Rhapsody in Rainbow: Jazz and the Queer Aesthetic

A look at how gay jazz musicians have dealt with their identity through their music

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Dena DeRose
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Theo Bleckmann

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Evangeline Harris is piquing the curiosity of some pedestrians outside of Mova Lounge, an upscale gay bar in Washington, D.C.’s Logan Circle neighborhood. It’s a gorgeous Sunday evening in late April, and Harris and her four-piece E & Me band are entertaining a sparse group of patrons. As some people chat and clink martini glasses in the rectangular-shaped bar, the musicians stand behind three large open panels, allowing the music to seep outside.

People hear music blaring inside Mova every day, but this time it’s different. Harris is not a drag or disco queen; she’s a jazz singer. Tonight’s set includes admirable renditions of Nat “King” Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” and Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why.”

As a mere five bargoers sit close to the players and listen intently, the performance turns ironic during Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” which is given a mid-century torch-ballad treatment. Harris’ anodyne soprano nearly goes unnoticed as she embodies the song’s angst-ridden protagonist. Given jazz’s status in mainstream gay culture, the disinterest seems apropos. Harris could have been personifying jazz itself, desperately seeking affirmation from the patrons, most of whom appear ambivalent about its presence.

When discussing the soundtrack to contemporary mainstream gay life, jazz is often treated as an allergen on a musical landscape more devoted to vocal pop, club hits and electronica. At the risk of stereotyping, gay culture feels more allegiance toward Lady Gaga than Lady Day. As someone who frequents gay bars with almost the same regularity as jazz clubs, I often sense a great divide between the two worlds. “It is extremely polarized,” argues saxophonist and clarinetist Andrew D’Angelo, “so much so that when my ex-boyfriend came to one of my gigs, some of his gay friends were so disproportionately removed from my [jazz] scene. If they come to one of my shows it feels like a huge statement.”

It would seem that there’d be more overlap between the jazz and gay communities in relationship to mainstream society. After all, both foster communities that cut many strata, including those dealing with race, ethnicity, gender, economic status and age; both have been historically scrutinized; both advocate collective and individual freedom; and both are constantly fighting for greater acceptance. “I find myself far more inspired by the struggles of someone like Chet Baker or Eric Dolphy than some glamorous Hollywood actress,” says the openly gay vocalist and composer Theo Bleckmann. “Just by Eric and Baker’s constant fight for acceptance and their battles with inner demons, I wonder why more gay people wouldn’t look up to people like them than someone like Judy Garland, who was already accepted by the Hollywood establishment.”
Jazz has, however, produced its fair share of gay luminaries, among them Billy Strayhorn, Cecil Taylor, Gary Burton, Andy Bey, Ian Shaw, Fred Hersch, Lea DeLaria, Patricia Barber and Allison Miller. And support for the gay community within jazz as a whole has mirrored the growing acceptance found in mainstream American culture. In other words, it is by no means necessary to identify oneself as gay (e.g., Rufus Wainwright, George Michael and Melissa Etheridge). Sometimes it’s a matter of showing ardent support and respect for the gay community (Barbra Streisand, Madonna and Beyoncé).

Expressing the concerns and issues facing the gay community is not, of course, the first time jazz has been involved with potentially controversial identity politics. Often trumpeted as a constantly evolving, democratic art form that advocates freedom, the music has explicitly illustrated the plight of black Americans with such classics as Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown & Beige Suite, Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite and Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite; examined that plight through the prism of womanhood with Nina Simone’s immortal “Four Women”; and offered gateways for numerous other ethnicities and nationalities to forge their cultural identity through music. So where are the jazz works that unapologetically give voice to the queer community?

As stigmas associated with gay and bisexual culture continue to fall by the wayside, jazz songs that explicitly rhapsodize or, at the very least, acknowledge the queer community are surfacing at a fair pace. Among the most engaging entries in this canon are works by openly gay artists: say, Barber’s “Narcissus,” which explores a Sapphic love affair, and Hersch’s “Out Someplace (Blues for Matthew Shepard),” a moving piece dedicated to the 21-year-old Wyoming gay man who was murdered because of his sexual orientation.

But gay-themed work isn’t exclusively solemn or serious-minded, either; rather, queer-oriented themes are being brought to the fore in ways alternately bold, brash, prankish, clever or cute. “I think there are undertones that are now coming to the surface,” argues D’Angelo, who leads a band called Gay Disco, and who has given some compositions such provocative titles as “My Prostate” and “Cheek Spread.” “Every time I go to a jazz gig with my band, we’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re here, we’re queer!’ It doesn’t seem like there is that huge battle that we used to fight.”

