A Brief History of the Origins of Jazz’s Sexism

Women's_jazz_band_on_a_ship_(24974393973)
MGM women’s jazz band, the Ingenues. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales.

“Still, the male jazz musician accepts and takes for granted that at every step he’ll be dealing with other men—from club owners to booking agents to bandleaders, fellow players, reviewers and writers in the press: a male-dominated profession.  The language that describes jazz, and jazz musicians, reflects this reality. . . . The actor in this world of music is with good reason commonly called the ‘jazzman.'”—Linda Dahl, Stormy Weather, ix-x

Like other artistic, cultural, and entertainment endeavors, jazz is having its own #metoo moment. In recent years many woman musicians have spoken out publicly about their experience with the all-too-common blatant sexism and harassment in jazz. From drummers Terri Lyne Carrington and Allison Miller to saxophonists Tia Fuller, Sarah Manning, and Lauren Sevian, women have shared their own experiences with sexual harassment throughout their entire education and careers. And critics such as Lara Pellegrinelli, Jennifer Odell, and Natalie Weiner have analyzed jazz patriarchy in light of the #metoo era.

Jazz has also not been free of scandal in the #metoo era. In the fall of 2017, the Boston Globe reported that over a period of thirteen years, the Berklee College of Music—one of the premier training grounds for jazz musicians—has quietly let eleven faculty members go after students “reported being assaulted, groped, or pressured into sex with their teachers.”

But it doesn’t take op-eds from women and scandalous headlines to learn about jazz’s gender bias; all it takes is some simple observation. Jazz critics, journalists, and editors are overwhelmingly male, as are university jazz professors and the ensembles they direct. The music’s gatekeepers are, and have always been, disproportionately male. As such, jazz has been shaped by gendered attitudes and privileged those qualities and characteristics conceptualized as masculine.

The roots of gender bias in jazz go all the way back to the 1800s, if not before. In the nineteenth century, standard gender roles prevented women from performing music in public. A woman’s place was in the home. As music historian Linda Dahl notes, if a woman developed enough skill to play professionally, she was “typically regarded as box-office poison. The public, entrepreneurs claimed, just wouldn’t accept women on the concert stage, unless they were opera singers. The American woman, like music itself, was thought best kept in the parlor” (Dahl, Stormy Weather, 8). Moreover, it was only acceptable for women to play a few instruments such as the piano or violin, as instruments were gendered in ways that limited a woman’s musical options. Women were also discouraged from playing some instruments, such as the tuba, because it would obscure their physical features and detract from their femininity and attractiveness. Stereotypes about women’s lack of physical strength or mental capacity justified beliefs that women were not capable of performing at the same artistic level as men.

These attitudes toward women musicians continued on into the mid-twentieth century. Downbeat was one of the earliest offenders of perpetuating the idea that jazz was a male domain and beyond the capacity for women to understand and excel in. One particular example stands out. In the February 11, 1941 issue of Downbeat, Marvin Freedman explained that “Here’s the Lowdown on Two Kinds of Women” that “there are two kinds of women, those who don’t like jazz music and admit they don’t, and those who don’t like jazz music but say they do. The latter always have ulterior motives.” Under the heading “Philosophy and Stuff,” he explains that what is ruining jazz is that “Women control the public taste, and women do not like jazz!” He goes on to explain how movies, radio programs, dances, and advertisements cater to women’s taste and so the “public hears the kind of music women want to hear. If the public never hears jazz it can’t ever know what it’s about. And we’re all against anything we don’t understand. So if women won’t let jazz be played commercially, jazz will never have an audience.” After explaining why women do not like jazz, he concludes by saying “The way out is not to try to teach women to like jazz. They never will. The only thing to do is to demand proportionate representation for men. Since men are the only ones who produce any music (or, forgetting Bessie, ever have produced any), it doesn’t seem to be an exorbitant demand.” Freedman explains that women do not like jazz because “Good jazz is hard masculine music with a whip to it. Women like violins, and jazz deals with drums and trumpets.”

In 1952 the progressive jazz critic Nat Hentoff outlined how men were privileged in jazz and how their experience is treated as a neutral norm. Hentoff, who fervently worked for Civil Rights, asks how many times one hears or reads a comment from a disc jockey or writer refer to “Mary Lou Williams as ‘the best of the female pianists?’ The implication always is that in the minor leagues of feminine jazz, she’s peerless” but compared to male pianists, “she’s all right—for a woman.” He sums up the double standard by saying that even though women should be judged on the same criteria as men, what usually happens is that women are “judged by themselves on a lower criterion of excellence from their male contemporaries.”

More recently, the scenario and attitudes that Hentoff observed and described sixty years ago played out in the June 2012 issue of Downbeat, where trumpeter Darren Barrett predicted that the twenty-two year old alto saxophonist Hailey Niswanger “has the power to be one of the best female alto saxophonists in the country, if not the world.” Note that Barrett isn’t say Niswanger could be one of the best saxophonists—only one of the best female saxophonists, as if the highest level of achievement she could reach is predicated, circumscribed, and limited by her gender.

A recent and notorious interview that pianist Ethan Iverson conducted with fellow pianist Robert Glasper perpetuates the notion that there’s an inherent difference between men and women when it comes to jazz. Glasper took a lot of heat, and rightly so, for this statement: “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. You’re there, you stay on that groove, and the women’s eyes close and they start to sway, going into a trance.” Aside from the 70+ years in difference, Glasper’s comments aren’t that far removed from Marvin Freedman’s. Where Freedman sees women to be incapable of understanding jazz, Glasper sees them as being fundamentally adverse to solos and only able to respond to the music on an erotic level.

It’s not just the views that journalists and musicians have toward women’s capabilities to understand or play the music. Other than singers and pianists, jazz magazines throughout most of the twentieth-century rarely covered women jazz musicians. This led to the widespread belief that women who played jazz were exceptions to the norm and that there must not be very many female jazz musicians, because if there were many of them, they would receive media coverage. When they were covered they were often portrayed as novelties or gimmicks—anything other than serious and accomplished musicians. In her study of the coverage of women in Downbeat, jazz scholar Anne Dvinge notes that when women are discussed in the magazine the “mentions are often couched in terms that hold connotations of the femaleness of women” (Dvinge, “Between History & Hearsay: Imagining Jazz at the Turn of the 21st Century,” 121). In this way, the jazz press reinforces and perpetuates ideas that male jazz musicians are the norm, that women players must be able to “play like a man” in order to succeed, and that jazz is a man’s world.

Given the long history of jazz’s sexism, its deep roots in American culture, and the fact that it is still going strong—as the stories that women musicians and writers continue to demonstrate—it will take a monumental effort with which to achieve not just gender parity in jazz, but to change the gendered notions in which it is thought about and evaluated. This is made all the more difficult, given jazz’s sexism is just one manifestation of the sexism in American culture as a whole. Equality in jazz will not come to pass until patriarchy itself is erased from our society. It’s a tall task, but one we must all work toward.

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