More Jazz and Sex

The December 2001 issue of JazzTimes raised a host of pertinent questions regarding the packaging of female musicians and the obstacles anyone encounters who does not fit the music’s longstanding heterosexual-male norm. It was a pleasure to see the analysis move beyond the base line “we don’t get enough gigs” theme that usually begins and too often ends such discussions. I found myself wishing that the dialogue could continue, and that more voices could be included.

One place where many of the issues will no doubt be revisited is at Women and Jazz, the March 19 panel discussion that begins a week devoted to jazz women at SFJAZZ’s Spring Season 2002. The San Francisco Jazz Organization held a similar colloquy on jazz and race last year, where the most insightful of the many participants proved to be Dr. Angela Davis of U. Cal-Santa Cruz. In a particularly eloquent response to the question of whether or not jazz is “black music,” Davis, a longtime voice of African-American liberation, pointed out the error of always looking at jazz within a black/white dichotomy, while ignoring both gender and the way in which issues of global capitalism are defining our whole notion of haves and have-nots. “What does it mean to talk about ‘black music,’” she asked, “when discussing an artist such as Toshiko Akiyoshi?”

As the moderator of this year’s SFJAZZ panel, Davis should be able to pursue her suggestion that jazz might be best viewed as a language, one that transcended the borders of its native community long ago and remains open to a world of further transformations. In that regard, I hope her panel grapples with three specific issues that crossed my mind as I read the articles in the December JT.

Jazz, gender and society.

Like racism, sexism is not a problem confined to the jazz world. What we see within our “neighborhood” is, much of the time, just a reflection of how it is everywhere else. I raised this point recently during a television news segment, when a local anchor asked me if Jane Monheit would have gotten so far so quickly if she had not been attractive. My answer was to wonder whether an aspiring news anchor stood any chance of employment if he or she were not sufficiently telegenic. Whatever the playing field, in our culture looks count.

Which is why I, for one, would not be as quick as Lara Pellegrinelli to dismiss Grandassa Models, as she does in the December issue, the reputed employer of the woman Lou Donaldson ogles on the cover of Good Gracious! Grandassa was also the source of the female head shots that adorn other Blue Note albums from the period such as Donaldson’s The Natural Soul and Big John Patton’s Oh Baby. At a time when Miles Davis had to demand that white women not be used on his LPs, these covers might be more worthy of celebration as a blow for civil rights.

Should sex sell?

Which brings us to the question of whether sexy cover art should be used to sell a jazz album. On this topic, I would call my position pro-choice. In other words, if the artist in question is comfortable with such packaging, as Lavay Smith clearly is from her conversation with Sean Daly in the December JT, who am I to say she is wrong? More generally, how do any limitations on the manner in which a musician presents him- or herself mesh with a music that is supposed to be about self-expression?

We also should not assume that attractive women on album covers will only attract a male audience. Joel Dorn claims that the fashion-mag outtakes he used for the covers of 32 Jazz’s successful anthology series were selected to attract female purchasers, and that other labels that copied the approach made a major mistake in using photos closer to what one would find in Playboy. In any event, it would be helpful if those of us who write about music got back to reviewing how an album sounds, rather than how it looks.

Is jazz too macho?

Perhaps the most valuable article in the December issue was James Gavin’s on homophobia in jazz, a topic that should not be ignored when gender is the topic as it will be in San Francisco. Women are not the only ones who feel on the outside in the jazz community, which has traditionally been unhesitant in creating art to protest racism and political oppression yet rarely has placed as much focus on issues of feminist, gay and lesbian rights.

I used to say it couldn’t be so when women told me that they considered certain jazz uninteresting because it was “too macho.” Women can play long, aggressive solos that verge on endurance tests just as easily as men, I used to answer; but that is really less important than whether the full range of human emotions, including those that have accurately or inaccurately come to be labeled as “feminine,” are part of the music’s ongoing discourse.

According to Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis used to dismiss clubs as “locker rooms” and consider that something was wrong when an audience was predominantly male. But then Davis is often credited (as are Lester Young and Billie Holiday) with the androgynous ability to capture both masculine and feminine moods in his playing. This may be the ultimate challenge for jazz musicians, regardless of their gender or sexual preference, who seek to be complete artists.

Originally published in April 2002

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