, pianists Myra Melford and Carla Bley, clarinetist Anat Cohen, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, flutist Nicole Mitchell and the late pianist Geri Allen prominent among them. They appear in the poll time and time again. (It is also worth noting the labels that these women record for: Although a handful appear on jazz stalwarts like Verve, Concord and ECM, and some self-release their projects, more of them record for prominent indies favored by critics such as Intakt, Motema, Greenleaf, Clean Feed and Firehouse 12.)
Case in point: The 2018 NPR Music Jazz Critics poll had a total of four projects led or co-led by women in its top ten. At closer inspection, that is less than it appears: Two are the same person, guitarist Mary Halvorson, who received recognition for her recording Code Girl (Firehouse 12) and as a co-leader of the trio Thumbscrew with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara for Ours/Theirs (Cuneiform). Halvorson has appeared as a leader or co-leader in the top 50 of the poll 10 times. Some of the women who play in Halvorson’s bands appear in the poll as leaders of their own projects, most prominently pianist Kris Davis, whose Diatom Ribbons (Pyroclastic) was No. 1 in 2019; this was her fourth appearance in the poll’s top 50.
“Individual musicians can be exceptional, but that can actually reinforce inequities,” says NPR Music’s critic Ann Powers, co-creator of Turning the Tables and a veteran of the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop polls during her tenure there as Music Editor. “You need to have a woman not just at No. 1, but at No. 8, and No. 10 and No. 25. You need an equal distribution, otherwise the women at the top are forever an exception.”
The hypothesis that critical recognition is disproportionately limited to a small group of exceptional women is supported by a deeper analysis of the data for 2017, 2018 and 2019. The team researched the full personnel on every album that received a vote through publicly available information online. We documented whenever a recording included women as “sidemen,” essential members of an ensemble other than its leader; we will refer to them as core band members. We distinguished between these musicians, who are essential to a band, and others we who might be considered additional or ancillary personnel: those who performed as guests limited to a few album tracks or took on non-improvising roles, typically on non-traditional jazz instruments (such as background vocalists, and string and wind players employed on large ensemble arrangements).
During those three years, the majority of jazz recordings ranked in the poll included no women musicians at all among their core personnel: 67% in 2017, 65% in 2018 and 58% in 2019. We can also slice the data a different way, by totaling the core band members for each project and counting the number of women among them: Women comprised only 11% of all core personnel in 2017, 13% in 2018 and 16% in 2019.
Although these statistics may indicate some positive change in the representation of women, they paint a very different picture of that progress than an analysis of the top 10 or even top 50. They suggest that the majority of band leaders, both male and female, fail to hire women for their recording projects, though women hire other women musicians at a higher rate than men do (24% vs. 18% in 2017; 28% vs. 17% in 2018; and 42% vs. 24% in 2019).
The musicians with whom band leaders choose to record are often a reflection of who they work with in live performance. Together, these streams of income are significant if jazz musicians are meant to earn some semblance of a living performing, especially when studies show that their overall income is declining. In a profession that has traditionally employed an apprentice system, where up-and-coming musicians work as sidemen in the service of more experienced leaders before going out on their own, women do not have equal access to these rungs on the professional ladder, which impacts not only their musical development but also their critical recognition. Ready or not, they may have no choice but to lead their own projects if they wish to succeed.
In his introductory email to participants last year, founder Francis Davis stated that “the poll’s purpose is to provide an annual snapshot of critical consensus regarding jazz, while acknowledging diversity of opinion via the online posting of individual ballots.” The poll data itself, however, challenges ideas about the meaning and value of that consensus.
The outcome of the poll depends in part on who votes in it. Women and men exhibit different voting preferences along gender lines; an analysis of the individual ballots from 2017, 2018 and 2019 shows that women critics were approximately one and a half times more likely to vote for projects led or co-led by women musicians than their male counterparts. In addition, researching individual ballots revealed that, on average, 12% of male critics ranked no projects led or co-led by women musicians at all, even during years when a substantial number of women made recordings compelling enough to land in the top 10 and top 50.
It’s worth considering, then, the low number of women critics who participate in the poll. In its first year, there were none among the 40 participants; in 2019, women critics comprised 10 out of 141 critics total, or 7%, the highest number in the poll’s history. By comparison, women are 19% of the voting members of the Jazz Journalists Association, and 16% of those within the organization who specifically identify themselves as jazz writers.
