Where Are the Female Jazz Critics?

Women jazz musicians are ubiquitous today, but jazz journalism lacks a feminine voice

If you’re familiar with the Irving Berlin chestnut “I Got Lost in His Arms,” you probably know it from the musical Annie Get Your Gun. Maybe you’ve heard it mangled by a high-school glee club or finessed by someone like Julie London. Or, esteemed JazzTimes reader, perhaps you’ve heard the version evenly crooned by Gretchen Parlato on Terri Lyne Carrington’s new album, The Mosaic Project (Concord Jazz), in a style Berlin could never have envisioned. Like much of the album, it’s terse and self-assured; like the album’s entirety, it’s the product of an all-female personnel.

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"Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music"
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Ellen Willis

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I got to thinking about The Mosaic Project recently, and about a quote from Carrington, the suave postbop drummer, in its press bio. “If I had tried to do something like this in the past—like when I started playing 25 years ago—I might have felt limited by the pool of available musicians,” she said. “But now there are so many talented women whom I’ve been playing with anyway—not just because they’re women but because I love the way they play.” Right on, I thought. If only the same were true for jazz criticism.

Pardon me for propping up an old grievance, but the perpetual shortage of influential female jazz critics has been really bothering me of late. It should bother you too. Not simply for reasons of gender parity; not because of the dictates and quotas of political correctness. You should care because our discourse lacks an illuminating perspective. Without prominent women working visibly and steadily in jazz criticism, the field has long been intractably imbalanced. If you believe as I do that robust criticism is crucial to the life of any art form, this is a deficiency with implications for all of jazz.

Thankfully we do have a (very) small handful of exceptions today, like Lara Pellegrinelli at NPR and Jennifer Odell at DownBeat and the Times-Picayune—informed, perceptive journalists with an aim to reach both the cognoscenti and the hoi polloi. And academia now presents a more heartening picture: There’s no way to inhabit the discipline of jazz studies without absorbing the work of Ingrid Monson, Farah Jasmine Griffin and Penny Von Eschen. But Pellegrinelli, an academic herself, mostly sticks to profile and feature writing, and Odell doesn’t get nearly enough space as a critic.

Consider what might have been, with even just one excellent female critic in an enfranchised position over the last 60 years. What would such a figure have made of the “soft” perceptions of 1950s West Coast jazz? What about Miles Davis, and his journey from “Someday My Prince Will Come” to “Back Seat Betty”? What new, non-worshipful insights might have coalesced around divas like Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan? How might such a critic have interrogated the masculinist undercurrent of the Young Lions movement—or, for that matter, the alpha-heroic aura of Wynton Marsalis?

For an illustrative contrast, look at the current landscape of pop criticism, which has produced plenty of compelling female voices, including Ann Powers, former chief pop critic for the Los Angeles Times, now filing for NPR; Maura Johnston, music editor at the Village Voice; and Jessica Hopper, Chicago Reader critic. These and other writers bring a clear intelligence to their task, along with a distinctly female perspective.

Some would argue that the nature of pop lends itself to this angle more than jazz. In the introduction to his important 2006 book Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics (University of Chicago), John Gennari bemoans the omission of women therein, noting that jazz culture has always favored “a concept of criticism that stresses taut discipline, rationality, and judiciousness—qualities assumed to be part of a masculine intellectual seriousness set off from the infantilized and feminized emotional realm of mass popular culture.”

Then he mentions two pioneering outliers: Helen Oakley Dance, who wrote for DownBeat in the 1930s, even as she produced Duke Ellington’s small-group recordings; and Valerie Wilmer, who chronicled the 1960s avant-garde. “It’s important to recognize the work produced by these women as quality work, not just as women’s work,” Gennari writes. “But it’s also important to recognize how such work might be different because it has been produced by women working in a realm dominated by men and by patriarchal ideologies.”

These issues were recently thrown into high contrast for me by the publication of Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (Univ. of Minnesota Press). Willis, who died five years ago at 64, was the New Yorker’s first pop critic, a writer of resolute conviction. Her anthology, long overdue, puts to rest the notion that a female critic has to compromise, masking her gender or softening her authority.

