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.