Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Think Visual: Excerpt from the introduction to Women In Jazz

(The following excerpt is from the introduction to my book Women In Jazz. The introduction includes a VERY brief history of jazz with a focus on the contributions by women to the art of jazz.)

Think Visual

I come from a generation that’s naturally feminist. Our mothers were fighting for 
all kinds of women’s rights in the 60s and the 70s, and we grew up with these iconic, 
feminist, musical heroes. Women of my generation are strong, and hopefully the ones 
that are coming after us are as well.—Jane Monheit to the author, 2012

The “iconic, feminist, musical heroes” Monheit speaks of in her interview for this book certainly include several female musicians outside of jazz who found their way into the popular consciousness thanks to a U.S. cable channel called MTV, the “M” standing for “music video.”

Singer Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run” was the second video MTV aired  when the channel launched on August 1, 1981. The video featured Benatar, rocking a pixie haircut and leather pants, lip-synching the song’s lyrics with conviction in front of an all-male band on what would become the quintessential set for many 80s-era music videos: an empty warehouse rehearsal space.

Some of the biggest-selling singles in the U.S. throughout the 1980s were songs of female empowerment performed by female singers who possessed a visual style that drew equal inspiration from the streets, classic Hollywood films, and the avant-garde. These top-charting artists included Madonna, Annie Lennox of Eurythmics, Cyndi Lauper, Teena Marie, SinĂ©ad O’Connor, Janet Jackson, Jody Watley, and Gloria Estefan. Watley has said of the songs on her 1987 self-titled debut album: “I wanted a sense of strength to be conveyed . . . the woman as victorious, the survivor. . . .”26 MTV’s audience reveled in the visual cues of these now classic videos, many of which depicted liberation from the prescribed societal expectations of a woman’s “place” in rock and roll and the world at large. As one half of the British electronic soul duo Eurythmics, Annie Lennox appeared in the band’s videos as a leather-clad dominatrix, a wig-wearing femme fatale, and herself in male drag complete with facial stubble. Donna Summer, Tina Turner, and Aretha Franklin also starred in heavily rotated music videos that put African-American women into the consciousness of pop music culture.

The Grammy award-winning vocal quartet the Manhattan Transfer is a rare example of jazz artists who embraced the visual style of the times.

“That was part of the uniqueness of the Manhattan Transfer,” says vocalist Cheryl Bentyne, who joined the quartet in 1978 and is interviewed in this book. “Here was this group sounding like an old 1930s big band ensemble, but looking insane. It was an interesting combination of the visual and the vocal.”

Soon after Bentyne joined the quartet in 1978, they began to work with choreographer Toni Basil (who danced on the television show Soul Train and later worked with the Talking Heads) and a young Jean Paul Gaultier (“before Madonna got him”) to create a visual look that was equally inspired by 1920s art deco, 1960s-era space-age fashion, and late 70s, early 80s British new wave.

Despite what in retrospect could be described as a time period of provoca¬tive experimentation in popular music with visual artistry, music, and gender, many musicians outside of pop music considered videos to be just another form of advertising that perpetuated an unhealthy emphasis on the visual (i.e., looks) as opposed to musical talent and artistic vision.

“There’s a lot of sexualizing of women in this industry,” says Monheit in her interview for this book, “and there’s just no place for that in our genre.”

Throughout her career, Monheit has cultivated what she herself describes as “a glamorous persona,” but not because of pressure from a record label or manager.

Singer Jane Monheit
“If that’s who we are as people,” says Monheit. “If we want to put on the sexy dress and the high heels, then hell yeah. But if somebody is telling us to do it and we don’t want to, then absolutely not.”

Although MTV as it was circa-1981 is no more, we are currently living in a time where it is generally expected that music, whether it’s pop, jazz, or classical, be attached to and supported by some sort of visual component. YouTube continues to dominate as the number-one platform for consumption of mu¬sic from all genres and eras, often uploaded by users ignorant (or ignoring) the penalties of copyright infringement (although recording labels do upload and manage artist uploads). If we aren’t listening while watching some sort of visual presentation, music is often providing a sort of filmic underscore for work-related or leisurely activities.