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Sarah Manning: Shattering The Glass Ceiling

By Published: June 14, 2010
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 female—and 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.

AAJ: Did you have a fully formed idea of what you wanted to do with the group, or have the concepts and goals evolved along the way?

SM: I think that I've been determined to have the same band, the same members, and to write for them and their strengths, as opposed to just picking up bands. That's one thing I see a lot of in jazz that is unfortunate. Again, it's just the structure of it—the way that leaders work as opposed to sidemen. It's less conducive to having the same group. I think that the music suffers. I just got through playing on the West Coast, where there were certain things I couldn't write if I didn't have the rehearsal time. It couldn't be sight-read on stage. I can't bring in the charts. And the times I would do that, something might fall apart. It was limiting me as a composer.

Now I feel that my band really challenges me, and they're opening my ears to different directions. For example, [pianist] Art Hirahara
Art Hirahara
Art Hirahara
has an incredible left hand. He has the most contrapuntal left hand of any jazz pianist I've heard on the scene today. This counterpoint that he's doing is almost like a classical sound. That's definitely influenced how I've written for the band, because I know he has that capability.

AAJ: What motivated you to become a role model for young women who want to play jazz and lead groups?

SM: I didn't have a lot of those role models, coming up. It was significant to me when I met the first other female jazz player who became my friend—she's a flautist by the name of Sukari Reid-Glenn—somebody who had the same interests that I did. Since they were few and far between when I was growing up, it was really important for me to be able to talk over my experiences with them. I want to provide that for other women coming up and also to lead by example. By promoting my own group and getting out there and getting heard and being a visible presence, that's going to encourage young women, and it will encourage people as a whole to listen to women players and pay more attention to us.

AAJ: Does the politics of women's empowerment ever get in the way of the music, or vice versa?

SM: That's a good question. I would say that I do my best to not let that happen. I'm basically trying to lead by example more than anything else. As part of our mentoring, we've invited women to open rehearsals. For instance, I played a show at the Jazz Gallery where I had people submit an inquiry to come to the show as a special guest and come backstage—another female instrumentalist—and get to know the band, be a part of the hang. But it's not something I talk about while on stage. When I'm on stage, it's just about the music.

AAJ: In putting together Shatter the Glass, was it difficult to find musicians who share both your musical and political visions?

SM: No, I don't think so. I actually got very lucky with who I ended up choosing, right away. I'm sure there are people who wouldn't be supportive of the name of the band. Generally speaking, the meaning is a double-entendre. It could also mean music that's edgy and can shatter glass. So it's got a double meaning. We're not a political organization. We're just out there to challenge people's perceptions by what we play.

AAJ: Tell me something about the kinds of responses you get from Shatter the Glass' live performances.

SM: They're really no different than if the band was performing under my own name. We try to perform in different ways. For instance, we did a residency in Northampton, MA at an art gallery on the main street. It had floor-to-ceiling glass windows. We performed in the window and left the door open. People were walking by on the street. We were in a fishbowl scenario. We try to interact a little more with the audience when we can in that way. During the concerts, there was a point in which there were about 20 or so people on the sidewalk looking in, while the rest of the audience was looking out at them and at us. So we're trying to break the barrier between the audience and the music in ways that are a little less conventional.

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