Homophobia in Jazz

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By Alexander Merchlinsky

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A few years back, I visited a jazz pianist who had made his mark in the ’70s with a reflective series of albums on the ECM label. This was one of my first interviews for a now-finished biography of his former employer, Chet Baker [out in April 2002 from Knopf]. As the recorder ran, my host—known for his fierce intelligence and for the refinement of his playing—kept referring to “that faggot” who had produced a somewhat homoerotic documentary of the once-beautiful trumpeter and singer. After gorging himself, grunting and burping, on Chinese food, he listened with me to a vocal recording that Baker had made in 1955, when his singing suggested a shy little fawn. The pianist spat out in disgust: “He sounds like a girl!”

The jazz world is one of the last cultural frontiers of old-fashioned macho, and in it, homophobia runs rampant. Since interviewing that pianist, I’ve met a multitude of jazz figures who pride themselves on soulfulness and sensitivity, yet are as sensitive as rednecks on the subject of homosexuality—especially its presence in jazz, which is not inconsiderable. Many of the same musicians who would flatten anyone who called them or a friend of theirs a “nigger” haven’t hesitated to tag somebody a “faggot,” if that person threatened their standards of masculinity.

One saxophonist, a gay man in his early ’60s, sums up what he sees as the persisting attitude: “If you are gay, you cannot be playing this music that requires you to have a much higher level of testosterone.” A veteran singer who has worked with European big bands remembers walking out on one of them, furious at being “harassed” by homophobic slurs. “Gays are the last whipping post in society,” he says. “A lot of mediocre musicians become section players, and they’re full of frustration. They turn that on any target. They’re with guys so much, they get a buddy system going. One guy in the trumpet section makes some idiotic remark, they all collapse in laughter. It’s gotten so that I avoid musicians.”

Political correctness may keep most educated liberals from calling anyone a “faggot” anymore, but how much have attitudes really changed? Some attention was drawn to the question in the ’90s, when three outstanding jazz musicians—pianist Fred Hersch, vibraphonist Gary Burton and singer-pianist Andy Bey—all came out publicly as gay men. Patricia Barber, a much-heralded singer-pianist and an open lesbian, showed her nerve by recording Paul Anka’s love song “She’s a Lady” on her 1998 album Modern Cool. Two years earlier came Lush Life, David Hajdu’s biography of arranger-composer Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967), one of the very few openly gay jazzmen of his (or any) time. Duke Ellington, his creative partner, called Strayhorn “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.”

But Strayhorn worked mostly behind the scenes, and until recently it was easy to think that jazz, like the Boy Scouts, had no gay element at all. “I don’t even know a jazz musician who’s a homosexual—not a real jazz musician,” Dizzy Gillespie was quoted as saying. Grover Sales, who teaches jazz studies at Stanford University and the Berkeley Jazz School in northern California, devoted eight pages of Gene Lees’ Jazzletter to the question: “Why Is Jazz Not Gay Music?” Noting that the jazz community was “long unrivalled for its blithe indifference to extremes of human comportment,” he concluded that gay people just weren’t broad-minded or hip enough to appreciate jazz. (Gays had kept jazz out of the musical theater, he added, by “impos[ing] [their] tastes, perceptions, and sensibilities on the 90 percent straight world.”)

The article infuriated Fred Hersch. “I have quite a long list of gay jazz musicians, some in and some out of the closet,” he says. “It’s not as tiny a club as one thinks.” It may be true, as jazz writer Chris Albertson—himself gay—notes, that “gay people tend to prefer the divas—Billie, Sarah. But that’s just one small part of jazz, and the larger part is these macho guys who almost seem to be thinking ‘faggot’ when they look at you.”
The prevailing image of a jazz band involves a bunch of guys in tight quarters, holding their instruments like mighty swords, rarely letting anyone in too close. The music is based, much of the time, on muscle and endurance, as suggested by the coveted terms of praise—“hard-blowing,” “hard-hitting,” “hard-swinging.”

In the struggle to earn those titles, is it any surprise that some men would strain to prove their own virility by overcompensating, often at someone else’s expense? In his 1971 memoir The Night People, trombonist Dicky Wells recalled the main topic of conversation on the Count Basie band bus: “Chicks. What else?” Whoever didn’t join in faced trouble, as Ralph Burns remembers. One of the most important arranger-composers in swing history (notably with the Woody Herman orchestra) and an equally renowned Broadway arranger, Burns, now 79, carefully hid his homosexuality in those days. That’s no shocker, given the talk he heard from his colleagues. “Everybody would joke, ‘Oh, that fag!’ and if they wanted to be funny they’d lisp,” Burns says. “My one fear was that at one time or another they’d turn on me, but luckily they never did.”

Soon after he got a job in the office of Riverside Records in the late ’50s, Albertson learned how hypocritical the jazzman’s macho pose could be. “I know a lot of musicians who would talk about the ‘fucking faggots,’ then they’d sleep with them,” he says.

