Rhapsody in Rainbow: Jazz and the Queer Aesthetic

A look at how gay jazz musicians have dealt with their identity through their music

Dena DeRose
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Theo Bleckmann
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Evangeline Harris is piquing the curiosity of some pedestrians outside of Mova Lounge, an upscale gay bar in Washington, D.C.’s Logan Circle neighborhood. It’s a gorgeous Sunday evening in late April, and Harris and her four-piece E & Me band are entertaining a sparse group of patrons. As some people chat and clink martini glasses in the rectangular-shaped bar, the musicians stand behind three large open panels, allowing the music to seep outside.

People hear music blaring inside Mova every day, but this time it’s different. Harris is not a drag or disco queen; she’s a jazz singer. Tonight’s set includes admirable renditions of Nat “King” Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” and Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why.”

As a mere five bargoers sit close to the players and listen intently, the performance turns ironic during Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” which is given a mid-century torch-ballad treatment. Harris’ anodyne soprano nearly goes unnoticed as she embodies the song’s angst-ridden protagonist. Given jazz’s status in mainstream gay culture, the disinterest seems apropos. Harris could have been personifying jazz itself, desperately seeking affirmation from the patrons, most of whom appear ambivalent about its presence.

When discussing the soundtrack to contemporary mainstream gay life, jazz is often treated as an allergen on a musical landscape more devoted to vocal pop, club hits and electronica. At the risk of stereotyping, gay culture feels more allegiance toward Lady Gaga than Lady Day. As someone who frequents gay bars with almost the same regularity as jazz clubs, I often sense a great divide between the two worlds. “It is extremely polarized,” argues saxophonist and clarinetist Andrew D’Angelo, “so much so that when my ex-boyfriend came to one of my gigs, some of his gay friends were so disproportionately removed from my [jazz] scene. If they come to one of my shows it feels like a huge statement.”

It would seem that there’d be more overlap between the jazz and gay communities in relationship to mainstream society. After all, both foster communities that cut many strata, including those dealing with race, ethnicity, gender, economic status and age; both have been historically scrutinized; both advocate collective and individual freedom; and both are constantly fighting for greater acceptance. “I find myself far more inspired by the struggles of someone like Chet Baker or Eric Dolphy than some glamorous Hollywood actress,” says the openly gay vocalist and composer Theo Bleckmann. “Just by Eric and Baker’s constant fight for acceptance and their battles with inner demons, I wonder why more gay people wouldn’t look up to people like them than someone like Judy Garland, who was already accepted by the Hollywood establishment.”

Jazz has, however, produced its fair share of gay luminaries, among them Billy Strayhorn, Cecil Taylor, Gary Burton, Andy Bey, Ian Shaw, Fred Hersch, Lea DeLaria, Patricia Barber and Allison Miller. And support for the gay community within jazz as a whole has mirrored the growing acceptance found in mainstream American culture. In other words, it is by no means necessary to identify oneself as gay (e.g., Rufus Wainwright, George Michael and Melissa Etheridge). Sometimes it’s a matter of showing ardent support and respect for the gay community (Barbra Streisand, Madonna and BeyoncĂ©).

Expressing the concerns and issues facing the gay community is not, of course, the first time jazz has been involved with potentially controversial identity politics. Often trumpeted as a constantly evolving, democratic art form that advocates freedom, the music has explicitly illustrated the plight of black Americans with such classics as Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown & Beige Suite, Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite and Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite; examined that plight through the prism of womanhood with Nina Simone’s immortal “Four Women”; and offered gateways for numerous other ethnicities and nationalities to forge their cultural identity through music. So where are the jazz works that unapologetically give voice to the queer community?

As stigmas associated with gay and bisexual culture continue to fall by the wayside, jazz songs that explicitly rhapsodize or, at the very least, acknowledge the queer community are surfacing at a fair pace. Among the most engaging entries in this canon are works by openly gay artists: say, Barber’s “Narcissus,” which explores a Sapphic love affair, and Hersch’s “Out Someplace (Blues for Matthew Shepard),” a moving piece dedicated to the 21-year-old Wyoming gay man who was murdered because of his sexual orientation.

But gay-themed work isn’t exclusively solemn or serious-minded, either; rather, queer-oriented themes are being brought to the fore in ways alternately bold, brash, prankish, clever or cute. “I think there are undertones that are now coming to the surface,” argues D’Angelo, who leads a band called Gay Disco, and who has given some compositions such provocative titles as “My Prostate” and “Cheek Spread.” “Every time I go to a jazz gig with my band, we’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re here, we’re queer!’ It doesn’t seem like there is that huge battle that we used to fight.”

