A month back or so I bought the June issue of JazzTimes, which is fairly unusual for me. The primary reason was because it is a pretty saxophone heavy issue, with stories on Fred Ho, Steve Coleman, David S Ware, and a “Before and After” with Lee Konitz. What made this issue most appealing to me is that Ware (to a certain extent) is not part of the mainstream jazz scene and Ho isn’t even on the radar for most folks. But what got me fired up was John Murph’s article on alto player Tia Fuller.
Murph begins the article: “Determination: It sparkles in Tia Fuller’s deep-brown eyes; it radiates through her rich mocha skin; it flashes through her beaming style.” He then describes her new album as “vivacious,” an adjective I doubt would be used to describe the playing of a man’s, no matter how “vivacious” his playing was.
I shouldn’t need to tell you that jazz is still an overwhelmingly male domain. Just look at the list of critics who voted in this year’s Downbeat criticis poll. There’s me, about 75 other guys, one woman (Jennifer Odell), and no more than three people whose names do not betray their gender identity, but I bet most of them are men. Look at the way male musicians are depicted in their ads for reeds versus how women are. Men are generally photographed with their horn in their mouth, mid solo; women use their saxophone or whatever as a prop (much thanks to my observant students @ KU this summer for the horn-as-prop heads up during a class discussion). Look how few women instrumentalists there are listed in critics and readers polls. Look who few women instrumentalists play in top bands. Look how women are portrayed in photos in jazz magazines, then compare that to how men are portrayed.
It should be obvious that there is a huge gender discrepency in jazz, and for John Murph, in 2010, to focus on Tia Fuller’s appearance, let alone begin his article by emphasizing her physical attractiveness, does absolutely nothing to solve, or even maintain the status quo. Murph’s writing instantly objectifies Fuller, making her an object to be gazed upon, not as an active subject who should be evaluated strictly on musical criteria. I should point out that Murph’s article is positive, in that he likes her playing, etc., but his opening sentence takes away anything positive he writes later in the article. In doing so, Murph nearly reduces Fuller to how Spellman College professor Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall describes women in mainstream hip hop videos in Byron Hurt’s documentary Beyond Beats and Rhymes: “people to be fucked.”
Murph’s opening, whether he knows it or not, helps maintain jazz as a boy’s club. I’m sure Murph meant no harm, but he – and everyone who writes about jazz, myself included – need to be more sensitive to the ways in which we write about musicians of each gender. One way is to not use adjectives, like vivacious, that are pretty obviously gendered as feminine when describing an album by a woman. Sure, sexual aesthetics and gendered language has been used for over a century in American music writing, and it’s hard to not use adjectives that don’t carry some kind of gendered connotation because there are so many of them. But we should try, nonetheless. Another thing that jazz writers can do is to not focus on the physical appearance of the musician: male or female. No exceptions.
Murph’s statement should not have been printed. He and the editors of JazzTimes should know better. I hope they get raked over the coals by their readers, and I look forward to reading the letters in the next issue. But more than that: I hope writing like this ceases and that all jazz writers will be more sensitive to understanding how powerful language is, even if it’s just complimenting a female saxophonist on her deep brown eyes, her rich mocha skin, and her beaming smile. That won’t solve all the deeply structural gender inequalities in jazz, but it will certainly help.