One essay in the book about Creedence Clearwater Revival opens with the image of Willis dancing alone in her room to the band’s recordings—a fan’s indulgence—before locking in on some sharp critique. She seems as surprised as anyone when she compares CCR’s John Fogerty favorably to both Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. “Jagger’s male power trip is alienating,” she writes, “and the fact that he obviously doesn’t take it all seriously only makes it worse; at some point I discovered in myself an unsuspected frustrated need to know that there was a human being under all those layers of irony.”

Willis, like Oakley Dance, eventually abandoned music criticism for feminist causes. Which is one reason for the shroud of obscurity that hangs over both women’s contributions. That’s now changing in Willis’ case. So what would it take to get similar recognition for Oakley Dance, whose archives—along with those of her late husband, longtime JazzTimes contributor and book-reviews editor Stanley Dance—are housed at Yale? A modest start would be some sort of commemorative gesture from DownBeat. Maybe in 2013, the centenary of her birth.

Meanwhile, The Mosaic Project reflects a reality in which more progress has been made among musicians than among critics. This too can change. When Irving Berlin wrote “I Got Lost in His Arms,” he was picturing a no-nonsense heroine—another Oakley, as it happens—who was empowered to speak her mind, conventions be damned, even as she got her man. You could take or leave that last part, but still, we need to encourage more of her kind in jazz criticism. Get your gun, indeed.

Originally published in October 2011

13 Comments

  • Oct 03, 2011 at 10:49AM MaryLou

    What happened to Michelle Marlier? The one who wrote the Wayne Shorter biography. She exploded onto the NY jazz scene in the late 90s with insightful, extremely well-written jazz criticism in the jazz magazines and the Village Voice. Maybe the NYTimes, too? Also did original work for NPR. Actually I heard her on NPR this summer. She's still around. But it seems like she's successfully moved on from jazz criticism. One of her recent books was a critical study of Joni Mitchell's autobiographical songwriting. Maybe the question is, why wouldn't jazz criticism hold the interest of the brightest female minds?

  • Oct 03, 2011 at 10:58AM Nate Chinen

    Thanks for your comment, MaryLou. You're thinking of Michelle Mercer, who also wrote "Footprints," a biography of Wayne Shorter. And you're right to suggest that she has had success beyond the salt mines of jazz criticism. "Why wouldn't jazz criticism hold the interest of the brightest female minds?" you ask, incisively. I'm hoping we'll soon see some informed musings along those lines, from observers with a personal stake in the issue. If you're interested, I'll attempt to follow the thread over at http://thegig.typepad.com.

  • Oct 05, 2011 at 06:25AM Paul Bradshaw

    To answer the the question, "Why wouldn't jazz criticism hold the interest of the brightest female minds?", I'd suggest an interview with someone like Valerie Wilmer. As a writer and a superb photographer she seems to have been swept off the radar. Her biography 'Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This' is a great insight into the jazz life from a woman who started off taking pictures/portraits as a kid. Though from London, her book 'As Serious As Your Life' remains one of the most compelling and incisive books on the "New Thing" and the emergence of the NYC Loft scene... it certainly helped boost my record collection and it took me on a compelling musical journey within an unashamedly radical political context.

  • Oct 05, 2011 at 10:31AM Ann Cotterrell

    I agree that there is a shortage of women writers about jazz. I publish books about jazz and would love to receive a good manuscript from a female critic. So far I haven't received any manuscripts - good or bad - from women writers.

  • Oct 05, 2011 at 11:02AM W. Royal Stokes

    Nate, please check out my essay “Women in Jazz: Some Observations Regarding the Ongoing Discrimination in Performance and Journalism” (www.wroyalstokes.com/archive/women_in_jazz.htm). It was both published in Jazz Notes (JJA quarterly) and posted on my website (wroyalstokes.com) a decade or so ago. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

  • Oct 05, 2011 at 11:07AM MaryLou

    Thanks for your reply, Nate, and for correcting Mercer's name. I'll look for the continued discussion on your blog--it would be great to hear from Mercer, Wilmer and the other leading lights who've somehow fallen off the scene.