Of course, gender parity among voters would be unlikely to result in the equal representation of women musicians in the poll. Being female doesn’t render women critics immune to implicit bias. And women jazz musicians are fewer in numbers than their male counterparts. But, if all of the critics who voted in 2019 had been female, we can project that the number of recordings led or co-led by women musicians would be 32% of the total ranked albums — a number consistent with the 30% female membership of JEN. In other words, if everyone had voted the way that female critics did, the representation of women musicians in the poll would be in keeping with the number we estimate to be working as professional performers.
But some structural factors in this poll mean that the addition of even a single female critic — someone more likely to vote for projects led by women — could be consequential in terms of increasing women’s representation, even at the very top of the rankings. In voting, each critic ranks their choices from one to 10, with a first-place nomination equaling ten points, second place equaling nine and so on in a weighted system. Because so many different albums receive votes across all the ballots — some years, as many as 500 albums — comparatively small point totals are needed for high rankings in the poll. Sometimes the top albums are only separated by a handful of points.
This is what the numbers looked like in 2019: 86 different recordings received first-place nominations from 141 critics. Kris Davis landed in the top spot with a total of 260 points; she appeared on just a quarter of the ballots. A project needed only 105 points to earn a place in the top 10 (a minimum of 11 ballots), and a mere 33 points to place in the top 50 (a minimum of four ballots).
Clearly, every participant matters. And in fact, two new female critics joined the voters in 2019: Shannon Effinger and Jordannah Elizabeth, who are also members of this team of reporters. Angel Bat Dawid’s debut The Oracle (International Anthem) landed in the No. 30 spot with 59 points, 19 of which came from Effinger and Elizabeth.
The outcome of the poll has a direct impact on individual musicians’ careers and, ultimately, the formation of new musical canons, a point at which women may face erasure. So without a majority of votes to determine a winner, should the poll results carry the weight of a unified critical ruling? “It’s as close as we can come,” says Davis, citing the difficulties that stem from an abundance of releases and competing stylistic branches of the jazz tradition, not to mention a group of voters one might characterize as stubbornly individualistic.
In reality, consensus may be an illusion, one that mirrors the systemic problems responsible for marginalizing women in jazz in the first place. Journalist and scholar Chris Robinson, whose academic work focuses on jazz criticism and critics’ polls in particular, explains that its basis lies in something social rather than numerical.
“It’s almost self-fulfilling,” he says. “If you’re putting in the work, you’re going to be getting the albums. If you’re getting the albums, you’re going to know what’s out there. If you know what’s out there, you’re going to be voting with the same other people who are pretty much just like you because who else could the publicists be reaching out to but the same 130 white guys and ten women, or whatever it is.
“It perpetuates the myth of the American meritocracy: that if musicians are good, they’ll succeed, without allowing us to actually look and see what’s happening. We have the same community engaged in the same activities under a guy who decides who’s an expert and who’s doing the work”— and where critics face the same peer pressures that can shape how they vote, compelling them to consider what is currently trendy, who their peers voted for in the previous poll and how projects have been already covered by certain esteemed critics and publications in a pre-existing professional hierarchy.
Robinson goes further to say that “who is voting produces a notion of consensus because they’re more or less the same demographic in terms of race and gender. That allows them to think of themselves as a unified group.” In other words, a feeling of a unity is derived from the shared values and identity of those participating — mostly seasoned white male critics — rather than the process or outcome. Adding additional women critics might then have another, larger impact on the poll by challenging that claim of unity.
“When I first started listening to jazz and they’d have a critics poll,” says Davis, “I’d read them to see who Don Heckman, Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams and Amiri Baraka thought was the best. And I’d make an effort to hear those records. I first heard of Albert Ayler because he was on Baraka and Williams’ ballots. It wasn’t like you could turn on the radio and hear him.”
“They formed my taste,” he adds.
Polls can call attention to deserving talents, and they can also influence a community of critics, the reason Davis insists on publishing the individual ballots. He acknowledges that bias can be reproduced in this quest for identifying “the best,” and that sexism is part of the music industry that determines so much of the jazz landscape in which the poll operates. In fact, he’s flagged that outsized influence, and celebrated women’s victories in the top 10, in his annual editorials accompanying the poll results. As the sole arbiter of who participates in the poll, he’s made efforts to recruit more women, as well as people of color and younger critics, who are also in short supply among the poll’s current participants.
