Joy Ellis: ‘Jazz Camp for Girls’

Pianist/singer Joy Ellis is currently writing a doctorate at Birmingham City University, researching reasons for women’s underrepresentation in jazz. We asked her to interview two educators with a particular focus on broadening participation: Agnete Seerup of JazzDanmark and Helena Summerfield of Jazz North. In this feature, Joy Ellis sets these initiatives in the broader context of her research.

Joy Ellis. Photo credit: Pedro Velasco

Joy Ellis writes: The last decade has seen a seismic shift in attitudes towards gender and diversity. The viral explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017 and the events that triggered the formation of BlackLivesMatter around 2013 has thrust issues of diversity to the fore, calling attention to the continued inequalities experienced by many in our communities.

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In the UK jazz world, research conducted in 2020 by Dr. Sarah Raine in collaboration with Cheltenham Jazz Festival demonstrated the ongoing disparity between the numbers of female jazz instrumentalists in comparison with the number of males.

New initiatives such as Keychange, which encourages festivals and venues to programme a 50/50 gender split of headline artists, sheds a little light across perhaps quite a gloomy wilderness. So too does a new project entitled Jazz Camp for Girls, spearheaded by jazz musician, educator and recent recipient of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Education, Helena Summerfield on behalf of Jazz North.

Originally conceived in Denmark, Jazz Camp for Girls “offers a unique opportunity for girls at the age of 10-15, who want to try working with composition and improvisation, no matter the choice of instrument or previous experience.” The project was inspired following a 2012/2013 Danish music industry report that revealed a gender distribution of 80% men, 20% women, both on and off the stage.

As a result, JazzDanmark in collaboration with Copenhagen Jazz Festival agreed something had to be done and Jazz Camp for Girls was formed. Now in its eighth year, young women from local music schools are invited to explore improvisation during a 4-day camp which aims to “create a safe space through music, [where] girls can practise and acquire new skills.” In tandem, each Jazz Camp provides workshops for music teachers on how to improvise as well as raises awareness of issues of gender in jazz in local media and amongst music teachers and parents. As a follow-on, participants are then encouraged to attend a 5-day mixed gender retreat where organisers ensure there is a 50-50 gender split of enrolments – if a boy takes a space then a space for a girl has to be opened up.

Agnete Seerup, project manager of Jazz Camp for Girls in Denmark notes how: “The idea is that afterwards they are supposed to feel able and encouraged to play in mixed bands, taking an active role in their music schools […] so it’s an empowering project in that way”.

Agnete Seerup. Photo courtesy of JazzDanmark

Barriers to participation: Ideas about masculinity are interwoven within jazz’s history both by the jazz musicians themselves and the promoters, broadcasters, authors and critics championing their music. The writings of Harlem Renaissance poet Ralph Ellison depicts ‘cutting contests’ where the aspiring jazzman wrestled in ‘ceaseless warfare for mastery’ and ‘his recognition of manhood’ was dependent on the endorsement of his fellow musicians. Author Linda Dahl describes how the ‘qualities needed to get ahead in the jazz world were held to be ‘masculine’ prerogatives: aggressive selfconfidence on the bandstand, displaying one’s ‘chops’ or sheer blowing power’. However, recent studies suggest the personal attributes required to undertake improvisation run counter to historically engrained attitudes that urge girls to conform to established gender roles and norms and avoid eliciting attention from others. This, coupled with the sense that females are stepping into a space traditionally occupied by males, creates a barrier to women’s engagement with the performance of jazz music.

In the past, some might still have questioned the value of a project of this nature, but now Seerup remarks how: “It really has momentum, this agenda, right? It’s so much in the media […] so different from five years ago”.

Since its inception in 2014, over a thousand Danish girls have participated in the project which has also been rolled out in Finland, Sweden and Poland in 2022.

Helena Summerfield teaching at JCFG event. Photo by Phil Portus

Here in the UK, with support from Ronnie Scott’s Charitable Foundation, Helena Summerfield and the team at Jazz North were initially able to deliver four one-day pilot workshops in the North of England which saw seventy-four young women take part in 2019. Through a series of workshops, girls can experiment with improvisation in a nurturing environment where they are allowed to make mistakes away from the scrutiny of their male peers. Female trainee music leaders drawn from groups such as the National Youth Jazz Orchestra act as role models throwing further fuel on the fire to reinforce the idea that women can play jazz.

Summerfield says: “It’s all about giving young girls a positive first experience in jazz, giving them that confidence so they then feel like they could have a go at doing a solo in the jazz band”. In her book Invisible Women, Caroline Criado-Perez speaks about ‘brilliance bias’ where, due to a lack of female representation in literature and other educational media, girls learn early on that ‘brilliance does not belong to them’. To counteract this notion, Helena designed a handbook for Jazz Camp participants including practice tips, interviews and images of contemporary female jazz musicians to visibly reinforce the message that young girls can aspire to be improvising jazz instrumentalists.

What next? A recent evaluation indicates the programme helps to raise esteem, creativity and confidence as well as stimulates a greater interest in jazz, supporting girls to continue pursuing their musical studies. Now in their fourth year in the UK, the next camps are scheduled for 4-5 March 2023 with an official launch event happening this November. The hope is that Jazz Camp will continue annually and eventually run throughout the country. Jazz North offers resources for organisations interested in putting on their own event as well as a network for educators to share ideas and disseminate best practice. The lack of diversity in UK jazz will not change overnight but initiatives like Jazz Camp for Girls are putting a stake in the ground and making a difference.

LINKS: Jazz Camp for Girls at Jazz North

Jazz Camp for Girls at JazzDanmark

New York Times feature about JCFG in Denmark

1 reply »

  1. This of course is incredibly important and long may it continue and grow. I do feel that journalists have a part to play here. It is easy to find info for articles on female musicians who headline their own band but what about the many incredibly talented female musicians who don’t always run their own band, but are booked by other musicians simply because they are fantastic musicians. Anyone writing an article on female jazz musicians could investigate a bit further and they will find many well revered female musicians just getting on with it. There is a lot of pressure on the female jazz musicians we have to front a band, build a following etc. Many many male musicians don’t want to / need to do this. A few articles highlighting the female jazz musicians of choice by revered jazz musicians would be really interesting and informative reading. And give insights into a career as a female jazz musician for young girls. (Maybe this is already happening and I’m not well informed though – let me know!).

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