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Organizing Change: Starting the Women in Jazz Initiative at UNT

By: Jess Goodrich

Within the past year, a few colleagues and I, with the help of the chair of the University of North Texas’s jazz department Dr. John Murphy, started a student government organization for the women and non-binary students in UNT’s jazz program. The Women in Jazz Initiative, or WIJI, strives to create a welcoming environment for all women and non-binary people in UNT’s jazz department. Being on the forefront of this new and progressive initiative definitely had its challenges, but has ultimately been a growing experience for the program and myself!

The idea started with one of our lead trumpet faculty members at the time, Tanya Darby. Tanya was a golden ray of sunshine in the jazz department at UNT, and now continues her career as an educator at Berklee College of Music. She pulled me and my colleague Colleen Clark, now Dr. Clark, into her office one day and told us to get WIJI up and running. A year or so later, we hammered out all of the details through our university to become an official student organization!

A lot of questions arose while designing the initiative. Should it be exclusively for women and non-binary people? What are our priorities for this group? What’s the most important message we could communicate before we, Colleen and I, graduate within the next semester?

As we began hosting meetings, more challenging questions came up as we as the women and non-binary people in the program weren’t necessarily all on the same page. We decided that before we graduated, the most important thing for us to accomplish was unifying the women and non-binary people of the department, and making it clear that we cannot accomplish our goals without the support of our male allies.

Jam session at WIJI's First Edition Women in Jazz Day

We were able to host a series of meetings, jam sessions, and WIJI’s first edition Women in Jazz Day. Additionally, we hosted elections for the following year’s officers within WIJI’s first fully-functioning semester. We wanted our meetings to revolve around the music - playing, listening, talking about it. Meetings either ended with jam sessions or had follow up jam sessions if discussions went on for too long. Our talks revolved around the goal of creating a safe space for women and non-binary people to grow musically without fear of judgment or scrutiny from our peers.

The most significant moment of the semester was definitely WIJI’s First Edition Women in Jazz Day. The day consisted of guest speakers Amanda Ekery, Hannah Grantham, and Tahira Clayton - all UNT alumna working to create more welcoming spaces for women and non-binary people in the jazz world! Our advisor Dr. John Murphy shared his research on relating women in jazz to the #MeToo movement. And the latter half of the day consisted of a chat with our guest artist, grammy-nominated New York-based vocalist, pianist, and songwriter Nicole Zuraitis as well as a performance with the Four O’Clock Lab Band featuring Nicole. The day was open to the public and brought in some musicians from local high schools. The day was a huge success for WIJI and UNT’s jazz program as a whole!

Nicole Zuraitus with the Four O’Clock Lab Band on WIJI’s First Edition Women in Jazz Day

Dr. John Murphy presenting at WIJI’s First Edition Women in Jazz Day

One of the biggest discrepancies that came up in this process was the inclusion of men. Ultimately, as I stated previously, we can’t accomplish our goals of inclusivity without the support from our allies. Plus, one of our biggest allies is also the head of our jazz department. Dr. John Murphy is one of the most intelligent and informed people on the topic and strives to make UNT’s program welcoming for women and non-binary women. For the election of the current 2019-2020 officers, we even accepted applications from our male colleagues and the initiative, made up of primarily female members, elected a man to be on the WIJI Board (yes… the WIJI Board). We were all able to have eye-opening and vulnerable discussions about this process and what it means to have great allies on our team, which brought us all closer to being on the same page about the goals of this initiative.

Currently, the initiative is continuing to grow and be lead by four new leaders. They’ve started a WIJI Mentor’s program that functions as a program where local women and non-binary high school students can partake in and receive lessons from our own WIJI members. The initiative continues to implement awesome new components, such as listening sessions and ally exclusive meetings along with our women and non-binary exclusive meetings. Regular meetings and jam sessions are held as the initiative continues to grow.

Hopefully, UNT’s WIJI is just the start of creating better spaces for women and non-binary jazz musicians to grow in University settings, and even more, the start of action being taken by schools across the nation!

Jess Goodrich recently received her Bachelor’s Degree in Jazz Studies from the University of North Texas. She is now continuing her path as a musician working for Royal Caribbean Celebrity Cruises as one of the orchestra musicians. She hopes to travel, work, and save up money for her Master’s Degree in the near future

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