U of T’s Meghan Gilhespy is empowering high-school girls to study jazz

Meghan Gilhespy recalls that when she was playing in high-school bands, she was surrounded by other girls. But by the time she reached jazz school at the university level — not so much.

Her experience is certainly not unique. Much has been written about the reputation of jazz as an old boys’ club that can often be discouraging for young women thinking of studying jazz, and many schools and community groups — such as the Women in Jazz Organization — are working toward making the jazz scene and education system more inclusive.

In the same vein, Gilhespy has teamed up with trumpet player and University of Toronto assistant professor Jim Lewis to create an outreach program for high-school girls in southern Ontario. Gilhespy teaches an ensemble made up of mostly women that travels to high schools and OMEA events to perform and run workshops, in hopes of encouraging more girls to audition for the U of T’s jazz program.

“We hope to empower girls who are passionate about music to not shy away from applying to our undergraduate program,” she says.

After completing her undergrad at Capilano University, Gilhespy received a master’s degree in jazz while studying under Dave Leibman, Christine Duncan, Andrew Downing, Geoff Young, and David Occipinti at the U of T. Since then, she’s taken her academic pursuits even further — becoming the first woman in Canada to undertake a doctorate in jazz studies.

Gilhespy is also a junior fellow at Massey College and has received scholarships from the British Columbia Arts Council two years in a row. She works at the U of T’s Music Library while also working as a teaching assistant.

As a vocalist, Gilhespy has performed at jazz venues throughout both Toronto and her hometown of Vancouver, and she performed with Tanya Tagaq and Christine Duncan’s Element choir as part of a documentary for the National Film Board of Canada. In 2016, she released Vive Le Touran eight-song album of contemporary vocal jazz.

Gilhespy participated in our Jazzology program in 2017. We asked the 27-year-old to tell us more about her studies and accomplishments since, and how the jazz world can better engage and encourage young, underrepresented talent.

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How does it feel to be the first woman in Canada to do a doctorate in jazz studies? 

There are only two universities in Canada that offer a doctorate in jazz studies. Plus, the programs are relatively young. Mostly, I feel extremely fortunate to study music at a high level with professors and colleagues who challenge me.

Tell us about your work at U of T. Have you picked a thesis? What work do you do at the music library? What courses do you TA for?

I am a student library assistant at the Music Library. It’s an awesome job. It’s still early days in dissertation land for me. I’m mostly reading, researching and writing bibliographic essays at this point. My last paper was titled Timbre, Purity, and the Voice as it Relates to Social Difference: A Bibliographic Essay Surrounding Vocality. This year I will TA Christos Hatzis’s songwriting course. I am excited to work with such an incredible compositional mind! My outreach program is also through my TA work.

How did you go about starting the outreach program for high school girls? How did that come about?

Jim Lewis came up with this idea in the spring of 2018. It functions as a small ensemble, which I teach and Jim supervises. The group is made up of mostly women, and we travel to high schools (and OMEA) doing workshops. Through visibility, we are able to encourage girls to come apply to U of T Jazz. We rarely mention that the group is mostly women. Yet, we simply demonstrate the extremely high level of musicianship among the women in our undergraduate program. High-school jazz programs are often full of girls. I played trombone in jazz band and tuba in concert band in high school, and those groups were always around 50 per cent girls. However, in university-level jazz programs, there are often very few women. We hope to empower girls who are passionate about music to not shy away from applying to our undergraduate program.

Credit: Vincent Lim

Why is music education important to you, especially when it comes to engaging women and girls in jazz?

I’d say that women like Kelly Proznick fuelled my love for jazz and contemporary improvised music at a young age, and empowered me to choose the path that I’m on.

What do you think the jazz scene as a whole can be doing better to work toward that goal, and remove barriers for women in music?

I used to think that the solution lied in a new generation of musicians and scholars entering the jazz community. However, the system that has been created is flawed — it only supports the success of certain voices in the scene. Now, I think it’s about actually changing the infrastructure of the institution or scene, or the organizational structure, so that it doesn’t only benefit one group of people. There is no quick answer, but I wholeheartedly believe that emboldening young people from underrepresented groups is a necessary starting point.

And you still make music of your own, too. Who influences your sound and style?

Yes, I do! Theo Bleckmann has always been a big influence of mine. I went down to New York to do a lesson with him and he kicked my ass. Christine Duncan is hugely important to me, musically and otherwise. Jay Clayton, lawn mowers, Joni Mitchell, kazoos, Julius Eastman, birds, Arthur Russell, dolphins, Sarah Vaughan, rocks falling down a slide, Barbara Hannigan, Jaimie Branch. Lots of sound influences.

What are some of the favourite gigs you’ve played recently?

I went home for the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival and played with Patrick O’Reilly, David Blake and Conrad Good. We made some thoughtful music that night.

How was your experience with the Jazzology program? What did you like about it?

I loved it! Talking with Heather was an absolute delight — we laughed a lot.

How did the program help with your personal and professional development?

Connecting with Heather was very important for me. She had me do a gig at the Kensington Market Jazz Festival last summer with other Jazzology students. It was a learning experience. Meeting musicians from other schools around Ontario was great, especially because I come from the other side of the country.

If you could thank our donors that support the Jazzology program, what would you say?

As public funding sources are slowly dwindling, private funding is becoming more and more essential. Public funding toward the arts is seen as disposable, and when cuts occur, any donor who supports the arts is crucial and immensely appreciated.

What about your plans for the future? Where would you like to be years down the road?

Once my course work is over at the end of 2020, I’ll be into writing my dissertation. At that point, I would love to (finally!) record another album of my own music. My goal is to stay in academe and work at a university or college somewhere and continue to make music.

You can find Meghan Gilhespy on Bandcamp or visit her website at meghangilhespy.com.