Sunday, December 1, 2013

Women In Jazz: Concerns About the Book's Title (revised)

An excerpt from my book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz. This has been one of the most popular excerpts/blog posts since this project began, and I appreciate everyone sharing their thoughts.

(Jack Teagarden, Dixie Bailey, Mary Lou Williams, Tadd Dameron, Hank Jones, Dizzy Gillespie and Milt Orent in Williams’s apartment, New York, August 1947. Photo by William P. Gottlieb.)

Concerns About The Book's Title

One day, we won’t need a book called Women in Jazz. —Mindi Abair to the author, 2012 

Every single musician I interviewed for this book has thanked me for doing a project that focuses specifically on the contributions of women to the art of jazz music. Several interviewees told me they were pleased to discover that such a book was being written. This is very humbling for me since my respect for musicians, regardless of what kind of music they play, is such that I do not take for granted the time a player grants to me to discuss their work and personal history. That may sound like a line, but it’s not. Speaking now as a composer who is married to a classical singer and enjoys the friendship of several men and women who play, compose, and teach music, the day-to-day commitment of time, energy, and love required to produce art is not an abstract concept to me.

The project gained momentum very quickly. After my initial interview with Mindi Abair, who incidentally, does not identify herself as a “jazz” musician, although she has studied and played the music extensively throughout her musical life, I was able to quickly schedule conversations with Eliane Elias, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Jane Ira Bloom. Having the participation of musicians of this high of a caliber no doubt opened some doors for me as I contact¬ed the publicists and managers of other female artists. However, there were a handful of musicians who turned down my request for an interview for this book, the main reason being the book’s working title.

The working title of the book, Women in Jazz, struck a small number of musicians I approached as being out of date and even denigrating, considering the advances women in all industries have made in the 21st century. If women simply want to be considered as equals to their male counterparts in any industry, why single them out for a gender-specific book? If jazz is, as a [male] musician friend of mine put it, “the great equalizer,” then isn’t gender a non-issue? Either you can play or you can’t, simple as that. One well-known composer and bandleader I approached with my pitch said she was simply “burnt out” on participating in projects where the focus is on women. Another musician explained to me she does not define her creative work in terms of gender, genre, or skin color, and that participating in the project would only contribute to the regulation of her art. I should point out that the musicians who declined to be interviewed made it clear to me that their decision was a personal one and although they would not be participating, they looked forward to seeing such a book in print.

Speaking of gender, is there a place among “women in jazz” for a transgender man or woman? Does pianist and saxophonist Billy Tipton, born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in 1914, and who passed as a male both professionally and in private life, belong in a book called Women in Jazz? Tellingly, bassist Jennifer Leitham, born John Leitham, who is one of the finest jazz bass players in the world, thanked me at the end of her interview for focusing the majority of my questions on music instead of gender and including her in a book collection of conversations with so many inspiring women. The award-winning film I Stand Corrected (2012) documents Jennifer’s transition from John to Jennifer, a transition she bravely made at a peak in her career and with the support of such high-profile musical colleagues as trumpeter Doc Severinsen and singer Mel Tormé.

I believe I understand and empathize, to the best of my ability as a male, with these concerns about the working title of this book. I believe debating the currency of the words “women” or for that matter “jazz” is healthy and stimulating. But the fact is, very few books in print about jazz make an attempt to comprehensively acknowledge the contributions women have made and continue to make to the music. Judy Chaikin’s film The Girls in the Band is the only film I am aware of that, at the time of this writing, provides a comprehensive overview of women playing jazz in the U.S. from the late 1920s to the present day. There are a relatively small number of notable books that chronicle women musicians as trailblazers in the world of jazz, including Sherrie Tucker’s Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s; Kristin A. McGee’s Some Liked It Hot, which looks at all-girl bands from the 1920s through the 1950s; Linda Dahl’s Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen; Janis Stockhouse’s Women Jazz Musicians: Conversations with 21 Musicians; and Jan Leder’s Women in Jazz: A Discography of Instrumentalists, 1913-1968. (Leder, who is also a flutist, composer, and lyricist, is one of the women interviewed in this book.) Leslie Gourse’s 1996 book Madame Jazz: Contemporary Women Instrumentalists collects interviews with several young, contemporary female jazz musicians as well as women in the music business. There is also a growing catalog of academic writings on the subject of women in jazz.

However, male writers writing about the musical accomplishments of male musicians dominate the majority of jazz writing. A typical example is Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now, compiled in 1996 by Robert Gottlieb, in which only 15 out of the 107 individual autobiographical excerpts, reportage, and critical essays are written by women or are about women in jazz.