These are topics most people in the business—Albertson aside—would rather ignore. What counts is the music, they argue, not who anyone is sleeping with. A group of fans debated the subject this year on Jazzcorner.com. Trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, now 71, stirred it up by angrily dismissing the whole discussion, claiming that anti-gay bias didn’t mean much in comparison to racism and otherworldly threats. So many contributors pounced on him that he withdrew his postings. Cookie Coogan, a jazz singer-pianist who works and teaches in Ithaca, N.Y., gave the tartest reply: “I aspire to be an independent, intelligent and uncompromising artist. That coupled with the fact that I ain’t exactly pretty, nor am I always quiet and demure, means that when I was younger, I faced folks calling me ‘dyke’ and writing homophobic stuff on my dorm room door. God! Imagine if I was really gay.”

Coogan would have gotten less flak in the freewheeling blues and “race music” world of the ’20s and ’30s. Its participants—mostly black, many female—knew all about marginalization, and weren’t likely to discriminate further. To them, homosexuality was “a simple fact of life,” according to Chris Albertson, who has documented the genre heavily in his long career as a critic and historian. His 1972 biography of Bessie Smith, Bessie, details the relaxed bisexuality of the legendary “Empress of the Blues,” who died in 1937. In 1977, Albertson notated AC/DC Blues (Stash), an LP of sassy gay-themed “race records” by such artists as Smith, her predecessor Ma Rainey and singer George Hannah, who proclaimed his “freakish ways” in 1930.

That environment bred the two fearless souls profiled by Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss in their 1988 documentary Tiny & Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women. The film explores the 42-year relationship of Tiny Davis and Ruby Lucas, two Kansas City R&B musicians who had remained so in love, and so delighted at making music together, that to them one passion was as natural as the other.

The male-dominated jazz community was hardly so open-minded. Early on, “faggy” became a convenient adjective for any kind of jazz that wasn’t rip-roaringly aggressive. In the ’50s, the eminence of “cool” West Coast jazz, lighter and more graceful than bebop, provoked a lot of jealous slurs on the other coast. “I can’t stand the faggot-type jazz—the jazz with no guts,” said Horace Silver in a 1956 Down Beat interview. Journalists upheld this macho shield by jumping to the “defense” of certain players who had been “accused” of gayness. Just after the death of saxophonist Lester Young in 1959, Robert Reisner, writing in Down Beat, launched a tradition by heatedly denying the rumored homosexuality of Young—a musician whose colleagues in the Basie orchestra reportedly called him “Miss Thing.”

No one seems to have a definitive answer on Young’s orientation, but the mere suggestion that he might have been gay is enough to send some writers into a tailspin. On Jazzcorner.com, Scott Yanow defended the late violinist Stephane Grappelli—known to travel openly with his lover—against “National Enquirer-type” charges of homosexuality. He also brushed off a quote by the late bandleader Mercer Ellington, who told David Hajdu that his father, Duke, may well have had a sexual relationship with Billy Strayhorn. “With all of his girlfriends,” asked Yanow, “when would he have had the time?”

Mercer’s comment appeared in a 1999 Vanity Fair piece that Hajdu wrote about Ellington and Strayhorn. Hajdu caught plenty of heat for it. “It was as if I had printed the worst conceivable thing about Duke Ellington,” he says. Nobody seemed to mind reading that Ellington was “a misogynist who treated women like interchangeable body parts,” Hajdu notes. “But the suggestion that he might have had a physical relationship with a man—that was horrific.”

Fred Hersch is never afraid to rub people’s prejudice in their faces. Now 46, he initially came out as a gay man with HIV in his hometown of Cincinnati, where he gave a 1993 benefit performance for AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati. Since then, Hersch has used his musical prominence—he records frequently for Nonesuch, a prestigious classical label—to help numerous AIDS-related causes. He remains the most public gay man in jazz, with the least amount of patience for anyone’s “bullshit.”

“Look,” he says. “There’s homophobia, there is racism, there is sexism in the real world. The jazz world is a microcosm of the real world. Just because people play music doesn’t mean they’re very elevated in terms of their consciousness about those things. And just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you’re gonna be more sensitive. I know gay musicians who are in the closet who have become almost caricatures of the macho straight jazz musician—stylistically inhibited, emotionally constipated in their music-making. Everybody knows they’re gay but they won’t say it. You look at Johnny Hodges, Chet Baker or Bill Evans—those are people who really put it out there emotionally. They were all straight, basically.”

Where does he think homophobia in jazz starts? Hersch observes that any kind of “male bonding activity”—be it sports or jazz—”brings up a lot of men’s issues, chiefly issues of intimacy. Playing creative jazz music with someone demands a certain intimacy. And a lot of men, historically, have displaced men’s issues by joking around or physical horseplay or various other kinds of deflections.” Under these circumstances, he says, what seems like homophobia may be rooted in insecurity, not hate. “I always thought it was more of a fear of intimacy issue than actual homophobia,” he says.