On Dave Koz’s latest disc, Hello Tomorrow (Concord), the saxophonist uses Burt Bacharach’s “This Guy Is in Love With You” to advocate same-sex marriage. “I’ve refashioned that as a wedding song in support of gay marriage,” Koz says. “It’s an interesting way to re-listen to a classic. That’s one of the reasons why I choose to sing it as opposed to playing it. It was important that I sing because of what I was trying to get across. When people listen to it, I hope they listen to it in that framework.”

That’s not Koz’s first gay-centered musical statement. He calls his 2007 disc, At the Movies, his “gayest album” yet. “It starts out with a Judy Garland classic [‘Over the Rainbow’] and ends with Donna Summer singing. C’mon-you want to talk about bookends?” he laughs. “I don’t have a shrine to Barbra Streisand, I don’t listen to disco or worship Judy Garland, but I am gay and I do love all of those songs. I wanted to pay tribute [in a way] that felt the most authentic for me.”

Indeed, authenticity plays a vital role in how some gay jazz artists deal with interpreting standards. “I just don’t feel like I’m being true to myself if I sing a love song or a standard and I use the word ‘he,'” says pianist and singer Dena DeRose. “I remember a critic making note that on one of my early recordings I would either sing some songs in third person or sing ‘she’ when I’m singing directly about the affairs of the heart.”

In discussing At the Movies, Koz also brings up the immense popularity of musical theater among gay people. It’s not uncommon to find gay bars that dedicate at least one night a week to show tunes. But singing show tunes with theatrical dazzle can tip some jazz artists unwillingly into the realm of cabaret, which many jazz fans disdain or ignore. Such is the case with New York-based vocalist and performer Raven O. More than any other genre, he considers himself a jazz singer, and he’s performed with elite jazz musicians such as pianist Frank Kimbrough and saxophonists Michael Blake and Ted Nash. He’s also collaborated with bassist Ben Allison for over two decades.

In summer 2010, for a limited run at New York’s Bleecker Theatre, Allison supported Raven O in a one-man autobiographical show, One Night With You. Despite Allison’s acclaim as a bassist and composer, if you mention Raven O’s name in most jazz circles you’re bound to hear crickets. “I don’t even think [the jazz world] knows who I am,” Raven O says. “It doesn’t even acknowledge what I do. I’ve never played at any of the jazz clubs, or thought that I could even get into jazz clubs, because I’m such an underground artist.”

Allison has contributed to the emerging queer canon with “Dragzilla,” an homage to Raven O and Joey Arias, both cross-dressing performers, and with the stunning makeover of the theme song from Philadelphia that he and Arias performed last January at Winter Jazzfest in Manhattan. And the bassist isn’t the only straight jazz artist who is participating in the expansion of queer expression. This year Christian Scott gave us “The Last Broken Heart (Prop 8),” a sonic interpretation of the situation around California’s 2008 state amendment that banned same-sex marriages; and Sunny Jain opened his latest disc, Taboo (BJU), with “Jack and Jill,” which featured a wry spoken-word performance that considered the fluidity of sexuality. “Sex, particularly homo- and bisexuality, is so taboo in my [Indian] culture,” says drummer Jain. “So I wanted to touch upon those types of issues, because even though they’re rarely spoken of, they affect us all. I wanted to bring stuff like that to the surface with my music. Through music, I feel like I do have a platform to address certain issues.”

Gay themes have even found their way into jazz’s most mainstream corridors. In Dianne Reeves’ live monologue that precedes her take on the Temptations classic “Just My Imagination,” she tells a story about a childhood crush she had on a debonair classmate. Years later, after wondering about his whereabouts, she runs into him and his boyfriend. In less sensitive hands, it would have come off as typical “down low” drama, but Reeves relays the story with humor and humanity. “That was based upon a composite of many gay people I knew in class,” Reeves says. “I tell that story in a live-and-let-live manner, and I’ve had many gay people come up to me after the concert introducing me to their partners. So it’s been good. In fact, I was told that my song ‘Endangered Species’ is a gay anthem.”

Of course, identifying gay touchstones in modern jazz proves easier through lyrics and song titles than it does with instrumental music. How would one identify a purely instrumental, improvised piece as having gay overtones? Some academics have pondered that question with varying degrees of persuasiveness. Sherrie Tucker, associate professor of American studies at the University of Kansas, wrote a provocative thesis, “When Did Jazz Go Straight? A Queer Question for Jazz Studies,” in which she argued that jazz was once a hotbed for gay expression until the music moved into the mainstream. She also theorized that jazz became overly masculine with the arrival of bebop.