So while some men and more than a few women believe a book about women in jazz is unnecessary, from my (male) perspective, I do not believe the book is going to do any musician a disservice, not from where I sit, and not at this point in history.


  1. Chris, one reason some women may be sensitive to the term "women in jazz" is that it is a term that has been used in the past to "ghetto-ize" us, as in "women in jazz festival", defined as 1) a place where you are required to bring an all female band instead of your regular working group or 2) an excuse to NOT hire women the rest of the year. (See also Women's History Month.)

    This is not a reflection on you as clearly these stigmas have nothing to do with your intention. (And women musicians in their 20's and 30's who've grown up in an era when it's actually fashionable to feature a (young) woman in one's band probably have no idea what I'm talking about.)

  2. Roberta - Those are two very good points I'd like to include in this section, if you don't mind.

    I believe we are in living a time of transition where the "Women in..." term is simultaneously unnecessary and necessary if these dated attitudes regarding gender are going to evolve. Hope that doesn't sound wishy-washy...

  3. The way I see it, "women in jazz," is me. That's something I embrace. It's something I'm proud of. I started a "women in jazz" festival -- not to "ghetto-ize" anyone, quite the contrary. I am a woman supporting equal rights for other women. I am proud to be a woman. I want to recognize the achievements of the women who came before me. I want to support talented women jazz artists of today. I want to support and encourage female jazz artists of the future. I've been asked: Would this support continue to exist if we were all given the same opportunities? Most certainly. And, my festival does not consist only of women -- the bands that perform are led and/or comprised of women. This means that some of the bands have men in them too. We've received a lot of support from men, as well as women. And, as a result of my festival, women seem to be getting hired even more than in the past, because they have been highlighted in a way that those who may have overlooked them in the past are taking notice -- many of them are getting on the radio and TV for the first time too. After starting my festival, the largest annual jazz festival in our city has booked a record number of women instrumentalists. Plus, young women have come up to me thanking me for creating such a festival because before my festival existed, they didn't know any other young women who played jazz music in the area. I will forever be supporting opportunities for women -- just as there will always be men's choruses...Does this mean that I'm outdated? No.

  4. Jessica - I apologize for only just now seeing this post. I check this blog frequently but missed your comment, which makes several great points. What is the name of your festival? Does it have a Facebook page or a website I can share?

    Thank you again for commenting. I truly appreciate it. CB

  5. Thank you Chris for publishing this reflection on the terms "women in jazz"! I find this a fascinating discussion. In other fields than music as well, I feel as if the word “women” has gained a hidden negative meaning, like it is the case for the word “feminist”. Without being an activist of any kind, I have the impression that simply mentioning a lack of credit for women in music makes me seem like an annoying person repeating unnecessary arguments, that no one wants to hear anymore. As a female musician myself, and as a student writing a thesis on female instrumentalists in jazz, I have been asking myself if and why it seems we should be so careful with these terms today. I have even almost wished I wasn't female, so that my thesis would gain a certain “objectivity”, so that others would not judge my interest according to my gender and may take my work less seriously because I am a woman writing about women.
    Choose the title you like, Chris - I don't agree that we should follow this trend of not talking about women for fear of being boring, of raising issues that many see as solved problems that do not need to be mentioned again. What is the big deal? Why not talk about a subject without others bringing unnecessary judgment and assumptions about the validity of one's interest, the value of one's work? To me it seems as if we have shifted from two extremes. In the past we would ignore women's achievements in music, we did not give them credit for their contribution in jazz. Today, we have indeed heard about them, (few) academic books have been written, there are more women in the jazz scene, and now people should be happy, enough about women already, let's not talk about them anymore! I agree it is tricky to find the right angle, and we do not want to focus on women in a victimizing way. I also believe, that we live in a society where many extremes are gone. We have made progress over the last century, and this is where it becomes more difficult to draw the line. Since the middle of the 20th century, we have been very busy with issues of gender, of race, of sexuality, gaining recognition for men and women and acknowleding existing problems. Yet it does not mean we have talked it all through since then and that we should now finally stop going over the same subjects over and over again. Our ongoing discussions on women in jazz are necessary. I think there is still much to say about women in jazz, in academic or non-academic conversations, looking at the past or the present. The discussion can never be out-of-date since our world never stops to evolve, and so does our understanding and questioning of such issues accordingly. -- Marion.