Women in Jazz:
Blues and the
Words: Lara Pellegrinelli
My birthday is January 20, a day that has seen its share of snowstorms, Super Bowls, and inaugurations. This year, I skipped the swearing-in ceremony in favor of just plain swearing, out in the cold, with hundreds of thousands of others in the streets of New York City. Feminism, let it be known, is my second-favorite F word. I’d used the weeks since Election Day to volunteer on behalf of the Women’s March. I’ve spent the weeks and months that followed this frenzied, furious parade watching and waiting to see how women everywhere have been stirred to action by our new political reality.
Watching as the women of Silicon Valley came forward to expose the men who have harassed them. Watching as the women of Hollywood came forward to detonate rumors of the casting couch spectacularly. Watching as women in the media came forward, ending the careers of powerful hosts. Watching as women have righteously assailed our politicians. Watching as the women – and men – of classical and new music articulated how their realms have felt the oppressive effects of gender. But the women of jazz have not come forward as I have long hoped and imagined they would.
I do not think they are coming.
You might read this and respond, Wait: jazz is having its own #MeToo moment. Wasn’t there just a big feature in The New York Times? An essay on the WBGO website? Indeed. There was also the revelation, reported by the Boston Globe, that 11 faculty members were dismissed from the Berklee College of Music for sexual harassment over the last 13 years—and that saxophonist Steve Kirby had been hired to teach there after his dismissal from the University of Manitoba for sexual harassment. Or we might point to the problematic interview exchange between pianists Ethan Iverson and Rob Glasper last spring concerning women’s embodied responses to music; the backlash snowballed into what we may refer to as “The Saga of Musical Clitoris,” as sharply critiqued by NPR’s Michelle Mercer.
When I say that I feel the absence of women of jazz from this movement, what I mean is that comparatively few female musicians have raised their voices publicly to initiate conversations about harassment—women who I know to have more than their share of stories to tell, women who deserve to be heard. The exception is 19 year-old vibraphonist Sasha Berliner, who authored a courageous blog post addressed as an open letter to Iverson on the sexism that she has already faced as a young woman in jazz. Those who reported their harassers at Berklee have remained anonymous in the press (which should be their right).
Men have been responsible for some of the prominent media coverage. Giovanni Russonello contributed the women in jazz roundup for the Times. Nate Chinen solicited and edited the essay by baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian for WBGO. The message from these two pieces is that it’s possible for women today to overcome the circumstances of their gender—and that it’s getting better for the women in jazz, generally speaking.
At best, this perception is a superficial gloss on the reality faced by women working in jazz. At worst, it’s a dangerous assumption that allows the men to remain comfortable, while diverting attention from the still thriving jazz patriarchy.
In courses I teach every semester, I find myself reminding students about one of the basic tenets of music: We deal not only in sound, but also in silence. Silence structures sound. Silence can be anticipatory, or it can create the impression of finality. In it, we might hear anger, sadness, frustration, or longing. Any of us who writes worth a damn has learned to cultivate silence in ourselves, so that others may speak. Writers are supposed to listen… not only to what people wish to tell us—what they want us to hear—but also for what is missing from their stories.
The comparative absence of women’s voices in jazz during this greater political moment must be heard as a dark presence. As activist Tillie Olsen famously wrote decades ago: “These are not natural silences—what Keats called agonie ennuyeuse (the tedious agony)—that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation. The silences I speak of here are unnatural: the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot.”
Take, for example, Sevian’s essay, which ostensibly focuses on an incident from her days as a student 20 years ago. A mentor at the school she attended – we aren’t told who – said something grossly inappropriate about Sevian. She doesn’t disclose what he said, only that it was relayed to her by a male friend and ensemble mate. The impact of the words spoken by someone to whom she had entrusted her education made Sevian seriously consider dropping out, even quitting music altogether. She wanted to report the incident, but an administrator dissuaded her. Eventually she convinced herself to allow this harsh reality to fuel her desire to become the best player she could be.
And she’s a fine player at that. While I respect Sevian’s grit and have perhaps only a sliver of understanding when it comes to the pressures she’s faced not only as a woman in jazz, but as an exceptionally beautiful white female performer, I’m awfully tired of narratives that extoll the virtues of facing sexism—or any other kind of prejudice. It’s a troubling kind of lemonade that broadcasts a positive outcome for the victim, instead of demanding accountability from the perpetrators. Although Sevian understands the power dynamic that allowed this to happen, she refers to what was said merely as “distasteful” and “a seedy little comment,” failing to label what it really is: harassment, pure and simple, and against university policies. It is a form of discrimination. Any editor should have been more careful about drawing this distinction.
