Musician rewrites females back into jazz history

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Autumn Jones | Daily Texan Staff

Sarah Milligan was warming up on her saxophone last week when a group of guys handed her an article about women in jazz history.

“They said, ‘Hey, Sarah, look at this, it reminds me of your blog,’” said Sarah Milligan, who began writing online about the musician experience this past December. “They sparked a really respectful conversation about how there are great women in jazz who deserve to be in its history.”

The jazz studies junior, who is the only female in her major and one of three women in the UT Jazz Orchestra of 18 people, picked the alto sax in elementary school.

“The first time I saw (Sarah) carrying her alto sax, I thought, ‘That instrument is just huge,’” said Sharon Milligan, Sarah’s mother. “I assumed she would have picked a flute that she could easily stick in her backpack.”

Sarah has since mastered the baritone and tenor sax and has toured Europe playing music. Sarah said she never seriously considered the scarcity of women in jazz both nowadays and in the history books until she got to college.

Women were restricted from jazz during prohibition because it was considered underground and dirty, Sarah said. Playing instruments was not considered ladylike or sexy, so women weren’t welcomed into jazz until the 70s and 80s. Sarah said she thinks the lack of records on women jazz musicians before then is a problem because young female musicians don’t know who to look up to.

John Mills, Sarah’s jazz composition professor, said history is essential to jazz performance majors today.

“While the music has steadily evolved, the mastery of the tradition has always been a key to those musical advances,” Mills said. “Jazz students and professionals hear and feel the great figures of the past as living, breathing, ever-inspiring centers of our daily lives.”

Sarah said uneven gender ratios in jazz are not unique to UT, as she knows college-aged women who have the same issue of being the only female in the room.

“One of my friends said she was put on the front row of the saxes in her jazz band mainly for selling appeal,” Sarah said. “A lot of women struggle with the thought, ‘Am I good, or am I being put there because they want their band to sell?’”

Sarah said female attraction to the genre will come naturally if women who were written out of jazz history can be written back into the books.

“The conversation doesn’t even have to be, ‘We need to talk about women in the jazz scene,’” Sarah said. “If we talked about Charlie Parker the same as we talk about Vi Redd and not care that one is a man or woman, but just that they were both great saxophonists, then that gives role models for the women to attach to.”