On Dave Koz’s latest disc, Hello Tomorrow (Concord), the saxophonist uses Burt Bacharach’s “This Guy Is in Love With You” to advocate same-sex marriage. “I’ve refashioned that as a wedding song in support of gay marriage,” Koz says. “It’s an interesting way to re-listen to a classic. That’s one of the reasons why I choose to sing it as opposed to playing it. It was important that I sing because of what I was trying to get across. When people listen to it, I hope they listen to it in that framework.”

That’s not Koz’s first gay-centered musical statement. He calls his 2007 disc, At the Movies, his “gayest album” yet. “It starts out with a Judy Garland classic [‘Over the Rainbow’] and ends with Donna Summer singing. C’mon—you want to talk about bookends?” he laughs. “I don’t have a shrine to Barbra Streisand, I don’t listen to disco or worship Judy Garland, but I am gay and I do love all of those songs. I wanted to pay tribute [in a way] that felt the most authentic for me.”

Indeed, authenticity plays a vital role in how some gay jazz artists deal with interpreting standards. “I just don’t feel like I’m being true to myself if I sing a love song or a standard and I use the word ‘he,’” says pianist and singer Dena DeRose. “I remember a critic making note that on one of my early recordings I would either sing some songs in third person or sing ‘she’ when I’m singing directly about the affairs of the heart.”

In discussing At the Movies, Koz also brings up the immense popularity of musical theater among gay people. It’s not uncommon to find gay bars that dedicate at least one night a week to show tunes. But singing show tunes with theatrical dazzle can tip some jazz artists unwillingly into the realm of cabaret, which many jazz fans disdain or ignore. Such is the case with New York-based vocalist and performer Raven O. More than any other genre, he considers himself a jazz singer, and he’s performed with elite jazz musicians such as pianist Frank Kimbrough and saxophonists Michael Blake and Ted Nash. He’s also collaborated with bassist Ben Allison for over two decades.

In summer 2010, for a limited run at New York’s Bleecker Theatre, Allison supported Raven O in a one-man autobiographical show, One Night With You. Despite Allison’s acclaim as a bassist and composer, if you mention Raven O’s name in most jazz circles you’re bound to hear crickets. “I don’t even think [the jazz world] knows who I am,” Raven O says. “It doesn’t even acknowledge what I do. I’ve never played at any of the jazz clubs, or thought that I could even get into jazz clubs, because I’m such an underground artist.”

Allison has contributed to the emerging queer canon with “Dragzilla,” an homage to Raven O and Joey Arias, both cross-dressing performers, and with the stunning makeover of the theme song from Philadelphia that he and Arias performed last January at Winter Jazzfest in Manhattan. And the bassist isn’t the only straight jazz artist who is participating in the expansion of queer expression. This year Christian Scott gave us “The Last Broken Heart (Prop 8),” a sonic interpretation of the situation around California’s 2008 state amendment that banned same-sex marriages; and Sunny Jain opened his latest disc, Taboo (BJU), with “Jack and Jill,” which featured a wry spoken-word performance that considered the fluidity of sexuality. “Sex, particularly homo- and bisexuality, is so taboo in my [Indian] culture,” says drummer Jain. “So I wanted to touch upon those types of issues, because even though they’re rarely spoken of, they affect us all. I wanted to bring stuff like that to the surface with my music. Through music, I feel like I do have a platform to address certain issues.”

Gay themes have even found their way into jazz’s most mainstream corridors. In Dianne Reeves’ live monologue that precedes her take on the Temptations classic “Just My Imagination,” she tells a story about a childhood crush she had on a debonair classmate. Years later, after wondering about his whereabouts, she runs into him and his boyfriend. In less sensitive hands, it would have come off as typical “down low” drama, but Reeves relays the story with humor and humanity. “That was based upon a composite of many gay people I knew in class,” Reeves says. “I tell that story in a live-and-let-live manner, and I’ve had many gay people come up to me after the concert introducing me to their partners. So it’s been good. In fact, I was told that my song ‘Endangered Species’ is a gay anthem.”

Of course, identifying gay touchstones in modern jazz proves easier through lyrics and song titles than it does with instrumental music. How would one identify a purely instrumental, improvised piece as having gay overtones? Some academics have pondered that question with varying degrees of persuasiveness. Sherrie Tucker, associate professor of American studies at the University of Kansas, wrote a provocative thesis, “When Did Jazz Go Straight? A Queer Question for Jazz Studies,” in which she argued that jazz was once a hotbed for gay expression until the music moved into the mainstream. She also theorized that jazz became overly masculine with the arrival of bebop.