But asked if the poll itself bears some responsibility for these systemic gender issues, and whether or not they require intervention, his answer is noncommittal. “I don’t know,” he says. “That’s a good question. You’re asking it about the poll. You could be asking it about criticism and jazz journalism in general. Is it part of the industry or is it standing off to the side pointing? Martin Williams called his DownBeat column ‘Bystander.’ I like to think of myself more as a bystander.” (Incidentally, Williams helped establish the idea that jazz could be judged objectively as an intellectual exercise by critics who were experts.)
“Yes, you have an ethical obligation to intervene,” counters Ann Powers. “One gradual change you could make is to look at who gets to be in your critics’ circle. Do you have room for deejays who aren’t necessarily considered critics? Do you have room for educators? For a certain kind of player? Why wouldn’t a musician be as much of an expert about music as a critic? These are some of the hard questions we need to ask ourselves to challenge our ideas of what expertise is.”
And to challenge us to think through the ways that expertise is gendered. Many of the women who Davis invites to contribute to the NPR Music Jazz Critics poll decline to participate, “some explaining that they hadn’t listened to enough new recordings to feel confident in choosing the year’s best,” Davis writes in his editorial note accompanying the 2018 results. “A male colleague suggested this was ‘a gendered response,’ but I don’t buy it. Male invitees voted at approximately the same rate, many declining for the same reason. Besides, Pauline Kael, Susan Sontag, Ellen Willis and Valerie Wilmer never had to be coaxed to share their opinions. They couldn’t stop themselves, and neither could anyone else.”
That’s a collection of extraordinary critics, each of whom faced her own unique challenges, the full costs of which we’ll never know. In any case, does a woman really need to be Susan Sontag to have an opinion worth voting on?
The reasons women don’t participate may be more complex. They certainly face barriers to fully participating in jazz criticism as a male-dominated field, to getting work where male editors are gatekeepers and establishing themselves as “experts.” They may be more reluctant to express their authority, to be seen as taking up valuable space, or to subject themselves to public scrutiny for championing artists who matter to them, specifically female artists — factors that all six of the authors of this study would like to acknowledge. Women may also feel disinclined to operate in spaces where their male colleagues’ criticism of women’s work as musicians seems so clearly gendered: in which women musicians may receive less press coverage; they are objectified by physical descriptions and their music is evaluated on traits that are thought of as gendered (where playing harder, faster, louder and more sophisticated music is gendered male).
Although there is not yet any formal research on gendered language in jazz criticism, a 2014 study by Kieran Snyder that collects performance reviews of employees in the tech industry provides some parallels.
Showing early inequalities in who received promotions, she found that women received significantly more critical feedback than men, much of it on the basis of personality traits that were contradictory. For example, women’s behaviors were described as bossy, abrasive, strident and aggressive, whereas men were considered confident and assertive. Men were also perceived as being naturally more competent at technical work than women. It is not difficult to extrapolate how similar biases might impact female jazz musicians in critical appraisals of their work, a professional realm in which there is no HR department to whom one can complain.
In other words, women critics may be reluctant to express their own authority — or to believe in such authority in the first place. To do so would be to ignore their own gendered experiences in jazz. It would also mean embracing false ideals of merit that have historically been used to justify women’s low performance and exclusion.
If consensus is even possible, we must imagine a better way to get there. It could begin with a shared mission understood by all, a large and diverse body of voters, people willing to engage in conversation and a culture of respect that allows all the participants to feel that their opinions are valid.
In contrast to the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, Bandcamp recently announced a decision to stop ranking its year-end list, presenting albums thematically as an alternative that prioritizes storytelling. Time magazine has also published unranked lists including All-TIME 100 Novels and All-TIME 100 Movies, offering its critics’ choices for the best of these forms since the magazine was founded in 1923. “The ZORA Canon, the 100 greatest books ever written by African American women,” published last January, offers an alternative canon to those like Time’s, selected by a panel of experts with whom the editors worked to “vet and shape” the final list.
Other NPR year-end lists, including those for Turning the Tables, are composed not through independent voting, but a nominations process, the sharing of listening lists before any voting takes place, messages over Slack channels and face-to-face discussions. Even interns have a say. Decisions are made collectively in dialogue rather than mathematically. The process is collaborative rather than independent and positivistic.
“A couple of generations of younger women writers, what I’d call cohorts, have emerged in non-jazz music criticism,” Powers observes. “Many of the best music writers are now women. There’s a lot of support for each other. What’s interesting is that with that shift, with that critical mass, there’s a comfort and sense of their own authority. I’ve also seen a re-emergence and interest in participating in legacy-making spearheaded by women. Some younger women that I know in the pop world actually love to make lists. I think that’s great — but I don’t know. Is jazz there yet?”