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Is Jazz Still Sexist?

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

Vintage image of a women playing an album on a stereo system

“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.”

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