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The Gig: Jazz’s Post-Masculine Era?

The long path to acceptance for female jazz musicians

Mary Lou Williams
Tillery (l. to r.): Gretchen Parlato, Becca Stevens and Rebecca Martin

I can recall the precise moment when I started to get a handle on jazz’s Post-Masculine Era. This is a slippery notion, easily misconstrued, so hear me out in full. The afternoon was bright and cold, and I was sitting in the upstate New York living room of singer-songwriter Rebecca Martin and bassist Larry Grenadier. We were gathered to discuss their lovely, hauntingly spare recent album, Twain (Sunnyside), but our conversation had followed a digression about New York jazz culture and how it had changed since their respective arrivals in the early ’90s, before they were married or even acquainted.

“It was very masculine,” Martin said of the scene at that time.

“It was very masculine,” echoed Grenadier, “and kind of more private, in a way. Everybody was working on their instrument. Now everybody’s interconnected.” Both he and Martin nodded at my cautious suggestion that this shift in emphasis from competitive individualism to collaborative community building seemed significant, moving as it did along an axis of male-to-female archetype.

We circled around the idea a while longer, touching on gender essentialism, and the long path to acceptance for female jazz musicians, and the impressively deep bench of current talent. But given that Martin is also a member of Tillery, a collective trio with her fellow singer-songwriters Gretchen Parlato and Becca Stevens, I was most struck by her suggestion that the ideal jazz musician embodies both masculine and feminine energies, neither side overshadowing the other. “When I connected with Becca and Gretchen, there was this sense of sisterhood and femininity beyond belief,” she said. “Almost too much.” (Before they went with Tillery, the group adopted the tongue-in-cheek moniker Girls Gone Mild.) She added that the trio was scheduled to perform at the Kennedy Center as part of the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, and she was just a bit uncomfortable about the event’s longstanding premise.

As it happens, the Kennedy Center recently announced some tweaks to the formula. Starting next year, the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival-note the key missing word?-will no longer focus exclusively on female jazz artists, turning instead toward a broader celebration of the Williams legacy. “Mary Lou Williams is such a pivotal figure to the music,” pianist Jason Moran, the jazz advisor to the Kennedy Center, said in the Washington Post article that announced the change. “To think she’s only important to female musicians would be to limit her importance to the world of music,” he added. And so the nation’s most prominent jazz festival of its kind is due to become something slightly but notably different, released from its well-intentioned restrictions. After all, at a historical moment so rich with women in jazz, isn’t “women in jazz” itself a relic, a redundancy, a pat on the head? There have been similar debates about this perennial special issue of JazzTimes, and that isn’t really my guiding interest here.

What I mean by jazz’s Post-Masculine Era-a term I’ll gladly retire, as soon as I can scare up a smarter alternative-is only indirectly linked to the growing ranks of Anat Cohens and Esperanza Spaldings and Mary Halvorsons and Nicole Mitchells. And just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about the perceived affect of an improviser’s outflow, how macho or effete his or her playing comes across. What this involves is the general mood of the culture, which sounds vague but rings true. Jazz has often been framed within a masculinist narrative, and now more than ever, that story feels outdated.

So I found myself agreeing with Grenadier’s assessment of a less mercenary, more openhearted community of younger musicians, full of resourceful folks constantly looking to help each other out. Seen in a certain light, it suggests that jazz has indeed been approaching that elusive yin-and-yang harmony. “I sense it in the younger generation, that there’s a better balance of the two sides,” Grenadier said. “Maybe their parents were more enlightened than ours were.”

Maybe so. Or maybe the cultural implications of our Internet age-especially the levels of engagement encouraged by social media and the collapse of the record-business infrastructure-have led us here. In a recent column for the Huffington Post, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor and former director of policy planning at the State Department, posed the question of how we perceive power: as a ladder or a web. Elaborating on an idea she’d encountered years ago in law school, she argued that “the web perspective better captures the complex set of relationships that define so many women’s lives, as compared to the struggle for dominance that characterizes so many men’s lives.”

Slaughter, who has written insightfully about women’s ongoing struggle to “have it all,” went on to note that in our interconnected age, “hierarchies are giving way to networks,” for men and women alike. That’s about as true in the current jazz order as it is in the corporate realm (only without the health insurance or the expense accounts). Since we’ve already mentioned Mary Lou Williams, consider her place in jazz history: No one would say she climbed the ladder, but who could doubt that she was at the center of a great and flexible web-of influence, information, technique and respect.

There will always be room for a lone-wolf mindset in jazz, just as there will always be room for aggression, competition and intrepid fire. And those qualities are by no means exclusive to the high-achieving men in our ranks. There’s reason to applaud, though, when that culture opens up to another strong approach. Call it whatever you want.

Originally Published