From left: Linda May Han Oh, Kris Davis, Terri Lyne Carrington, Aja Burrell Wood  Photo by Kelly Davidson

Women have been part of jazz from its beginning. It’s a rich but complicated story framed by limited opportunity mixed with unwritten rules, sexism, and benign neglect. None of this is surprising: Generous as jazz can be, as art, it both reflects and shapes the society that produces it. 

“We live in a patriarchal society, and that patriarchal thread has run through this music as well,” says Terri Lyne Carrington, drummer, and producer, as well as the artistic director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.

She founded the institute to explore a fundamental question: What would jazz sound like in a culture without patriarchy? The question has surfaced at a moment in which society seems open to an important set of conversations and institutional changes, says Farah Jasmine Griffin, a Columbia University professor who has written extensively about issues of race, gender, feminism, and cultural politics, and who sits on the institute’s advisory board.

“Oh, I don't know that jazz is any worse on these issues than many other parts of our culture,” says Griffin, who is also the author of If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, and collaborated with the late composer and pianist Geri Allen on theatrical projects. “But I’ve always felt that because jazz is so capacious and it's always been historically at the forefront of social change and modeling social change, jazz would be a great place to try and do something like [the institute] to really kind of challenge our notions of gender norms.”