Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz reviewed by All About Jazz

"Surrounding this almost clinically-sound distribution of talent, Becker has raised succinctly-stated perimeter in which to place these musicians, more brightly illuminating their individual, group, cultural contributions. He begins with a brief history of jazz before veering into the contribution of women, and with his Texas-sized literary lasso, wrangles issues like rock and roll, the women's liberation movement, the growth of jazz education, and global influences."

"Freedom of Expression: Interviews with Women in Jazz was a necessary book to be written because, many times, the obvious absolutely escapes our over-sized monkey brains. In the field of creativity it is, paradoxically, our similarities and differences that inform the art we make. Removing uninformed bias and prejudice, and replacing that with a generous appreciation of our different and vitals offering is what will produce justice."

Read the full review at AllAboutJazz. And thank you C. Michael Bailey for digging in and providing a clear understanding of the book and its intentions.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Sunday, March 20 Interview on WBAI: Suga' In My Bowl

On Sunday, March 20, at 11 p.m. ET (10 p.m. CT), I will be a guest on Suga' In My Bowl with host Joyce Jones. We'll be talking about my book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz, and Joyce will be playing music by some of the interviewees.

I hope you can tune in! It will be a very lively conversation.

Suga' In My Bowl airs on WBAI 99.5 FM, New York City, and streams live online at

Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz is a collection of inspiring and in-depth interviews with 37 women musicians of all ages, nationalities, and races and representing nearly every style of jazz one can imagine. The interviewees include Carmen Lundy, Terri Lyne Carrington, Eliane Elias, Helen Sung, Anat Cohen, Diane Schuur, Sherrie Maricle, Sharel Cassity, Iris Ornig, Jane Monheit, Ellen Seeling, Cheryl Bentyne, Brandee Younger, Jane Ira Bloom, and many other incredible artists. The 320-page book includes 42 photographs, and a 25-page introduction.

Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz is available to purchase at online at Amazon and at Bluestockings Bookstore and McNally Jackson Books.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Response to Recent Review of Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz

My book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz was recently reviewed by Thomas Cunniffe for the website Jazz History Online. While I welcome thoughtful criticism, Cunniffe makes several assertions regarding my book and my intentions as the author that compel me to respond.

“Becker’s lengthy introduction makes a feeble attempt of summarizing the history of women in jazz. He tells of Down Beat’s infamous 1938 article “Why Women Musicians are Inferior” and saxophonist Peggy Gilbert’s powerful rebuttal printed a few weeks later. But many women experienced extreme sexually (sic) harassment on the bandstand—drummer Sherrie Maricle was once told that she could sit in at a jam session if she took her shirt off—and these stories are essential to a full understanding of the history of women in jazz. Omitting these anecdotes is analogous to writing a history of the Civil Rights Movement without mentions of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks and Medgar Evers.” 

If I am understanding Cunniffe, he is stating that, in order to provide the reader with a more comprehensive introduction to the role women have played in the development of this music, I should have included more of the innumerable examples of documented sexual harassment experienced by women musicians throughout the history of jazz. He also states that by omitting these anecdotes, I have done a disservice to the reader and the women interviewed in the book.

To be blunt, in no way have I ignored or “whitewashed” history. The fact that many people, particularly young people, may not know the names Emmett Till or Medgar Evers is not lost on me. But my book is not about the Civil Rights Movement. Furthermore, my book is not about sexual harassment or gender discrimination, although both subjects are addressed throughout the book’s introduction and in a more than a few of the interviews. (The “take off your shirt” incident Cunniffe cites is recounted by Sherrie Maricle in the excellent documentary The Girls in the Band. And while disgusting, I do not think the incident is analogous to the torture and murder of Till or the assassination of Evers.)

I wanted the focus of each interview to be about music, and the journey each individual must take to realize their artistic potential. By focusing exclusively on women in jazz, I hoped to “change the conversation” regarding jazz and its history, and offer a fresh perspective for the lay reader who, through no fault of their own, may believe jazz is an art form created by and for men. Male musicians were not a part of this project, and had they been, I would not have been able to present what is, I believe, a unique look at jazz and its future.

“In many cases, the stories Becker's book would hardly be different if the subjects happened to be male. That brings up a crucial point: is there indeed a feminine aspect to the music, or is there no discernible difference between male and female jazz musicians?”

