The Year of the Woman?

One evening last summer, the precociously gifted bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding made her network television debut on Late Night With David Letterman. Front and center with her upright bass, she seemed a straightforward vision of self-assurance. But there was a note of sly reproach to her lyrics in “Precious,” one of the R&B-infused originals from her self-titled first Heads Up release. “You love the way I fit some ideal,” she sang, breezily but evenly. “Not the real woman you’ve yet to understand.”

Watching the clip now as then, I can’t help but fixate on that complaint, lodged within Spalding’s first 20 seconds on camera. And I can’t help but notice the fawning reaction of her host when the song cruises to a close. “Oh, my gosh; that was wonderful!” Letterman cries, more effusive than usual, while clasping Spalding’s hand. Without relaxing his grip, he turns to his bandleader, Paul Shaffer. “You were absolutely right, Paul: the coolest person we’ve ever had on the show. Beautiful!” Then comes a creaky parody of chivalry, as Dave lifts Esperanza’s wrist to bestow a kiss.

The scene makes me shudder slightly, despite the glad tidings for Spalding’s career. And it isn’t just the whiff of patriarchy that provokes my queasiness: It’s the mix of material and setting. “You always wanted something more from my body,” Spalding purrs in the song’s chorus, addressing her (implicitly male) observer from a position of moral clarity. But what does it mean for this artist to level that charge? Could Spalding have landed her Letterman spot—usually a stark impossibility for even the savviest of jazz musicians—had she not been an attractive young woman, coolly singing about desire? Should it matter that she admits to her strategic advantages? Does it cast a shadow on her legitimate talent? By what standards should she be judged?

As you may recall, 2008 was an often-vexing year for feminists, post-feminists and anyone remotely interested in women’s issues. Politically, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin roused separate passions, both in righteousness’ name. “Was this the Year of the Woman or the year of incremental progress, or neither?” mused Nancy Gibbs in a recent Time. “You had to ask yourself if it was an accident that the two most powerful women in our national life just happened to be among the most polarizing.”

It was actually 2007 that Village Voice jazz critic Francis Davis anointed “The Year of the Woman,” due to strong product from Maria Schneider, Abbey Lincoln and others. I’d argue that 2008 holds at least as strong a claim to that headline, in ways that question as well as proclaim. For starters, there were standout albums by Cassandra Wilson, guitarist Mary Halvorson and pianist Carla Bley, along with equally serious work from violinist Jenny Scheinman, flutist Nicole Mitchell, saxophonist Matana Roberts and multireedist Anat Cohen.

But any honor roll of female jazz artists feels inherently exceptional, a bit like what Jazz at Lincoln Center attempts with its Diet Coke Women in Jazz Festival. While surely well intentioned, that annual celebration has its shortcomings, starting of course with the name. (Try to envision a Vanilla Coke White People in Jazz Festival, and you get the point.) Beyond that, the self-marginalization implied by such an event—two other examples would be the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival (at the Kennedy Center) and the Women in Jazz Festival (at Saint Peter’s Church)—raises its own set of worries. Solidarity is good. False compensation? Not so much. To put it another way, I have nothing but respect for DIVA, the all-female big band led by drummer Sherrie Marricle. But its existence shouldn’t obviate the lingering question of why Jazz at Lincoln Center has never hired a full-time female member for its orchestra.

Jazz never really operates outside the larger culture, and it stands to reason that recent hand wringing in feminist circles would produce a parallel movement in ours. By my subjective measure, it hasn’t yet, but more jazz citizens do seem to be awakening to issues of gender. That process may be best observed in academia, thanks to scholars like Sherrie Tucker, Farah Jasmine Griffin and Lara Pellegrinelli, whose perceptive work can be sampled in Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies (Duke University Press), a worthwhile new anthology edited by Tucker and Nichole T. Rustin. Change can also be detected in the substance of critics’ polls, and in the gradually evolving demographics of the bandstand, where women are no longer expected to stick to the piano (though many who do, like Marilyn Crispell and Geri Allen, are rightly hailed).

One of the most accessible essays in Big Ears is by Ingrid Monson, a former jazz trumpeter now serving as the Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music at Harvard. “There was something about being a woman that was disqualifying,” she writes of her years as a gifted trumpet student, in a personal history that honestly grapples with gender as well as race and sexual orientation. And her experience is still far from unusual. When I spoke with Mary Halvorson recently, she told a similar story of prejudgment. “Going to jazz school,” she said, “it would be, ‘Oh, you play guitar, how cute; do you sing?’ I had such a chip on my shoulder about that. That’s why I didn’t start singing until four, five years ago.” Prejudice is no longer an issue, she hastened to add—but Halvorson travels in open-minded circles. (And I can sadly attest that her vocal-and-instrumental duo with violist Jessica Pavone has elicited the occasional leer.)

If you read this column regularly, you may recall that I listed pianist-composer Myra Melford twice in my roundup of last year’s Top 10 gigs. One of those was by a chamberlike quartet with Halvorson, Matana Roberts and drummer Harris Eisenstadt: very nearly an all-female band, though that was by no means the point. What mattered was the music, which required no qualifiers and requested no brownie points.

On a related note, I choose to take heart from the very end of that Letterman clip, which has Spalding taking Dave’s hand and giving it a peck of her own. Flirtatious or forceful? She seems secure in the conviction that she can be both at once.

Originally published in March 2009

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