  • Oct 05, 2011 at 11:36AM Laurie Antonioli

    I think it might be very interesting to have the "female jazz singer" reviewed by female critics. It seems to me that many a singer has been given high ratings based on their sex appeal rather than their musical appeal.

  • Oct 05, 2011 at 12:57PM Don Emanuel

    I've always been very impressed by Andrea Carter of JazzINK. A fine jazz writer/critic. I wish my writing was a tenth as good as hers.

    She's a damned good jazz photographer too.

  • Oct 07, 2011 at 04:35PM Yvonne Ervin

    Thank you, Nate, for addressing this issue. Ironically, I approached the editor of JazzTimes many years ago about writing for the magazine and he told me he didn’t hire women writers because most of the readers were men! Over the past 30 years I have written for other jazz magazines, including the past decade for Hot House and I’ve written jazz columns for two local papers. In all, I have interviewed more than 100 jazz musicians for print and radio. In formulating my response here, I realized that perhaps I should write a memoir about being a woman jazz journalist. It often has been a challenge. When I was just 22 I tried to interview the infamous Buddy Rich and ended up verbally sparring with him when he said I should be home having kids, not interviewing jazz musicians. During the concert he tried to embarrass me about my height in front of 1,000 people. It can also be scary. As you know, we often end up interviewing musicians in their homes, dressing rooms and hotel rooms where I have been propositioned and grabbed. Just one time I was willing to play along: I was interviewing Mel Lewis in his hotel room when a band member known for his womanizing came to Mel’s door to apologize for missing the plane. Mel said to me, “Do me a solid.” So we answered the door with Mel’s arm around my shoulder (he could barely reach it) and Mel said, “Sorry, man, you missed this one!”

  • Oct 12, 2011 at 12:13PM Angelika Beener

    Nate, thank you for writing about this. I'm really happy that this all important subject is getting some attention, and creating a dialogue. Great piece.

    Here are my thought, posted today on Alternate Takes...
    http://alternate-takes.com/2011/10/12/nice-work-if-we-can-get-it-women-writing/

    All the best!

  • Oct 12, 2011 at 11:25PM David Schuster

    Well, you forgot one: Danielle Bias is the Editor of Earshot Jazz magazine in Seattle. She's been at the helm of this publication which documents the vibrant jazz scene in Seattle for at least two years now. She was born and raised in New Orleans, lived in NYC and has been around jazz her entire life. She's a quiet storm and I hope she stays in that role for a long time.

    Check her out here: http://earshot.org/Publication/publication.html

  • Oct 16, 2011 at 01:48AM Cicily Janus

    I'm trying not to look at this as anything other than what it is. One person's opinion. Granted, it's Nate's opinion, and I hold his opinion in high regard, but it is still that...an opinion. There are lots of great female jazz critics out there, they're just not as visible as their male colleagues and even the men are having a hard time "landing" work in jazz.

    Part of the trouble is that jazz articles, books and more just don't pay what they should and selling them is even more difficult unless you're already well established. Hell, even publishing a jazz book through Random House doesn't get you gigs. What my friend Michelle Mercer did, moving from a Shorter biography to a critical look at Mitchell, was a smart, smart move. Selling books or anything in writing is damn near impossible...much less selling enough of them to keep a family fed.

    Great thoughts Nate and I appreciate you taking time to expand your view for others to read.

    ~Cicily Janus
    http://www.amazon.com/New-Face-Jazz-Intimate-Tomorrow/dp/0823000656/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

  • Nov 08, 2011 at 01:52PM jazzdiva2

    Yvonne, you definitely should write a book!

    Though there are more women in jazz at the performance level, make no mistake it is still a male-dominated world. Many of these jazz men don't think of a vocalist as a serious musician, much less an intellectual force to be reckoned with. Whatever a female jazz critic would write would likely be dismissed as inconsequential. I, too, am delighted to connect with other jazz women to form supportive relationships and hope the number continues to grow.

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