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Nice Work If We Can Get It: Women Writing on Jazz

Angelika Beener
Contributing Writer
angelikabeener[at]gmail.com / @alternate_takes

An Open Letter, A Thank You Note, and Pulling the Card On Jazz Journalism and Gender Bias

I’ve never really been one to write rebuttals, or counter-statements to articles that have peaked my interests or plucked at my sensitivities. However, when I read music journalist Nate Chinen’s recent piece on the lack of women writing critically about jazz, I couldn’t resist the opportunity. Not to rebut (he’s actually a strong proponent for female journalists, and a thoughtful querier of why there is such inadequacy in the field), but to offer my perspective in hopes of shedding some light on the matter. Characteristically, all of the responses to Chinen’s article (so far) have been from men, underscoring his point. The male response has been positive and in line with Chinen, agreeing that the lack of female jazz critics is not only fundamentally disturbing, but a disservice to the documentations and observations of jazz as a whole. I concur. I don’t suppose that I can diagnose the entire problem; it’s an intensely layered and webbed subject. But as a woman, a writer, and a jazz obsessor, I can certainly put my hand on a few maladies.

I got my first taste of working in the music business when I was about nineteen years old, and I knew immediately that I would never do anything else. I’ve always loved jazz, and I’ve always loved to write. Separately, these loves are relatively harmless, but put them together and I am suddenly playing a man’s sport. In fact, throughout my career, before writing became my main focus, once it became obvious to my colleagues and associates that, accompanied by my love for jazz, was a deep understanding of jazz, I went from being a novelty to a threat. Not only do I know “All the Things You Are”, but I can groove to Mehldau playing it in an odd time signature, and “Ooh and Aah” in all the right places over those ridiculous chord progressions in the vamp. Being Black added a complexity. Now they were utterly confused. How dare I know anything about my heritage? Nothing feels creepier than a huddle of White guys having musical orgasms over Mark Turner, and turning their noses up at me and my attempt to casually join the conversation. There is an odd love/hate dynamic when it comes to Black culture and Black people. Somehow, in the eyes of some, they are different. The assumption? I’m not cultured enough to appreciate my own damn culture. But I digress (a little).

Unlike any other genre, jazz is described (for better or worse) as an intellectual art form. And just like there are issues with accepting Black culture and Black people as synonymous, I think there are still stigmas that make it difficult for people to view women as critical thinkers in such a male-dominated art form. Much like the sports industry, where (jokingly or not) the all too often assumed capacity of a woman’s understanding is that, “The green team is beating the yellow team,” and that #42 sure knows how to fill out a pair of shorts, I think the jazz police have summoned women to the microphone and the audience. Non-vocalist female jazz musicians have it hard enough, let alone someone who actually wants to critique the music.

But I find it that more women are writing about jazz in other contexts. Women like Michelle Mercer and Farah Jasmine Griffin are both compelling authors, who write about jazz. Analytical, probing, and thought-provoking? Yes. But, critical? Not as much. The “bully pulpit” that Chinen passionately encourages women to stand behind is likely less appealing to women. It is for me. I think the reason many musicians don’t like jazz critics is not because they may have received a less than glowing review from one, but because of the presumptuous, unwarrantedly authoritative opinions, which I find are often riddled with reflections of their own personal insecurities. This is not to lump all critics in a jerk pile. There are no anomalies in life, and certainly none in this conversation. Like Chinen, and John Murph, and some others, there are journalists who are informed, respectful, and tactful. But we have not nearly gotten away from the historically hyper-judgmental jazz critic model. This may be another reason women are slim pickings in this profession. Motivationally, I don’t think many women are coming from this seemingly bitter standpoint to begin with. I think women are quicker to ponder than they are to pummel, and unfortunately jazz critics have created that sort of bad rap which women may find to be a bit of a turnoff.

I find myself in the middle of these two styles. I’m not a critic by any means, but I am pretty fearless when it comes to writing about uncomfortable yet imperative subjects within jazz, which is motivated by my own experiences coming up in this industry, and the glaring issues within it that get talked about behind the scenes but rarely on a public platform. Writing about these topics is healing, for one. But beyond my own edifying gratification, the real benefit is when folks are willing to have an honest dialogue, which can be tough. But that’s when there is growth. If the music has to grow, then surely we have to. Jazz journalists cannot stay in a bubble. And just like the modern jazz musicians of today can’t (and should not be expected to) compete with their deceased predecessors, some journalists have to move on from the fact that they may have interviewed some of them. It doesn’t give their work any more credence, especially when they think those fortunate experiences equal a right to be imperious and egotistical.

In his article, Chinen sites trumpeter Nicholas Payton as one of the notable musicians who hires and collaborates with a significant number of women (for his big band) without patronizingly doing so. Chinen follows up this point with the question, “Have we seen a well-considered review of Payton recently from a female jazz critic?”

Ironically, I’d say, “Yeah, from me!” Well, it’s not a review per se, but it’s a gutsy ass piece, nonetheless. And at the end of the day, that’s what Chinen is really calling for (right, Nate?). Although critics, by very nature of the definition, don’t exactly evoke warm and fuzzy thoughts, they don’t have to make us cringe. Criticism, when done right, should actually inspire, inform and intrigue. It doesn’t have to be wrapped in a big, pink bow…the idea is not to love everything, of course. But taking the time to seek out the interesting aspects to write about is what separates a critic from a jerk. (For example, don’t slam someone because you don’t know what else to do! Trust me, I’ve seen it). Simply put, let’s do an overhaul of what it means to be a critic by finding inspiration in the really good ones, and I’ll bet we’ll see more women. And that would be great.

Thanks, Mr. Chinen, for inspiring me to think about this subject a little harder.

This is a blog post, and not a study. I kindly ask that you not assume that I am making any sweeping judgments about any one group (women, men, critics, Black folks, White folks, etc.) I am not. I welcome your feedback.

Angelika Beener is the creator of and writer for Alternate Takes, a progressive music blog which takes on jazz within a variety of social contexts. She is an award-winning producer and host with awards from The New York Association of Black Journalists and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Follow her on Twitter.