International Womxn's Day Special: What would jazz look like without the patriarchy?


Three years ago, on International Women’s Day, NPR’s jazz writer Michelle Mercer published an analysis of a sexist exchange between two of the major male talents in the jazz world — Robert Glasper and Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus.

In an interview with Iverson on his podcast, Glasper said that one of the reason he plays is because its attractive to women—and he even went as far as to say: “I've seen what that does to the audience, playing that groove. I love making the audience feel that way. Getting back to women: women love that. They don't love a whole lot of soloing. When you hit that one groove and stay there, it's like musical clitoris.”

Women jazz fans and musicians all over the world took offense to this—and in her analysis, Mercer made a point to underscore how these remarks are part of a long history of overlooking, belittling, sexualizing, and excluding women in jazz: “To be a female jazz fan and critic is to live with a frustrating irreconcilability: I have an intellectual passion for creative, complex music and, sometimes, the musicians who make that music doubt my ability to appreciate its creativity and complexity,” she wrote.

Mercer even went as far to point out something I’ve thought for a long time— “[Though] much feminist work in jazz has focused on the noble goals of celebrating the genre's marginalized women musicians and advocating towards equal representation for them on today's bandstands... issues of women in jazz goes deeper, into a gendered construction of the music itself.”

Three years later to the day, this idea, that down to the sonic quality of the music, jazz favors the masculine aesthetic not only as the best, but often, as the only form of jazz expression, is worth revisiting. Especially in light of a recent study done at a Berkelee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice workshop, where students were asked to assign jazz instruments—like tenor sax, piano, and trumpet—a gender.

“The group barely had to think about it, and soon the masculine column was filling at a rapid pace with instruments such as guitar, drums, saxophone, and trumpet, and many more, and the feminine column—a much shorter list—including clarinet and piano (but even piano was further broken down, with jazz piano being considered masculine, and classical piano considered more feminine),” the report stated, emphasizing how with these simple choices, “gender assumptions are made, and societal roles can be predetermined.”

Along with equating “masculine” instruments like tenor sax with quintessential jazz-ism, the gendered construction jazz music is in the hyper-masculine competitiveness of jam sessions, the male-dominated clubs and bandstands, standards of skill that reward playing loud, fast and long, and the general omission of women jazz instrumentalists from the history, despite their manifold contributions. Most of all, Mercer’s “gendered construction” looks like the genre’s emphasis on “machismo individualism,” as Jayne Caldwell wrote in her article, Jazzwomen: music, sound, gender, sexuality.

“Despite the evidence of improvisation in blues and swing, and [the intuitive, visceral, guttural, embodied performances of the blues-women before them,] it is instrumentalists such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane (and later Sonny Rollins) who are notorious and made legendary for the sounds they produced. This overwhelming emphasis thrust the improvising solo instrumentalist into the spotlight, effectively producing a cultural politics of machismo individualism, which arguably remains today.”

Hence, women who want to engage in jazz are forced to choose one of a couple directions—work within this “man’s world,” or create a new, better one. Obviously, both routes come with their own set of drawbacks, and the dichotomy has created a rift among some jazzwomen.

After being compared to male performers and being called “as good as the guys,” many women in jazz devote their careers to mastering this “machismo individualism.” This article by Sarah Provost even asserts that, “Despite feminism’s successes in reclaiming the historical value of female jazz instrumentalists such as Lil Hardin and Mary Lou Williams, these women confound modern women by insisting on describing their own playing as masculine.”

Like Hardin and Williams, many jazzwomen today think engaging in and conforming to these male-dominated jazz environments and sounds is necessary for success. ‘“I think that a lot of people are interested in having all-female ensembles in order to provide a safe space for women to feel like they’re allowed to flourish within the jazz community. The problem with this thinking is that the jazz community is not a safe place,” said Kate Olson, a Seattle-based jazz saxophonist. “It’s difficult for me as a teacher, because I feel like I’m always telling my female students to play louder. This is not only because they need to compete with the men that are in their ensembles, but it’s also because stylistically in jazz, the soloist needs to take up a lot of sonic space. Standard ideas of femininity imply that naturally women are going to be quieter than men, but I reject this because I think that’s a socialized perspective. You could also say that the aesthetics of jazz dictate that you have to take on a masculine persona to be on stage.”

Meanwhile, other jazzwomen separate into their own separate jazz world—all-womxn’s orchestras, choirs, festivals and magazines, jazz jams and meet-ups—with the hopes that it can replace the existing patriarchal structure.

“I have directed one of the all-womxn and non-binary staffed jazz ensembles in the Puget Sound for the past 10 years. I feel like the fact that we have three dedicated ensembles/spaces: Rain City Jazz Orchestra, Seattle Women's Jazz Orchestra and the Girls Ellington Project are an indication that this intentional space is (amazing and) necessary to both ensure that there are safer spaces which encompass representation and amplify narratives which have been lacking (and even suppressed), as well as to cultivate leadership with motivation to examine and unpack educational and professional equity,” said jazz band director, Reese Tanimura.

When jazzwomen engage in the existing culture, they may be criticized as condoning it. Sometimes, they are even cast as anti-feminist by other jazzwomen for merely disagreeing with the means to equitable end.

“I think my opinion on this is pretty unpopular,” said Olson. “I’ve never felt like I fit in very well in all female ensembles. But beyond my personal issues, in general as far as an idea, I don’t think they’ve been terribly effective, because the level isn’t always that high, and they create an artificial environment that isn’t what the real world is like for women on the bandstand. National ensembles like the Diva Jazz Orchestra are certainly an exception.”

Separate female ensembles may also do a disservice by excusing men from engaging from issues of inequity in the style. As Sidney Hauser, jazz saxophonist, and leader of Smack Talk said, “Having an exclusive, organized group of only women sometimes feels like it's perpetuating an ‘us versus them’ type situation. The whole point of gender equality in music —at least for me—is for integration and acceptance of the fact that regardless of biological differences we have a voice and we are just as valid.”

Meanwhile, those jazzwomen who engage primarily in “feminist separatism,” may be faced with a lack of opportunity due to male gatekeeping. Critics have even compared the idea of separate female jazz groups to the racist politics of “Separate but Equal,”—another exclusionary tactic veiled in inclusive language.

As feminist scholar Marilyn Frye wrote in Some reflections on separatism and power: “The penalty for refusing to work with or for men is usually starvation; and if one’s policy of noncooperation is more subtle, one’s livelihood is still constantly on the line, since one is not a loyal partisan, a proper member of the team, or what have you.”

Still, Tanimura asserts that this is, “A tired narrative that is perpetuated to keep oppressed groups from building solidarity and creating systems that could displace broken, inequitable institutions,” and many women who’ve participated in all-women ensembles, like Vancouver-based band director Jill Townsend, praise these exclusive groups for their supportive environments.

“I served as Co-Musical Director with the Seattle Women’s Jazz Orchestra for two seasons and enjoyed every moment. I appreciated the energy of the band and the support they had for one another, and for me. It was special and I felt welcome,” she said.

Is either route advancing the cause of jazzwomen or addressing this gendered construction of the music at the root? Can either way enable women to reclaim their subjectivity in a style that has long objectified them? It appears, not yet.

After the students at the recent Berkelee Institute workshop sorted their instruments by gender, they were asked: “What would jazz sound like in a culture without patriarchy?” The institute’s managing director, Aja Burrell Wood, said that “no one, including the institute, has a clear answer to this question, nor is the vision of gender justice meant to exclude any gender identity.”

There’s no better day to imagine a future where the answer to this question is clear, than International Women’s Day.

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