These points aside, scratch the story’s surface and you’ll notice the shadows: hard experiences of which Sevian will not speak. She mentions in passing that she’d been subject to “inappropriate physical advances” already before this incident occurred during her freshman year. In the years that followed, she tells us about waking up on a tour bus to find someone rubbing her leg and having her ass grabbed by a bandmate. There were, in fact, many more times when things “got physical.”
“I could write a novel about it,” she stated in a comment to the online forum, which she subsequently deleted. “But I chose not to write about this.” Suddenly, her triumphant picture has lost its glow.
What kind of choice has it been for Sevian to remain silent, one that she and other women musicians are compelled to make, time and time again? A choice to purposefully sublimate emotional pain? A choice to withhold knowledge and keep one’s sense of agency? A choice for self-preservation? No choice at all for many, because of the risk of irrevocable harm to their careers in what is a challenging and unstable profession for musicians of all genders. This is where we would find Sevian’s real #MeToo story, if she were able to tell it, and a narrative common to so many women in jazz.
As a non-musician but nevertheless a professional woman in the field, I have been privy to enough women’s tales to know that Sevian’s experiences aren’t anomalous, and that they continue to happen. Women talk about harassment plenty among themselves. While I will not divulge any particulars, since these are not my stories to tell, I’ve known women who have been assaulted by club managers; whose mentors or prospective mentors have attempted to coerce them into sexual relationships; and whose teachers have made them the subject of demeaning sexual remarks. When women work in bands led by men, many have faced the traumatizing experience of being exposed to behavior demeaning to women in general, from pornography casually consumed on band buses to the naked sexual exploits of their bandmates. What woman would want to talk about this publicly? And to whom would they bring their complaints? Such a burden is truly awful and unfair.
Beyond sexual harassment, I have yet to encounter anyone who has not suffered acutely from self-doubt for the simple fact of being female—the piercing apprehension that comes from wondering if you didn’t get the gig because of your gender or because you weren’t good enough. (In some cases, it’s perfectly clear: see Becca Paterson’s recent post about a big band casting call.) “Each moment is like this—before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen,” writes poet Claudia Rankine in Citizen, her lyrical masterpiece on racism. “What did he just say? Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? The moment stinks.” We move on, Rankine shows us, but are unable to let go. Our perceptions of reality, forever changed, remain unsteady, unsure. This is the tax imposed by difference.
I was once myself on close personal terms with this specter of doubt. Pay attention to bylines, and you quickly realize that music journalism has its own patriarchy. When I was younger, I was told on several occasions that I write like a man. It ran counter to expectations of gender, I gradually surmised, for young women to produce strong, direct, authoritative prose. I discovered that I would do better pitching editors by email rather than by phone (in the days when you actually could reach an editor by phone). Were they persuaded more easily by my disembodied arguments than by a female voice on the line? Some of these men looked surprised when we finally met in person, as if I wasn’t what they expected. At times I felt decidedly out of my element mingling with them at press parties and happy hours, or discussing coverage idea over three-scotch lunches.
One powerful musician who didn’t like how I’d written about him felt entitled to call one of my editors and ask him to take me off of another assignment. The editor—who no longer recalls the incident and therefore cannot corroborate it—refused, and at the time we laughed about it. I no longer find it quite so amusing. Another editor, for whom I was writing at one of the major jazz magazines, joked with me about putting Cassandra Wilson in a thong on the cover of a forthcoming women’s issue. After I complained to the publisher, who did not reprimand the editor, I decided that I had no desire to write for the outlet again. One of the reasons I stopped reviewing recordings was because I didn’t want to be responsible for determining which female musicians were “good enough” on what I knew was an uneven playing field, or to have my own worth questioned for holding that all female musicians are worthy of consideration, respect, and an equal shot at the opportunities that make possible the highest levels of artistic achievement.
Beyond the media patriarchy, I have my own collection of #MeToo jazz stories, though they’re mild-mannered compared to those of female performers. By the time I got to New York, a fat handful of unwelcome experiences in graduate school had taught me how to dodge some bullets.
One well-known freelancer, a vocal-jazz specialist still widely published, harassed me steadily for months. He set his email address book so that any message he sent to me was addressed automatically to “The Beautiful, Statuesque Lara Pellegrinelli,” and ignored my professional inquiries or responded with personal musings. (I still have the emails.) He would stare blatantly at my chest on the not infrequent occasions we encountered each other at events, even in the presence of my then boyfriend (now my husband, to whom falls the dubious pleasure of editing this essay).
Once, having inquired about a job opening at a record label, I was invited by the executive in charge of hiring – someone I knew already – on an outing to “hear some music and discuss.” The evening began with glasses of wine over an elegant dinner, and concluded with smoking weed backstage with the artists. I recall wondering whether it would be more conducive to landing the position if I took a drag or passed the joint along. Silly me! This wasn’t really a job interview… it was a date.
