Image courtesy of Sara Sithi-Amnuai
From its inception, jazz has been geared toward male musicians. Jazz, as an art form originating from African-American musical traditions, made it possible for many Black performers to break barriers in American popular culture. However, there is also a long history of sexism within the genre. Because of the masculine energy in jam sessions, segregated bands, and the erasure of female musicians from jazz history, it’s hard for women to find a place in this traditionally masculine space. The hypermasculinity of jazz even permeates down to schools. For example, here at UCLA, only three out of the fifteen listed Jazz Studies faculty members, and only a handful of the students, are women.
I spoke to Sara Sithi-Amnuai, a trumpet player and fourth-year ethnomusicology major in the jazz program at UCLA, to learn more about her experiences as a female jazz instrumentalist.
FEM: Why did you choose to become a musician, or a jazz musician specifically?
SS: When I was really little, about five I’d say, my sister and I both wanted to start piano. Of course, having a sibling who wants to do music, as the younger of the two of us I definitely wanted to follow in the same thing so I started off with classical piano. But then when I got older, around fourth grade, I started playing trumpet because, for one, I really love the sound of the trumpet. I heard this recording of Lee Morgan playing “Ceora” because my dad would always … have this “Best of Lee Morgan” CD in the car, and I just absolutely fell in love with his sound. In a way I wanted to differentiate myself from my sister, so because of that and my sister, who was playing jazz piano a lot in the house at that point … I switched over to trumpet.
FEM: Who else would you say has influenced you the most as a musician?
SS: I’d definitely say my teachers have. But also I’ve been very lucky that my parents have been super supportive of me. When I was in elementary school they would drive me from the OC [Orange County] area up to LA [Los Angeles] to take private lessons on the piano. I also had opportunities to play in All-Southern bands like the honor bands as well as the Colburn jazz ensembles in LA so of course my peers have been huge influences, and the kind of music that I listen to and the kind of music that I’ve been exposed to.
FEM: This one might be a little into the nitty-gritty, but why do you think there aren’t as many women in jazz as there are men?
SS: I do think that if people are not exposed to the idea that women can be jazz musicians then they’re less likely to think of that kind of thing. I mean, when I was first thinking about playing trumpet, I wasn’t necessarily thinking, “I’m a woman and this is impossible for me to do.” I was just purely thinking of the sound and thinking, “Wow this is really cool. I really want to do something like this.” But then I kind of realized later, “Oh, I guess this is kind of unusual that I’m interested in this and that, as not a lot of other girls are.” But it’s also possibly a cultural thing, because I have heard that in other countries, like in Japan they have all-girl big bands. I also think that when I first wanted to play trumpet, my dad happened to be like, “Oh are you sure you want to play trumpet?” and I was like, “Yeah, I do.” And he wasn’t entirely sure if I was going to be dedicated enough to go on with it and he was like, “Are you sure? You know there’s not that many girls that are playing trumpet,” and I was like, “And? What’s the big deal about that?” He actually suggested I hold off for a while, so I waited two years before I could actually start playing trumpet, and he finally bought me a horn. First he wanted me to play saxophone and I remember going into the shop and holding onto the sax. It’s a very childish thing to think, but you’re holding it and like, “This is just way too heavy. It feels really heavy in my hands. Can I just try the trumpet please?” When I was holding the trumpet, I thought, “This feels right to me.” I already liked the sound a lot so I knew that this was what I wanted to do. And my dad was like, “Ok.” He knows that when I have my eye on a certain thing that I’ll go for it. Sorry I kind of went off on a tangent!
FEM: No, keep going!
SS: But yeah, as far as female jazz musicians … When I was younger I didn’t really think about it too deeply, but then when I had experienced more situations… A lot of the time, especially with trumpet, it’s a very male-dominated instrument that’s played by a lot of guys. Most of the time, my teachers, as well as my fellow trumpet players, tend to be guys and so… I didn’t really think they treated me differently or anything, but then I started realizing there are some subtle things that do happen. In the context of a band or something, sometimes I feel — and I’m not sure if I can speak for every female musician out there — that to fit into the group or unify the group you have to speak the same language, and that might mean you feel inclined to say some “Dudes,” “Bros,” or sometimes guys can be a little inappropriate. I know that maybe they don’t do it intentionally, it’s just culture has brought them up in that kind of environment and encouraged that so maybe that has discouraged some women to pursue that because they feel uncomfortable and they can’t really show how they feel or communicate when they’re in an ensemble that has that sort of vibe.
FEM: That leads into my next question actually. Are there any specific instances when you feel like you’ve been treated differently, as a musician or music student, because of your gender?
