Sarah Manning: Shattering The Glass Ceiling
AAJ: That's a unique approach. A lot of young musicians are pretty much all music, all of the time. Perhaps that's a tad too narrow.
SM: When I was at William Paterson, I spent much of my time in the music building. It had no windows. It was basically concrete walls.
AAJ: Shea, the music building, has a bit of a maximum security feel, doesn't it?
SM: It does. Whether it's true or not, there's a legend floating around that the designer/architect of the building committed suicide. It's kind of a labyrinth.
When I was a kid I ordered the T-Shirt from Down Beat that had a picture of Charlie Parker and said, "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." I think I took the view that it's true. So if you spend all of your time in a windowless, concrete practice room, your music can become too self- referential.
AAJ: As you mentioned earlier, you left the Jazz Studies Program at William Paterson to pursue a degree in Women's Studies at Smith College, while continuing to grow as a musician. Can you talk about the challenges inherent in being immersed in two distinct disciplines?
SM: I had to be very self-directed, and I still am now. One of the things I do in addition to being a musician is I'm also a Real Estate Agent for Cooper & Cooper Real Estate. That's my choice of day job. Many musicians have day jobs in music. I find that this is something I love to do and it helps me have that freshness of perspective on my music. You have to remind yourself how much you love both aspects of your life: the creative side and the non-creative side. Self- direction has never been a real problem for me. In fact, it's usually been people who tell me, "You've got to stop working," or, in high school, "Maybe you're practicing too much."
You might say that a discipline like Women's Studies is totally unrelated to jazz, but I have always tried to tie in everything that I'm doing to my music. I would say in that sense, jazz tends to be a little bit of an old-fashioned, male dominated profession. Having the perspective of being in Women's Studies and studying women's works, gender politics, and the ways in which women gained agency in society, really helps me as a musician work my way through a business that's set up where you don't see as many women.
AAJ: The world of jazz performance is as male-dominated as any other field of endeavor. Have you ever experienced and can you describe any forms of sexism and discrimination you've encountered playing music and trying to find work in the music business?
SM: Sure. I have been told by a promoter that my photo wasn't interesting enough. They wouldn't listen to my music. I was also told that "We like to support diversity but our audience isn't ready."
AAJ: That's ludicrous.
SM: What it comes down to, and I think it's changing with this generation of players, is that jazz is a business based on social networking. It's not a business like any corporation where there are policies in place. Most work comes from word of mouth. People tend to hire and work with people who fit best into their social circles. And so I think that's where jazz kind of lags behind the times, because it's the way we find work. I think what's changing is that younger players are more used to working with women, and don't think anything of it. I think that's one thing. The other aspect of it is that, as far as promoters are concerned, they don't necessarily know what to do with women. They're coming from a sort of old-fashioned perspective. So you often see the solution right now is to have Women In Jazz Festivals, Women In Jazz Days. It's an effort on their part to be inclusive of women, but I think we're not really there yet until we don't need that.
AAJ: So, at least in terms of the younger generation, the artists are really ahead of the business infrastructure.
SM: I think so, because there is a really big disconnect generally in jazz between the promoters and the artists themselves. That's changing with technology because the more artists have technology on their side, they can promote their own music through things like Facebook, CDBaby, to get in touch with their fan base directly. I really don't have a problem with the people that I'm able to reach, who listen to my music. They're not coming at me and saying they don't want to listen to me because I'm a woman. It's more in terms of overall marketability. It's the structures that have been in place for years that are coming from the institutionalization of jazz, not so much the listeners or the younger generation of players. And that's not to say that some of the masters of jazz of an older generation haven't been supportiveI would absolutely not be where I am (wherever that is!) without having receptive and encouraging mentors.
AAJ: At what point in your career did you decide to start Shatter the Glass?
SM: I started in 2007, when I was still living on the West Coast. I was slowly getting things going towards moving to New York. I chose the band in New York, and then I moved here. I think it was addressing the issue of the elephant in the room, which is that people know there aren't too many women in jazz. How do you feel about that? What do you have to say about it? And also to address the issue by keeping the focus on performance. It's been interesting that a lot of times people assume that my group is all femaleand it's very distinctly not. I think that can promote the marginalization of women. The guys in my band, we're working together because we like how we sound together. It has nothing to do with gender.