Those stories strike me as especially relevant here. They demonstrate so clearly how assumptions about women in the jazz world revealed by Ethan Iverson’s interview with Robert Glasper play out, whether consciously or as the product of implicit bias.
Let’s review “The Saga of Musical Clitoris” for a moment. “I’ve seen what that does to the audience, playing that groove,” Glasper explained to Iverson. “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. You’re there, you stay on that groove, and the women’s eyes close and they start to sway, going into a trance.”
It’s laughable, I know, but stay with me.
Michelle Mercer nails the implications of Glasper’s sexualized stereotypes. “I’ve heard variations on the ‘women can’t really follow jazz’ theme ever since I first started hitting jazz clubs and loving extremely long solos,” she writes. “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.”
When the cultural assumption is that women are merely “the passive vessels for male sounds,” as Mercer puts it, there’s no space left for other kinds of female participation. In my interactions with the harassing writer and the label executive, both saw me only as an object or a potential romantic partner instead of as a colleague or job candidate. Even if Glasper’s assessment of women is patently ridiculous, the personal erasure I experienced in those moments and others is its direct result. As a matter of fact, I had one of those moments with Glasper himself. When I was working for NPR the night of his 2010 webcast from the Village Vanguard, I was with Glasper in the club’s office while he chatted and joked with his bandmates. I attempted to introduce myself, but rated only a curt acknowledgement—the subtext of which seemed to be, leave us alone.
Confronting this invisibility once can be painful; having the patience and endurance to confront it over and over again is a more formidable challenge. It’s exhausting to have to keep asserting: I belong here. Women in jazz may never trust that they can be heard until they’re certain that they can be seen for what and who they are.
It could very well be that conditions are getting better for women in jazz, but I am not yet convinced. In his recent New York Times essay, Russonello interviews a handful of women who count among jazz’s brightest lights and most promising talents. Lord knows, if opportunities haven’t improved for Terri Lyne Carrington or Esperanza Spalding, what hope does the rest of the band have? Wider recognition for exceptional talents does not indicate a progressive shift in jazz culture as a whole.
Yet if you substitute the names Regina Carter, Ingrid Jensen, and Renee Rosnes for Carrington and Spalding, Russonello’s article could have been written when I first arrived in New York almost 20 years ago—and maybe even 15 years before that. Someone at cultural mainstay Jazz at Lincoln Center tried to sell me on the “it’s getting better” narrative at the turn of the century, and I wasn’t buying it. Even after that institution’s much-touted overtures, there still are no permanent female big band members, despite the repeated efforts of women to break the glass ceiling.
I’m equally skeptical of Sevian’s onward-and-upward takeaway—not only for the reasons elaborated above, but also because she goes out of her way to praise the men who have aided her career, while omitting her female contemporaries. If the men are so open-minded and welcoming these days, then why is Sevian one of only a few women that they’ve allowed into their ranks? Are no other women good enough?
Sevian discusses, in particular, her experiences recording for Posi-Tone, a label run by “big advocates of women in jazz Marc Free and Nick O’Toole,” and for saxophonist Greg Osby’s label, Inner Circle. Stepping up to offer a radically different viewpoint, saxophonist Sarah Manning shared in a recent essay her less than female-friendly experiences with Posi-Tone, pointing out that none of the three female artists in their catalog appear on the label’s artist roster page.
Osby, one of the faculty members accused of harassment at Berklee, offered a jaw-dropping statement in a Boston Globe interview, despite having received a severance package that included a gag order. “Only an idiot would sleep with students, and I am not an idiot,” Osby told the paper. “I would not do that. But after they graduate, it’s open season.”
There would be no need for skepticism if anyone did the reporting necessary to assess gender parity objectively. For example, it would be a relatively straightforward task to create an annual infographic that represents the number of bands with women leaders performing on U.S. jazz festivals (like those made by Ricky O’Bannon, a reporter formerly embedded with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra). It would be easy enough to calculate the percentages of women among college jazz faculty—rumored to top off at 20 percent. It would be simple to tally the numbers of female applicants, as compared to winners, for grants such as those awarded by Chamber Music America—presumably a very small number, to judge by the list of past recipients. To date, Regina Carter remains the only woman in jazz to have been honored as a MacArthur Fellow. The Pulitzer Prize has been awarded to female composers and to jazz composers, but never to a female jazz composer, even posthumously.
It’s hard to argue with gathering empirical evidence that would give us a real measuring stick, instead of replicating stories that help men feel good about women’s progress, thus allowing them to overlook the voices not yet raised and still unheard. On the surface, the #MeToo movement is about sex; really, it is about women’s work. Jazz still has a long way to go, and no woman should have to risk her career and livelihood to get there. For now, let’s turn up the silence.
Lara Pellegrinelli is an arts journalist and scholar. She’s contributed to National Public Radio, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Village Voice. She teaches at The New School.