SS: Yeah. I definitely do. So this is where it gets kind of dicey, things get a little…
For one I definitely get a lot of comments of, like, “Oh wow, I never expected you to sound like that.” Like, what do you expect me to sound like? Or, like, “I never expected you to sound that good.” Why? Why not? What makes me different from anyone else, you know? And then also, there tends to be sort of a, “You’re very pretty. You’re an attractive young woman. It’s part of the package.” And when I’ve spoken to other musicians, male musicians, I ask them what kind of comments they get from people after they play a gig or something, and they’re like, [the audience] usually focuses on the music and the kind of music that they made, rather than, “Oh you’re so beautiful!” or something like that. I feel like it takes away from the music. So while it does seem like a compliment, there is part of me that ‘s saying, “Is that really what you took from my performance?” I’m kind of sad that that’s what they gained from this. It’s not really just that.
But I guess that also gets into some topics about whether you should feel proud to be a woman and to be in this field. There’s just so many talented female jazz musicians that have come up and you don’t want to discount what they’ve done, but at the same time you also want to fit in and you don’t want gender and sex to get in the way. You just want to focus on the music, right? Do you try to be an equal, everyone’s just an equal? Or do you actually show that you’re very proud of who you are as a woman? That’s when it gets…I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I feel about that because it’s very…There’s total polar opposites, but they’re both valid in different reasons.
FEM: It’s like, do I try to represent my gender or do I stay true to myself?
SS: Yeah, exactly.
FEM: So you started off playing classical piano. Do you have more recent experience playing classical music?
SS: Not on piano. I’ve been keeping up playing classical trumpet solos. While I’ve been here at UCLA I have participated in the orchestra. But nowadays it’s mostly classical solo work, more contemporary classical music.
FEM: Do you ever feel being a woman in classical music is different from being a woman in jazz?
SS: Definitely! Yeah, I definitely think so. Just generally, being in the classical world is different from the jazz world. I mean, in orchestras there’s certain instruments that are more female dominated as well. But generally in jazz there just happens to be a lot of male musicians. Just knowing that changes the environment. In classical, I would say there are a good amount of female musicians. But of course there’s still a different set of issues that come along with the classical world versus the jazz world. There might be some overlap as well but they’re different worlds.
FEM: What are you working on right now?
SS: Well I just finished a recording session in the new Ostin building for graduate school and also a bunch of different music workshops and competitions. It was a set of mostly my original music. I love composing. It’s a great outlet for me. So I’ve been keeping pretty busy composing and playing a lot of music. And also I’ve arranged a piece for the Mingus ensemble here as well. So generally keeping busy. Also I’m in the world [music] ensembles, so trying to learn about a lot of the different world ensembles and incorporating that into my own music. Writing a lot.
FEM: Seems like a lot of work.
SS: Yeah, but it’s really fulfilling. Totally worth it.
FEM: How do you envision your future as a musician?
SS: Oh wow. Ideally, I would love to have my own band and perform my own original music and tour around the world. I was born in Australia, but I moved when I was very, very young to California. I’ve been in the OC area for most of my life. Of course that would mean I’m only exposed to a certain environment so this past summer I went to the Banff International Jazz and Creative Music Workshop, and that was in Canada. Going there and meeting a bunch of different people and realizing that there really is more to the world than just California, different types of people, different kinds of music, and so I’d love to go travel around the world and meet new people, learn about different cultures, incorporate that into my own music. Of course, I think, performing and composing…that would be my ideal. I love doing that.
FEM: Is there anything else you want to add or talk about?
SS: Yeah. I was just thinking about…I really don’t want this conversation to seem like it’s an attack on male musicians, because it really isn’t. It’s just kind of bringing to light some of these things that male musicians maybe aren’t aware of that happen in rehearsals that might make some female musicians feel uncomfortable about and I think if there’s more awareness as well as people talking about these things that are happening, it’ll open up a dialogue that could be very interesting and could definitely benefit the environment so people feel more comfortable interacting with each other and making music. I just want that to be completely clear that these are my experiences, and I’ve met some amazing musicians, male musicians, who have been super supportive and created a great environment for everyone to play in, but of course there are situations where that isn’t quite the case.
FEM: What sort of things do you think teachers and educators can do to encourage more girls to play jazz?
SS: I think a lot of times in classes the curriculum itself is definitely seen from the male perspective. If we had curriculum that acknowledged some more female musicians…Like Mary Lou Williams. She’s a genius. She’s so talented. But we don’t hear about her much. Why not? I think if we incorporated a more balanced curriculum that did incorporate other perspectives it would be very helpful for students. I also think it would be great if female musicians did outreach programs. If they could perform at elementary schools and middle schools. It doesn’t have to be an all female group, it could be with other guys as well. But if they just show young students that, yes, this is a possibility. They sound great. They all can work together. Then that might change that belief that women are not capable or talented enough to be part of this group.