Women in Jazz: Sarah Milligan

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Photos by Kassidy Curry

Can you give a us a glimpse into your musical background?

I started playing saxophone when I was 10 because I thought it looked cool. I was always into the arts and I danced most of my life, but playing music began to grow on me. I began teaching myself theory in high school and began studying at the University of Arizona when I was 15 with their sax professor. From there I studied at the Tucson Jazz Institute where I was exposed to most of the jazz I know today. There I played in festivals all around the country in places like Next Jen in Monterey, California and The Jazz at Lincoln Center in Down Town Manhattan, New York City. Since I have come to Austin, in addition to leading my own jazz quintet, I have had the opportunity to play with The University of Texas at Austin’s Jazz Orchestra, traveling around the world to the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and The North Sea Jazz Festival in The Netherlands.

Were you always drawn to jazz?

I did not get into jazz until freshman year of high school and even then I had to sit down and force myself to listen to it because I didn’t quite understand it. But playing wise, I was always drawn to learning jazz once it was introduced to me. It wasn’t until senior year of high school I began to understand Jazz and find some of my favorite players.

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Do you want to pursue jazz professionally?

Jazz used to be what I wanted to do professionally but, since I started gigging around Austin and traveling to different festivals I decided I want to focus on Arts Management.


"I am the most confident me and can contribute my full potential to the music world when I stay true to myself."


What are some obstacles you face being a woman in the jazz world?

Luckily, being a woman in jazz is a lot easier than it used to be. Although I do still hear stories about some bands only hiring men or saying how musicians sound good for a girl, most of that has disappeared. So far one of my biggest obstacles has just been being one of (if not the only) girl around. Jazz is very much about “the hang”, where people choose who they want in their band based on if they are fun to hang out with before considering their musical abilities. As a girl, I sometimes find it hard to bond with a lot of the guys at the same level as they bond with each other simply because of difference in personalities, male vs. female. Many of my interests outside of music may differ than theirs, which is okay, but is definitely my biggest obstacle when it comes to wanting to get out there and play more.


How is the Austin music scene towards women in your experience?

I think the Austin music scene (behind the scenes) treats men and women equally poorly in my experience. It does not seem to appreciate and treat the musicians at the high level they deserve. Their philosophy seems to be, “The supply is greater than the demand, so it’s okay to treat these people poorly.” I do believe that the audience side of the music scene respects women musicians. I have felt very supported at all of my gigs from the audience. Many people have come up to me expressing how great it made them feel to see a women doing what I do on the stage. It is one of the biggest compliments I have received.


Why do you think there is this notion that women don’t listen to jazz or understand it? 

Jazz has always been a male dominant field. I have absolutely no idea why there is such a notion that women do not listen to jazz or understand it. Musical taste does not depend on gender, musical taste depends on musical taste. Men are allowed to like repetitive grooves just as much as women are allowed to like long solos. What would I say to people who think women don’t understand jazz? It’s ridiculous. Open your eyes and see how many women are making a difference in jazz or are out supporting it. 


Do you have any advice for younger girls who are interested in jazz or music in general?

It took me a long time to realize this but there will be times where you are the only girl around. Do not think you have to change who you are to fit in with the guys. I went through that phase and found that I drifted away from myself to try to make friends and “fit in”. What I found is I am the most confident me and can contribute my full potential to the music world when I stay true to myself. Latch on to what characteristics make you you and you will set yourself up for success.

While there are obstacles to face as a women in the jazz scene, I am lucky and thankful to be surrounded by so many supportive men and women both. I have tried to ask myself why there aren’t more women in jazz. I have sat on it for hours and hours but the truth is, it is still a mystery.