". . . if there is no gender difference in jazz, why focus on women musicians at all? While reading this book, I could not help but think that the book had evolved from its original premise, and that Becker seemed unwilling to change the book’s structure. . . . he could have expanded his scope to include a representative number of male jazz musicians—probably retaining his focus on lesser-known players—and given us a valuable and detailed look at the state of jazz in 2016." 

My book is also an attempt to bring to light a history that has, at this point in time, very little documentation. While there may be “no discernable difference between” men and women who play jazz, the majority of music history books, as well as the current hiring practices of many academic institutions and booking choices made by all too many jazz festivals, would lead one to believe otherwise. As I write in the introduction to my 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 . . .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. . . . 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.”

I was not at all interested in this question of is there a “feminine” aspect to music when it is played by women. Digging into that question just didn’t seem . . . practical. Or helpful, since one of my goals was to share with the reader something they didn’t already know about jazz and the sacrifices one must make to play this music.

The discussions throughout my book are far more detailed and wide ranging than is apparent from this this review. There are several excerpts from the book on this blog, including sections of the book’s introduction. I hope readers will sample what I have written and come to their own conclusions.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Global Influences (Excerpt From Freedom Of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz)

[The following is an excerpt from the introduction to my book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz.]

Malika Zarra, photograph by Becca Meek
Everything, music and all of the other arts, is becoming a melting pot. The challenge 
in a world that is more international is to be able to identify where things are coming 
from and not be superficial.—Malika Zarra to the author, 2013 

There is, of course, plenty of precedent in the history of jazz for much of the music we hear today that embraces and creatively transforms musical genres and styles from across the globe. New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton spoke of adding a “Spanish tinge,” actually a tango (also known as “habanera”) rhythm, to his playing “to get the right seasoning . . . for jazz.” And going back as far as 1917, Puerto Rican and Cuban musicians played alongside African-American musicians and helped to transform what was “New Orleans music” into new, but still danceable hybrids. In the mid-1940s, the great jazz trumpet player and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie and conga virtuoso and composer Chano Pozo introduced Cuban rhythms into the context of the American big band and recorded some of the very first examples of what we now call Afro-Cuban or Latin jazz. Many American jazz musicians and bands in the late 1960s and early 1970s drew heavily on the music of Brazil, India, and Morocco, to name just three sources for inspiration, while assimilating contemporary psychedelic rock and funk grooves, effects, and instrumentation.
     Many of the musicians interviewed for this book relocated to the U.S. after initially studying music in their home countries, including Anat Cohen and Ayelet Rose Gottlieb (Israel), Eliane Elias (Brazil), Sofia Rei (Argentina), Malika Zarra (Morocco), Patrizia Scascitelli (Italy), and Val Jeanty (Haiti). These women, as well as many women born in the U.S., are creating a repertoire of work that speaks to their own ethnic heritage while embracing the music of many other cultures, cultures that no longer seem so disparate in an age of the Internet and globalization.
     Cohen, a bandleader from Israel who plays saxophones and clarinet, an instrument associated with Jewish klezmer music, composes and performs music inspired by Brazilian, Cuban, and Colombian music, Dixieland, French chanson, and contemporary west African grooves. The American-born trum¬pet player Samantha Boshnack, who composes for her B’shnorkestra ensemble, draws from such diverse sources as traditional and contemporary Balkan folk music and Balinese gamelan. Jeanty, a DJ and percussionist who has recorded and performed live with such jazz legends as pianist Geri Allen, uses an array of old and new school electronic gear as well as hand drums to create a highly realized musical hybrid of hip-hop, contemporary electronica, free jazz, and the ritual rhythms of Haitian vodou.
     Even with so much precedent, new forms of music continue to emerge in our century, and women musicians of all races, ethnicities, and ages are leading the way in the creation of a truly global and multicultural form of jazz.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz now available at McNally Jackson Books

New Yorkers! Celebrate Women's History Month by picking up a copy of Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz at McNally Jackson Books. Yes, THAT McNally Jackson Books, recently described by the New York Sunday Times Magazine as "a New York literary institution."

Damn, I gotta visit New York soon!

Photo of Connie Crothers by Peter Gannushkin