The Concept of the “Jazz Diva”, is it Acceptable or Derogatory?

In an interview last week I was asked, “Who is your favorite Jazz Diva?” To be honest, I had never heard that exact question before and it stopped me dead in my tracks. As I mulled it over in my mind I couldn’t decide if they were asking me who my favorite female singer was or my favorite female musician…and the more I thought about it, I was pretty sure they were only asking about FEMALE musicians because I, myself, am a female. As the question rankled, I was busy trying to figure out how best to answer it and not be rude or come off as angry. Could I say a man was my favorite Jazz Diva? Probably not. But then, who could I name? I’m pretty sure Dinah Washington wouldn’t like being called a Diva, so I didn’t want to offend her. I don’t think it fits Sarah Vaughan either. I was pretty stumped.

Jazz Diva?

Jazz Diva?

Eventually I just said I objected to that term, but the interviewer wouldn’t relent. WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE JAZZ DIVA?!


The question really stuck with me. What does the term Diva mean and why don’t I like it?

Merriam-Webster defines the term “Diva” as a “usually glamorous and successful female performer or personality”, from “Latin Diva meaning Goddess.”

Well, that’s not bad. That’s actually quite pleasant.

I kept reading. Their second definition is “prima donna”, defined as a “a principal female singer in an opera; a vain or undisciplined person who finds it difficult to work under direction”.

So, basically the definition is a glamorous and successful female singer…who’s a bitch.

I think in our society the term DEFINITELY implies a successful woman who is entitled, difficult, and thinks too much of herself in regard to others; and more than that, I think its common usage (as in the question, “Who’s your Favorite Jazz Diva?”) implies that a successful woman must be difficult to work with and have an inflated sense of self worth. In a sense the word objectifies a female musician by placing her in a category totally separate from a man, a category where her personality, physical appearance, and professionalism (also frequently equated with bitchiness) define her more than her musical skills. She is no longer a Jazz musician, she is a DIVA.

Case in point, Jazz Diva Barbie.  Yes, that is a real thing, and she has 12 points of articulation! …..?

How do you feel about the term? Do you use it? Does it offend you? Have you been called a “Diva?”

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10 Responses to The Concept of the “Jazz Diva”, is it Acceptable or Derogatory?

  1. Renée Yoxon says:

    I think about this a lot. I know some women singers who have reclaimed the term. They call themselves a diva because they recognize (whether consciously or subconsciously) that women are going to be characterized one way or another based specifically on our womanhood (ie, bitches, mother-figures, wilted flowers, etc etc) and so if you have to pick one you might as well pick diva because bitches get shit done.

    I totally understand your discomfort in the question the interview asked. I certainly don’t want to identify other women in this way because it totally undermines the solidarity we’re trying to build here. I think the word diva is rude and derogatory and even if the intention was good on the part of the interviewer it doesn’t change the way it feels to some, like me or you. I probably would have answered the question with some careful rephrasing in my answer, such as, “well, my favourite woman jazz vocalist is…” or something like that.

    Anyway, I commend you for writing this article. It’s not easy to put yourself out there and say “this shit makes me uncomfortable.” Keep up the awesome work!


  2. Allen Esses says:

    Diva all to often used to say one female is better than another and separate oneself from the rest.
    That’s Show Biz for you!


  3. Lynn goucher says:

    I don’t like the word diva either. It’s sexist and,as you so aptly pointed out, it objectifies women.


    • Thank you Lynn! I feel a lot of people missed the point in this blog, thinking rather that I was talking about how people shouldn’t be difficult, but I was really pointing out that the objectifying nature of the term! THANK YOU 🙂


  4. DuLac says:

    You are absolutely right! Pop music is full of divas and divos and they are utterly unbearable!


  5. Debbe Manzella says:

    People seem to enjoy these arguments. II’s kind of like the never ending debate over the term “jazz”. I see your point about the stigma of being characterized as difficult, but then Nina Simone made a good career out of being known as unpredictable, and difficult. That’s show biz or drama, whatever. A more relevant beef to me is billing and ticket sales, I often see “women’s events” billed with cheaper tickets at a festival with men or mixed groups. I kind of relate to what; the actors say; they can write what they want about me as long as they spell my name right. Deeds not words, you can really play, just go out there and knock their socks off. You will find over and over again that writers and promoters are given to hyperbole and gilding the lily, that’s their gig.


    • Thanks for your comment Debbe. I think you’re right, it is very similar to the debate over the term “Jazz”. My point was not that some people aren’t or shouldn’t be difficult, but that the term Diva when loosely applied to all female singers implies that they are ALL difficult simply because they are all women.

      And I agree with you about billing etc. I don’t like the idea of “Women’s Events” in general just because it does separate them from the “other” events.

      It’s not necessarily a “big deal”, but words do have meaning and I just wanted to have some discussion about a word that is usually used so flippantly.


  6. For me, it’s a compliment, but I know the negative inflection as well. I’m sure it simply depends on who is saying it.


    • Thanks for commenting Lacy. I don’t think the interviewer meant it in a negative way AT ALL, but I think the word does have a negative connotation no matter who is saying it. That being said, some female singers / musicians really like the word.


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