At a 2007 conference, “Comin’ Out Swingin’: Sexualities in Improvisation,” Kevin McNeilly, an associate producer in the department of English at the University of British Columbia, gave an introductory talk called “Connective Tissues,” wherein he examined a 2005 live performance of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence” by Fred Hersch. McNeilly traced the Monk composition to the harmonic structures of Raymond Klages and Jesse Greer’s sensual pop song “Just You, Just Me.” In Hersch’s performance, McNeilly argued, Hersch’s deconstructive introduction-during which he quotes “Just You, Just Me”-suggests a queer approach because of its difference from the myriad other interpretations of the tune. “If we claim that Hersch’s performance is queer, we may be cued by his disclosure of his sexual identity, but we’re not asserting that he plays in a ‘gay’ way,” McNeilly explains. “Rather, sexuality comes to consist in the temporary connective tissues: the play between sameness and difference, which his music encounters.”

When this scholarly observation is brought to Hersch’s attention, he quickly dismisses it. “That’s just over-sensationalizing my sexuality and my approach to music,” he insists.

“What I try to do is find within the musical performance itself some ways in which you can talk in a convincing way about this deconstructive potential-that sexuality can be taken apart,” McNeilly explains. “My sense is that when Fred Hersch played ‘Evidence,’ he did some really interesting things to take apart a music that’s already a deconstructive compositional practice. In some ways, it invites a listener to rethink or to re-experience what they might understand as normative.”

Even though Fred Hersch became one of the first openly gay artists of our time, he hesitates to identify a decidedly gay aesthetic in his music or in jazz as a whole. “There’s no real movement that musically ties me to other gay jazz musicians,” he says. He also explains that his “Out Someplace” was written for a Bill T. Jones dance score, and that his 2005 disc, Leaves of Grass, was an exploration of Walt Whitman the poet, not Walt Whitman the gay icon.

Hersch isn’t the only openly gay artist who doesn’t see any noticeable gay aesthetic in modern jazz. “For me, I don’t see it as much,” says saxophonist and composer Charlie Kohlhase. “If you’re talking about the pop culture, then I would say that there is a gay aesthetic everywhere.”

“Whether you can say in terms of the musical language that there are markers of queerness, I find that a bit more problematic because I think musical language comes from cultures more broadly,” adds Ingrid Monson, the Quincy Jones Professor of African-American Music at Harvard. “They’ve had that debate in classical music. It was a big deal in the ’90s when some people wondered if Schubert was gay. Some people said that certain kinds of cadences were more feminine. I think you end up essentializing some characteristics of the music.”

“Essentializing” might be more easily termed “prejudice,” and, indeed, it’s nearly impossible to discuss being gay in jazz without addressing homophobia. In 2001, James Gavin wrote a galvanizing article in this magazine that examined that very issue. Shortly after, writer Francis Davis moderated a panel discussion on homosexuality in jazz at the Village Vanguard. That conversation included Hersch, Kohlhase, Gary Burton, Andy Bey and writer Grover Sales, and was soon after summarized in a September 2002 New York Times article titled “In the Macho World of Jazz, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” In both articles, the jazz world was portrayed as a scary place for gay people.

“I can’t speak for the whole [jazz] audience. But it’s like any community: People’s rhetoric is always more idealistic than what they do in practice,” says Monson. “I think the rally cry around jazz has always been about racial equality. It’s not just gay people; women have not always been welcomed. There’s always been an investment in the sort of masculine presentation of jazz. Many authors have pondered this in many different ways. They point to the fact that African-American men in the early 20th century wanted to earn a living with dignity and respect. … [And that with a career as a jazz musician], you can be a man. But it’s not like the white American community was very open to homosexuality during that time, either.”

“Some jazz musicians give more of a homophobic front than they actually are,” adds drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. “People have a greater fear of backlash based upon their need to make a living. Most jazz artists don’t have that economic freedom to come out. A lot of the jazz culture has been defined by African-Americans. I don’t think that African-Americans are more homophobic, but I think that it’s a matter of not feeling as free [in comparison to white Americans], which still relates back to our history.”

In the end it comes down to the essentiality of personal freedom, in and out of jazz. “The more you can be who you are in every aspect of your life,” says Dave Koz, “the more you can say something of value with your music. I’m not just talking about being gay; it’s about showing up in your life as who you are and being happy.”