In either case, the best defense is honesty, says Andy Bey. Still boyish at 62, Bey is at a peak of acclaim after decades of obscurity. His last three solo albums, Ballads, Blues & Bey (Evidence, 1996), Shades of Bey (Evidence, 1998) and the new Tuesdays in Chinatown (N2K) have introduced a wide audience to his cool, ethereal vocals, darkened with tinges of gospel, blues and jazz, and filled with eerie silences. Prestige has released Andy Bey & the Bey Sisters, a CD of two albums he made with his sisters, Geraldine and Salome, when they formed a funky vocal trio in the late ’50s and ’60s. Bey went on to sing with such hard-bop leaders as Horace Silver and Gary Bartz.

“Black, gay and HIV-positive—that’s kind of a heavy load!” he says, laughing. “I always experienced some kind of phobia, that’s for sure!” The musicians he knew spent a lot of time bragging about their women, which of course he didn’t. He felt their “cold-shoulder brush” of disapproval.

In 1996, without prodding, he revealed his sexuality and his health status to NPR’s Linda Wertheimer and to Andrew Velez in Out. “I knew I had nothing to lose,” he says. “I knew I had talent whether I was straight or gay. It was liberating, because I didn’t have to hide anymore. Like I’ve often said, being HIV-positive was a blessing in disguise. It took this major crisis in my life to probably help me make some of the best music I’ve ever made in my life, just to feel like a freer human being.”

Bey says, convincingly, that he doesn’t care what anyone says about him. “I think what matters is the individual himself, how he perceives himself. Who wants to be recognized by a bunch of assholes, anyway? What do you want from them? What can they give you? I can understand getting laws passed so you don’t go around bashing people, but you have to recognize yourself. I wouldn’t care so much if somebody called me a faggot now. At least I have an identity.”

Gary Burton’s identity is divided between teaching (he is now executive vice president at Boston’s Berklee College of Music) and playing. He brings an intellectual clarity and a wealth of scholarship to both. One loses count of his albums, recorded with everyone from Stan Getz (his boss from 1964 through 1966) to tango king Astor Piazzolla to Boston’s favorite jazz singer, Rebecca Parris. Burton’s professorial air, not to mention his history as a married man and father of two, made other musicians feel safe in telling “fag” jokes around him.

“I wasn’t outraged,” he says. “It seemed so commonplace that it didn’t register. Even though I knew that’s who I was, it didn’t offend me until I came out.” He stayed in the closet until the ’80s, when with some trepidation he brought a date to a gay club in Boston. There he ran into some Berklee faculty. Knowing the incident would be gossiped about at school, he faced a decision: “I thought, I’ve got to decide how I want to live the rest of my life. Do I want to be who I am, or do I want to continue living a double life?”

Burton divulged the truth to his band members, most of whom already knew. Then he bravely took his lover to a Berklee function, to no apparent ill effect. He came out nationally in a 1994 interview with Terry Gross on her NPR series Fresh Air. Burton feared the response. What if old colleagues stopped calling him for work? Would he get angry letters?

Standing up for who he is seemed to gain him only respect. The same has been true for Fred Hersch. “I’m sure there are people who’ve said things behind my back,” the pianist says. “I don’t know who they are and I don’t really want to know. Some guys would say to me, ‘Hey, it’s OK with me if you’re gay, just don’t get any ideas.’ To which I would always respond, in as friendly a way as possible: ‘A,’ I don’t need your permission to be who I am, and ‘B,’ don’t flatter yourself.”

Hersch’s coming-out had a deep impact on a fan of his, Dave Catney, a gifted pianist from Houston who died of AIDS at 33, in 1994. Catney left behind three albums on the small Justice label. On one of them, First Flight, he played “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” with all the tenderness that Hersch and other friends knew him for. Inspired by Hersch, Catney found the courage to reveal his HIV status to his family. The story has a sad footnote: according to Hersch, some of them practically disowned Catney, saying he had brought them shame.

Within the jazz business itself—or the pop music, film or TV businesses, to name a few—coming out is still a daunting prospect. Indeed, hardly anyone in jazz has followed the examples of Hersch, Bey and Burton. “I thought that when I came out it would reassure other people about coming out,” Burton says. “Surely people would see that if it didn’t cause me any problems then it was safe.”

Hersch looks forward to the day when sexual orientation is a “nonissue,” in or out of jazz. “It’s like: I wear glasses, you don’t. I’m white; somebody’s black. So what?” But a few things have to change first, according to Joe McPhee, the avant-garde saxophonist and trumpeter. “I think people need to reexamine their values, and how true they are to those values they allege to have,” he says. “People talk about freedom, but a lot of them don’t have any idea what that means, or that it extends to anyone but themselves.”

One musician who does is the celebrated pianist Bill Charlap, 35. A Blue Note recording artist and a family man, he spoke with me recently about phobic behavior in and outside the business. His words are an encouraging sign that the youth of jazz may be a lot freer of prejudice than their elders.

“A human being is a human being,” he says. “It’s absurd to think any other way. Art is not just about notes; it’s about expressing some kind of experience. It’s also about being yourself. You have to understand that you’re only living one life; there are so many different lives to live. I think there are sometimes attitudes like, well, this is a male emotion. Or this is a female emotion. It’s a human emotion—that’s all. We’ve got to be bigger than all the ‘isms.’ I think the world has grown up a little bit about it. But not enough.”

Originally published in December 2001

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