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Homophobia in Jazz

A few years back, I visited a jazz pianist who had made his mark in the ’70s with a reflective series of albums on the ECM label. This was one of my first interviews for a now-finished biography of his former employer, Chet Baker. As the recorder ran, my host—known for his fierce intelligence and for the refinement of his playing—kept referring to “that faggot” who had produced a somewhat homoerotic documentary of the once-beautiful trumpeter and singer. After gorging himself, grunting and burping, on Chinese food, he listened with me to a vocal recording that Baker had made in 1955, when his singing suggested a shy little fawn. The pianist spat out in disgust: “He sounds like a girl!”

The jazz world is one of the last cultural frontiers of old-fashioned macho, and in it, homophobia runs rampant. Since interviewing that pianist, I’ve met a multitude of jazz figures who pride themselves on soulfulness and sensitivity, yet are as sensitive as rednecks on the subject of homosexuality—especially its presence in jazz, which is not inconsiderable. Many of the same musicians who would flatten anyone who called them or a friend of theirs a “nigger” haven’t hesitated to tag somebody a “faggot,” if that person threatened their standards of masculinity.

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Originally Published

James Gavin

James Gavin is the author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne, and Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of Cabaret. He is a regular contributor to JazzTimes.