At a 2007 conference, “Comin’ Out Swingin’: Sexualities in Improvisation,” Kevin McNeilly, an associate producer in the department of English at the University of British Columbia, gave an introductory talk called “Connective Tissues,” wherein he examined a 2005 live performance of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence” by Fred Hersch. McNeilly traced the Monk composition to the harmonic structures of Raymond Klages and Jesse Greer’s sensual pop song “Just You, Just Me.” In Hersch’s performance, McNeilly argued, Hersch’s deconstructive introduction—during which he quotes “Just You, Just Me”—suggests a queer approach because of its difference from the myriad other interpretations of the tune. “If we claim that Hersch’s performance is queer, we may be cued by his disclosure of his sexual identity, but we’re not asserting that he plays in a ‘gay’ way,” McNeilly explains. “Rather, sexuality comes to consist in the temporary connective tissues: the play between sameness and difference, which his music encounters.”
When this scholarly observation is brought to Hersch’s attention, he quickly dismisses it. “That’s just over-sensationalizing my sexuality and my approach to music,” he insists.

“What I try to do is find within the musical performance itself some ways in which you can talk in a convincing way about this deconstructive potential—that sexuality can be taken apart,” McNeilly explains. “My sense is that when Fred Hersch played ‘Evidence,’ he did some really interesting things to take apart a music that’s already a deconstructive compositional practice. In some ways, it invites a listener to rethink or to re-experience what they might understand as normative.”

Even though Fred Hersch became one of the first openly gay artists of our time, he hesitates to identify a decidedly gay aesthetic in his music or in jazz as a whole. “There’s no real movement that musically ties me to other gay jazz musicians,” he says. He also explains that his “Out Someplace” was written for a Bill T. Jones dance score, and that his 2005 disc, Leaves of Grass, was an exploration of Walt Whitman the poet, not Walt Whitman the gay icon.

Hersch isn’t the only openly gay artist who doesn’t see any noticeable gay aesthetic in modern jazz. “For me, I don’t see it as much,” says saxophonist and composer Charlie Kohlhase. “If you’re talking about the pop culture, then I would say that there is a gay aesthetic everywhere.”

“Whether you can say in terms of the musical language that there are markers of queerness, I find that a bit more problematic because I think musical language comes from cultures more broadly,” adds Ingrid Monson, the Quincy Jones Professor of African-American Music at Harvard. “They’ve had that debate in classical music. It was a big deal in the ’90s when some people wondered if Schubert was gay. Some people said that certain kinds of cadences were more feminine. I think you end up essentializing some characteristics of the music.”

“Essentializing” might be more easily termed “prejudice,” and, indeed, it’s nearly impossible to discuss being gay in jazz without addressing homophobia. In 2001, James Gavin wrote a galvanizing article in this magazine that examined that very issue. Shortly after, writer Francis Davis moderated a panel discussion on homosexuality in jazz at the Village Vanguard. That conversation included Hersch, Kohlhase, Gary Burton, Andy Bey and writer Grover Sales, and was soon after summarized in a September 2002 New York Times article titled “In the Macho World of Jazz, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” In both articles, the jazz world was portrayed as a scary place for gay people.

“I can’t speak for the whole [jazz] audience. But it’s like any community: People’s rhetoric is always more idealistic than what they do in practice,” says Monson. “I think the rally cry around jazz has always been about racial equality. It’s not just gay people; women have not always been welcomed. There’s always been an investment in the sort of masculine presentation of jazz. Many authors have pondered this in many different ways. They point to the fact that African-American men in the early 20th century wanted to earn a living with dignity and respect. … [And that with a career as a jazz musician], you can be a man. But it’s not like the white American community was very open to homosexuality during that time, either.”

“Some jazz musicians give more of a homophobic front than they actually are,” adds drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. “People have a greater fear of backlash based upon their need to make a living. Most jazz artists don’t have that economic freedom to come out. A lot of the jazz culture has been defined by African-Americans. I don’t think that African-Americans are more homophobic, but I think that it’s a matter of not feeling as free [in comparison to white Americans], which still relates back to our history.”

In the end it comes down to the essentiality of personal freedom, in and out of jazz. “The more you can be who you are in every aspect of your life,” says Dave Koz, “the more you can say something of value with your music. I’m not just talking about being gay; it’s about showing up in your life as who you are and being happy.”

