Is Jazz Still Sexist?

In light of a recent controversy, a female jazz writer takes stock of the genre's attitudes toward women

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“So you’re really into jazz?” says the man, aghast. The man, and the context, are interchangeable. Old or young, at a party or the Newport Jazz Festival, it’s the same. A positive response to this patronizing question is never evidence enough; I will be vetted for my bona fides—regardless of his credentials—until the man realizes that, given the fact I write about music professionally, there’s a good chance I know more than he does. The incredulity, though, remains: “How did you get into jazz?” Because, you see, I’m a woman—someone who at least approximately resembles, as Robert Glasper put it in a recent interview on Ethan Iverson’s Do the Math blog, a “young, fine, Euro chick.” That indelicate description was prompted by a phrase that cuts right to the heart of the matter: his idea of “women you would think never listen to jazz.”

I am, for better or worse, a woman you would think never listens to jazz—a fact that’s followed me since first joining my high school’s jazz band, where I fell in love with Sonny Rollins and Ella Fitzgerald and Thelonious Monk. This is not because some facet of my person presents as uniquely anti-jazz. No, it’s because all women are women you would think never listen to jazz—at least if you’re a man. Why? Glasper proposed an answer to Iverson: “They don’t love a lot of soloing.” For that reason, he explained, he focuses on the groove, searching for what he called a “musical clitoris.” “Something is there in your music that gives them entrance to jazz,” Glasper added. “Otherwise they’d never cross paths with it.”

These statements are generalizations, and as such are fundamentally, obviously inaccurate. Even without dissecting the 19th-century assumptions Glasper is operating under—that women are oversexed creatures incapable of higher thought—one should not need evidence to know that there are both prolific women soloists and fervent women jazz fans in 2017, and that these women found the music all on their own. Nevertheless, the interview prompted an online fracas, including over-offended men listing women in jazz and under-offended men (including Glasper and Iverson, among many other musicians) explaining that, well, there aren’t that many women who listen to jazz, and Glasper actually meant what he said as a compliment to women’s intuition, and if you’re so offended by him making sexy music and talking about clitorises, then why don’t you see how you like what hip-hop artists are saying these days? And with all the problems in the world, you want to talk about a jazz interview!?

To that I say yes, but not because Glasper’s comments are unprecedented, or because Iverson elected to publish the interview without any sort of critical commentary. In a perverse way, I’m happy they did what they did, as regrettable as it might seem now (both Iverson and Glasper have since apologized). Now we’re talking openly about a question that usually lingers on the fringes, discussed in all-women panel sessions attended by audiences of all women: Why aren’t there more women in jazz? All it takes is a glance at one of the many Facebook threads spawned by the controversy to see that the answer lies in the dialogue itself, a circus of men and women shouting down those who raised concerns. Those men and women made self-evident what every woman who’s spent time in the jazz world already knows: Women are underrepresented in jazz not because they’re incompetent or uninterested, but because they still have to fight for acceptance, legitimacy and agency.

It’s not just that comments like Glasper’s are insulting—though they are, and the hordes rushing to his defense show that he was simply saying aloud what many others in the community think. It’s that in an art form that continually struggles to find an audience, they reflect an attitude of exclusivity: Jazz is for us and it’s not for you. This tone ensures that the genre will become, if not extinct, then at least hopelessly static. Fresh ideas from people who haven’t traditionally been welcomed make up rock’s vanguard—see Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, or St. Vincent—essentially saving it from critical irrelevancy. Jazz is vital right now thanks to geographical and stylistic diversity. Imagine the possibilities if women were not just tolerated but encouraged, both as performers and as listeners.

For too long, jazz has been functionally exempt from the diversity mandates that permeate just about every other art form. An obvious example is the fight required for the all-male Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to hold blind auditions long after the practice was the industry standard. But as so many other communities have proven, just putting women in the room is all it really takes to prompt a sea change. In the case of jazz, that means putting women onstage and in the recording studio. It was shocking to realize, while watching Geri Allen and Terri Lyne Carrington take a brief duet during their performance with David Murray at the 2015 NYC Winter Jazzfest, that in a decade of attending jazz shows that was the first time I’d seen a band of all women. As more male bandleaders hire women (Darcy James Argue, Jon Irabagon, Igmar Thomas), and more female instrumentalists/bandleaders get taken seriously (Mary Halvorson, Melissa Aldana, Linda May Han Oh, Matana Roberts), things are changing, albeit too slowly. More open conversation about the sexism that pervades the scene will speed things up. We’re celebrating the centennial of the first jazz recording this year, and the genre won’t break by being held accountable for excluding 50 percent of the population. Indeed, that will make jazz even stronger and better than it is now.

Natalie Weiner is a staff writer at Bleacher Report; previously, she covered jazz and other music as an associate editor at Billboard. She has also contributed to NPR, Complex and the Guardian.