Jazz And Gender Conformity

“I play the piano like a man (…) I get the respect that lady divas don‘t get, because I’m one of the guys.”

Shirley Horn

I’ve been struggling lately with questions about gender conformity and queerness. There’s been a lot of talk about the gender bias in jazz these days. A lot of performative activism, but few ideas for structural change. Here are a few thoughts on that matter.

I discovered this fantastic discussion titled “Jazz and Gender in the Era of Black Lives Matter”, that featured Samora Pinderhughes along with Prof. Mimi Jones and Dr. Tammy L. Kernodle – a panel that is much more equipped than I am, to talk about gender equality in African American music – and really affirmed certain notions that I was long observing, though I had a hard time to verbalize them. Something that kept coming up was the general disconnect of scholars, writers, and activists with jazz players, which allows the scene to disguise aspects of this music’s history.

Sexism was the norm during most parts of jazz history and sadly some of the greatest artists of this legacy have a record of abusing or exploiting women. Jelly Roll Morton famously referred to himself as the “Inventor of Jazz”. There is rare talk about that, where “jazz” was “invented”, New Orleans of the fin de siècle, was an empire of night clubs and brothels and Morton “knew all the pimps”. One analyst argues that most players were “half-way pimps anyway”, which isn’t surprising, given that the entertainment industry was under a firm grip by mobs and gangs.1 The times were violent and working conditions dehumanizing. While 20th century African American music is so deeply tied to the yearn for social change and racial justice, greater feminist change didn’t come about until the 70s and it’s ignorant not to address the sexist practices in Jazz today.

To me, a reflection of those times is the nomenclature of jazz talk. To Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong, American culture “celebrate[s] boys through the lexicon of destruction”. In Jazz, players speak of “bad motherfuckers” playing a “killer solo”, and “just destroying it”, a lexicon, that invokes jazz men’s daily life’s violence, back in the day. Vuong continues, “What happens to our men and boys, if the only way they can valuate themselves is through the lexicon of death (…)”? 2

One can draw a line between the general unawareness of these aspects of the jazz practices, back in the day and now, and the gender bias in the scene today. In policy, gender equality might be the norm, but in practice men are constantly privileged because of their sex. An NPR report on gender equality in jazz suggests that “(…) the majority of band leaders, both male and female, fail to hire women for their recording projects (…).” 3

Vijay Iyer spoke about the meaning of the word jazz and tendencies in the jazz community, saying that, “the word jazz, I think, refers to the commodifying tendency, and that history of sales of music; It’s a business term, that’s what it is to me.” 4 I believe, it is this “commodifying tendency” in players, that conserves the misogyny and homophobia of those times, often disguised as a nostalgia for the old days. As Dr. Kernodle points out, jazz “is still a marker of a certain cultural and economic background” and is embraced by people who have a “powerbase to make changes” but are not “having that inclusive conversation”, which is why it’s so difficult “for women to get in the framework”, “and let alone queer people”.5

This “great man theory” in jazz, as Dr. Kernodle calls it, is being shaken today by a call for gender equity in the scene and the current shift in jazz from an entrepreneurial music to a practice that’s preserved in schools mainly.

Jazz education traditionally tends to focus on the 40s to 60s with bebop, hardbop and soloistic horn player language as the core of the musical curriculum. This style and musical practices are losing ground in the music industry today, and jazz players mainly make a living through teaching.

If we can see the entrepreneurial future of traditional jazz styles vanish, I believe it is time for music education to embrace those changes. Rather than dogmatically preserving a style and practices that don’t fit the industry, programs should embrace the concept of research. Rather than dressing, acting, and speaking like in the 50s, players should study and document the accomplishments of individuals – as the genius in much of this music is timeless. A “shift of the paradigm” in education as Dr. Kernodle continued later, would allow us to “normalize and reclaim people of the margins”, and cultivate the kind of gender equity that is self-evident in other fields or educational institutions.

From my euro-centric perspective, I see an analogy to classical music and the uprising of historically informed performance (HIP) in the 70s. This “shift of the paradigm” gave space for a more progressive view on early music and allowed the scene to embrace the historicism of the musical practice. It enabled the abolishment of certain 20th century mindsets and allowed to tackle gender conformity.

I’d cast my vote for renaming programs from “Jazz Studies” to “African American Music Research”, or maybe even “Historical Jazz Performance Practice”. Thorough research could help us better understand the times from which this music grew out of and would allow students to overcome the “lack of political education”, as Samora Pinderhughes puts it.6 This could lay the ground for creative change, that is badly needed in jazz today and help us overcome the gender bias – so that our music will be “reclaimed by people of the margins”.

1. Gerald Horne, Jazz and Justice – Racism and the Political Economy of the Music; Page 36: According to Eubie Blake “Morton knew all the pimps” and his lover ran a brothel. Mr. Horne thoroughly describes “a brand of male supremacy, that was hardly unique to practitioners of the new music but characterized some of them.”

2. Ocean Vuong – YouTube

3. Equal At Last? Women In Jazz, By The Numbers : NPR (2021).

Also, interesting when analyzing gender bias in NPR critics poll, indie labels seem to do better: “This information does not suggest a jazz landscape where women and men participate equally, but where a small, selective group of women sometimes receive attention as exceptional talents. The names of female artists who frequent the top of the poll would likely be familiar to jazz fans: big band leader Maria Schneider, saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, pianists Myra Melford and Carla Bley, clarinetist Anat Cohen, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, flutist Nicole Mitchell and the late pianist Geri Allen prominent among them. They appear in the poll time and time again. (It is also worth noting the labels that these women record for: Although a handful appear on jazz stalwarts like Verve, Concord and ECM, and some self-release their projects, more of them record for prominent indies favored by critics such as Intakt, Motema, Greenleaf, Clean Feed and Firehouse 12.)”

4. Taking The Stand #2 Vijay Iyer – YouTube (2013)

5. and 6. Jazz and Gender in the Era of Black Lives Matter – YouTube (2020)

Thanks to Melody Chua and Stephanie Baustert for feedback and edits.

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