March 2001 By Lara Pellegrinelli
I Guess I Would Notice. But That Doesn’t Mean You Shouldn’t.
On the evening of Nov. 7, an Election Day that will live in infamy, I only left my TV briefly: to walk from my apartment and pick up the new edition of the Village Voice. The paper included a feature I had written, “Dig Boy Dig: Jazz at Lincoln Center Breaks New Ground, But Where Are the Women?” The article sought to challenge hiring practices of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, ones, I asserted, were at least partially responsible for the absence of female instrumentalists from the bandstand.
Several months earlier, I had begun considering why women in jazz have such marginal success, particularly in big bands. Was competency the central issue? Some musicians claimed so, while others said it resulted from discrimination—the difference of opinion not falling strictly along male/female lines. Surely, at least a handful of current women players possessed the requisite talent, if they had yet to be widely acknowledged: Laurie Frink, Virginia Mayhew, Roberta Piket, Nicki Parrott and Allison Miller, to name a few. But awareness of women’s contributions was minimal, even within the jazz community. To some, the issue lacked relevance, one less-enlightened label exec admitting, “I never even thought about it. But, I guess you would notice.”
Without getting mired in old arguments, I examined how musicians get work and conditions that might deny women access, and the way classical orchestras conquered the gender divide. As is typical in jazz, all hiring for the LCJO takes place word-of-mouth, without auditions or announcement of openings. Bandleader Wynton Marsalis holds autonomous decision-making power. These circumstances allow cronyism rather than merit to dictate opportunities. During our interview for the Voice article, Marsalis and executive producer and director Rob Gibson refused to consider more inclusive, democratic approaches, such as open auditions, and they dismissed obligations stipulated by their public funding to do so and expressed disregard for the importance of female role models in their educational programs.
Seated back at the TV with my paper, I anxiously expected news of the election’s outcome. Conversely, I figured hope for immediate change at Lincoln Center was unrealistic. I was mistaken on both counts.
A rally, albeit rather last minute and haphazard, took place Nov. 13 outside the Lincoln Center benefit gala; 20 police officers amply monitored the 15 protestors. The story generated more than 100 e-mails, one of the most touching from former Sweethearts of Rhythm member Roz Cron relating how “nobody spoke up for [them] for decades upon decades.” Another, from Jane Ira Bloom, recalled how she had been blocked from performing at J@LC and that the piece “fired up [her] interest again.” Congratulatory messages also came from fellow writers, scholars, photographers and others throughout the industry, male and female. While the Mary Lou Williams Festival, IAJE’s Sisters in Jazz and International Women in Jazz have fostered a growing sense of community among musicians, these responses have shown me how beneficial a support system across jazz could be for women.
Because the same chauvinistic attitudes faced by female musicians circulate at every level of the jazz world, we all need to advocate for each other. J@LC served me a personal reminder of this. As I waited to interview Marsalis and Gibson, Stanley Crouch appeared in the reception area with a female colleague. They spoke—in not so hushed tones—about my assignment and how the issue would blow over, as others had in the past. Apparently, it never occurred to either of them that I (young/white/female) could be the assigned writer.
Oddly, during the same week that saw resolution of the presidency, J@LC had an unforeseen turnover in its administration. Gibson unexpectedly announced his resignation Dec. 15. His reasons, briefly articulated, stated he “would like to flex his artistic and managerial talents in new directions.” This news came midway through a $115 million fundraising campaign for the new Columbus Circle complex paired with other internal promotions. Laura Johnson, director of education, has assumed “most of Gibson’s duties” in a newly created position as general manager of J@LC.
Whatever the full story behind Gibson’s departure, it represents a victory for the greater jazz community. Under his leadership, J@LC had already weathered charges of nepotism, reverse racism, and age discrimination. In 1993, Gibson effectively dismissed orchestra members over 30, a decision he rescinded under threat of legal action. Labor issues extended to his dealings with the musicians’ union, creating a contentious relationship with AFM Local 802. With “Dig Boy Dig” sight unseen, Gibson sent me bullying e-mail, calling my work “misguided” and “misinformed.” He never responded to the article in print.
It remains to be seen when the LCJO will have its first female member, but renewed hope comes with the change in leadership, perhaps one that will live up to J@LC’s golden image. My suggestion that men and women have equal employment opportunities should hardly qualify as a radical statement in the 21st century, yet it remains an important one. If “Dig Boy Dig” has achieved nothing else, I hope it has effectively illustrated how much work remains to be done within jazz as compared to the world at large. Its time that we challenge our assumptions and make jazz the democratic music it professes to be.
Originally published in March 2001