The girls in the band: JazzCamp for Girls makes North American debut in Calgary

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In 2012, there was a distressing report in Denmark that suggested 80 per cent of the people in that country’s music industry were men.

This was not surprising to Agnete Seerup, deputy director of Jazz Denmark. She had been working in the Danish music industry since 2010 and knew there was a gender imbalance in all aspects of the business and all genres. But to have the numbers presented in such a stark and straightforward manner was motivating.

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“I was not surprised by this conclusion, but now we had it written down,” said Seerup, in an interview from her home in Copenhagen. “It’s not only for jazz, it’s for all genres.”

Further analysis of the numbers revealed a number of barriers in that country that were preventing women from a career in music and jazz in particular. Working conditions were largely unregulated, which is hard on all musicians but particularly women. There is no maternity leave for female musicians. On top of that, there is unsurprisingly a lot of blatant sexism in the industry.

“There was a prejudice that overshadowed the recognition of women and the non-cisgendered,” Seerup says. “A lot of women experienced this prejudice and that is a big barrier to getting a career in the music industry. Also, there are a lot of boundaries (issues). In Denmark, and the rest of Europe, this is a huge problem. Working environments in the music industry is very hard for women because they experience a lot of very uncomfortable behaviour from colleagues and also from venues and managers and also from producers, who say ‘We don’t want to produce your records because we don’t earn enough money on you’ or ‘You should at least take some of your clothes off’ or ‘You are too old.’”

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The barriers were in place even before women had a chance to choose music as a profession or set foot in a venue as a performer. Further analysis showed there were similar prejudices in the music programs in the public schools. It was found that teachers were more likely to encourage boys to get into a music career.

Jazz Denmark, an organization that promotes the genre in the country and abroad, took action in 2014. Realizing the key was to get girls integrated into improvisational and rhythmic music early, it began JazzCamp for Girls. Each year 12 to 15 girls, aged 9 to 15. were brought in for the program. Seerup became the manager of the initiative in 2018. At that point, it was only in her home country. Within a few years, the camp had spread to Sweden, Finland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Poland.

Agnete Seerup
Agnete Seerup, deputy director of Jazz Denmark. Photo by Malthe Ivarsson. Photo by Malthe Folke Ivarsson /jpg

This week, the international program will be making its Canadian debut in Calgary. Seerup and two Danish teachers will be coming to town for the workshops, which will run from Nov. 24 to 26 at BuckingJam Palace. The participants will be a bit older than their European counterparts, mostly due to the differences in our education system as instrumental music is taught at a later age.

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The ball started rolling back in 2022 at Jazzhead, an annual trade show for the jazz industry held in Bremen, Germany. Lisa Buck, artistic director of BuckingJam Palace, was asked to show a trailer for her documentary Change the Tune at the show and lead a discussion about the challenges faced by female jazz musicians. Seerup found Buck to be a kindred spirit. Buck’s documentary addressed many of the concerns Seerup’s organization had identified. She also learned that Buck had founded The Ostara Project, an all-star female jazz group made up of top-tier players such as bassist Jodi Proznick, saxophonist Allison Au, vocalist Joanna Majoko, guitarist Jocelyn Gould, drummer Sanah Kaddoura and trumpet player Rachel Therrien. The documentary not only captured performances by the new group – Buck had them back archival footage of Judi Singh, a top Edmonton-born jazz musician who performed from the 1950s to the 1970s but never received proper recognition – but also had the modern musicians sharing their own stories about the barriers they faced as females in the industry. In North America, only five per cent of the professional musicians in jazz are female.

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Seerup and Buck began discussing the possibility of bringing the summer camp to Calgary. With funding from Nordic Bridges, a government program that connects artists and innovators from the Nordic Region with programmers and professionals from Canada, a Girls in Jazz camp began to take shape. The Calgary Association for the Development of Music Education or Cadme, a volunteer-run organization, was enlisted to contact six Calgary schools. Those schools in turn chose two students each to participate.

Buck said the statistics here in Canada, like in Europe, show a need for early intervention.

“In jazz, people tend to play with their buddies, they play in a whole variety of groups and (they) play with the people (they) hang out with,” says Buck. “Somehow we have to create a crack that allows women to move into that culture or, in the case of what we are doing with Ostara, we create our own culture. If you feel there is no room at the one table, you create your own. I think girls are very communal, not to say that boys aren’t. But it can be very intimidating if you walk into a room as a young woman and you are the only female in a group of guys, particularly as adolescence settles in and people haven’t mastered their social skills yet.”

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The Calgary participants will be between the ages of 15 and 17. As with the European program, Participants do not have to possess expertise in their instruments. Musicians with varying skill levels and experience will be accepted. There will not be a showcase at the end of the two-day workshop.

“I think we’re looking for openness,” Buck Says. “This isn’t about mastering standards over a couple days or necessarily getting better on your instrument; it’s about being open to the creativity of improvisation. It’s about hopefully creating a community across the city within various schools of young women who now know each other and know other players are out there. It’s really about openness and enthusiasm and then obviously someone that has some facility on that instrument. But the instrument ability is less important than that desire to want to explore what jazz is all about, the whole nature of improvisation.”

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