Originally published in December 2010

10 Comments

  • Nov 17, 2010 at 01:54PM Da41

    Although I sympathize with the situation of individuals who identify themselves as LGBT - no one deserves that hate directed at them - I take issue with equating their situation to the plight of African-Americans. A quick read of Isabel Wilkerson's "The Warmth of Other Suns" demonstrates a caste system that infiltrated every aspect of the lives of African-Americans for over 400 years. A five year old child faced hate directly and through the injustice of a political and economic system because of his or her skin. Currently, no gay five year old child is denied public education, no gay five year old child must wait for straight five year old children at the movies or candy store to be served first. No gay five year old child sees an older family member terrorized for standing up for basic human rights. All Americans must never forget those years of injustice. Equating gay or LGBT rights on this scale is misleading and ultimately degrading to the plight of African-Americans in this country.

  • Nov 17, 2010 at 04:10PM Don Charles

    Can someone explain to me why identifying as a Gay, Bisexual or Transsexual Jazz musician justifies someone like John Murph calling you "queer"? This is incredibly insulting and uncalled-for. "Queer" is Left Wing RadicalSpeak, not to mention a well-established sexual slur and just plain inaccurate. There's no such thing as a queer human being. It is highly unprofessional for any journalist to assume that they have a right to hang that kind of controversial label on people without permission. The level of arrogance is just inexcusable!

    As for the previous comment: LGBT folk don't need your sympathy, Da41. We need your respect. Work on that, OK? Being both Gay and African-American, I can vouch for that fact that the two conditions aren't the same. However, the kind of mistreatment Gay people and African-Americans face is often takes the same form: Ostracism, disenfranchisement and brutality. BTW, Gay five-year-old children have indeed suffered in the ways the writer describes. He's completely overlooking the fact that some of the Black children who lived through segregation were Gay! Yet another thinly-disguised hetero-bigot caught with his pants down . . . his ignorance is showing. What with anti-Gay language and stealth bigotry showing up in JazzTimes, there's far too much ignorance going around.

  • Nov 18, 2010 at 08:07PM John Murph

    First, I want to thank both Don Charles and Da41 for reading my article and submitting comments. Oftentimes we writers have no idea if our stuff is being read, let alone, make a difference.

    That said, I think I need clarify a couple of things. First as a black gay man, I didn't use the word "queer" in a derogatory manner. In fact that word is used quite often in the GLBT media in the most positive way. I understand the history of the word and how its meaning constantly shifts. But I look at that sort of controversy in the same manner as how black Americans have shifted self-identification from being Negro to Colored to Black to Afro-American to African American; it's a seemingly endless endeavor for both communities.

    As far as equating the plights of black America with that of the gay community, I have to chime in with Don Charles in that the feature wasn't seeking sympathy. Also, the feature didn't really focus on the plight of gay jazz musicians but rather the progress of gays in the jazz community. Like I wrote, it's difficult to not mention homophobia in the jazz community but I didn't want to dwell too much in that area. (just let the homophobes dwell in homophobia this time around).

    But I think there is room to compare and contrast the struggles of gays, globally with various other struggles, whether it's women, blacks, Jews, Muslims, Middle Eastern, Asians, Latinos, left-handed people, and so on. Again as a black gay man, one of the things that really disappoint me is that oftentimes various oppressed groups compete with each regarding their respective struggles to the point where it's a futile game of "My people were more victimized than yours. Therefore you should quiet down." It is my hope that instead of doing such things, we could all discuss how our struggles and more importantly, progress are similar and how they are different. Then we could tackle oppression of all kinds, quicker without destroying ourselves.

    Thanks once again for reading the article.

    Best,
    John Murph

  • Nov 19, 2010 at 01:31PM faith nelson

    It's hard to keep up with the changes! Not so long ago "Queer" was used in a title with little fear of backlash. "Queer Eye ..." was the rave and made lots of dough for BRAVO TV. Not so long ago powerful Black Americans decided to give up the political label "black" and move to the more politically and genetically correct label "African- American", a label now used to describe Blacks hailing from Australia, The Caribbean, Great Britain ... the list goes on. Not so long ago being called "nig***" was enough to bring foam and fury to the lips -- even mine. Now some people are able to use it as a term of endearment. Are we really gonna wallow in a stress puddle now over these words!? History proves that words are fashionable. We need 'em but fashionable they are. Much ado about nothing:-)

  • Nov 19, 2010 at 06:58PM DAngelo

    Awesome!!! John, you did a great job and thanks for including me.

  • Nov 24, 2010 at 05:30PM fastclyde

    It doesn't matter to me what the sexuality of the musicians are unless I want to I have sex with (one of) them. It seems to me that when a vocalist performs it would be more expressive of them to use the gender of the person that they desire. If a gay performer sings a love song to someone of their opposite sex, that's fine by me, too. Please do not destroy music with correctness the way that correctness has ruined sexual and racial relations in general. Every one of sensitivity has experienced roughness at the hands of the great unwashed. To claim the high ground by climbing up on the cross is kind of weird. That's why most of us go to bars and other venues - to get away from all that for a while and to drift among the stars. I am a male who prefers men, but I would rather be called queer than gay. What any of this has to do with music is beyond me. Every one has their own tale to tell and some are gifted enough to do it well musically.

  • Nov 26, 2010 at 09:23AM GrahamCollier

    Thanks for the article. I am a veteran gay British jazz musician/composer and I'm pleased to say I've been out, with no problems either on the band stand, or in my previous Academic teaching post in London. But, of course one knows others - in jazz and elsewhere - who haven't made that move. Which I find sad in jazz where the music is supposed to be honest, and sad elsewhere, when one realises the importance of role models.
    And speaking of the controversy over the word Queer I should also put a plug in for my partner John Gill's book 'Queer Noises, Male and Female Homosexuality in Twentieth Century Music' (1995, University of Minnesota and Cassell) which he is currently updating.

  • Aug 05, 2011 at 07:08PM Timmybear

    'queer' is not left-wing radicalspeak. I've been callilng myself queer most of my life, because I am, in both senses. And, in any case, what's wrong with 'radicalspeak'? It's a hell of a lot better than 'we're just like everyone else' speak (which doesn't even make sense, as you cannot be like everyone else - it produces a circle from which there is no escape - where is the point of comparison?)
    Angela Davis comments on the notion of 'oppression Olympics', and I think it is important to realize that playing the 'more oppressed than thou' card benefits no-one ultimately. In any case, someone like Colin Powell is simply NOT as oppressed as, oh, a Latina teenaged lesbian. It's not just about race...

  • Dec 31, 2013 at 07:30AM kokodrum77

    First of I'd like to thank John Murph for writing this article. It's a conversation that needs to happen on a more frequent basis. That being said, I was wondering why there was no mention of transgender individuals? As a trans woman of color and a professional musician of over 40 years there are several points that hit home for me. One of them is economics and social class and the other is race, ethnicity and pride. I take pride in all of my intersecting identities especially being black and a musician. Before I transitioned my resume included work with everyone from Archie Shepp and Reggie Workman to Whitney Houston and the Isley Brothers. I have been praised by some and ignored by others. As a band leader myself I try to put myself in the shoes of those who do the hiring. Work is so scarce at times that the slightest look of non-conformity will definitely influence the decision of most band leaders who do the hiring. Do you know what it feels like to be fired because you are just who you are? But I digress, I belong on the bandstand. For years I have watched my contemporaries continue on while my career became stalled. Jazz is about freedom and spirituality (at least in my book). Is there no room for transgender musicians at the table in Jazz? There are those that have been successful in keeping their careers moving; most notably bassist Jennifer Leitham. And there are others but perhaps there is very little information because they are living stealth. So I will continue to press to break through these barriers with the help of those empathetic to my situation. Sincerely Koko Jones

  • Aug 27, 2014 at 05:08PM Don Charles

    Looking back at what I commented back in 2010, I must say that my feelings about the Q-word haven't changed. I've been homeless since then, and living among homeless men will certainly teach you what hate speech is if you've forgotten or chosen to forget. One can pretend that words like "n*gger", "f*ggot" and "w*tback" can be used as endearments or in an attempt to be trendy and edgy, but when you see people screaming those epithets at one another with murder in their eyes, it really cuts through the BS. As the late Audre Lorde said: "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." And if hate speech that targets gender, ethnicity and/or sexuality doesn't qualify as the master's tools, I don't know what does. As for non-hetereosexual Jazz musicians, more power to them; I know they have contributed a lot to the history and popularity of the music. Thankfully, there is less ignorance for them to deal with in 2014, but unfortunately, still too much. After 54 years of life on this earth as a Black Gay man, I find that just living with integrity is the proper weapon to use against all kinds of bigotry (some of which even LGBT folk are capable of). Remember that ignorance is a form of darkness; honesty is a form of light. Even if it takes some time, darkness will always flee from the light!

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