It’s been a couple years since I’ve been okay with how the jazz world is run. Sure, the music’s great and it’s fun to go to shows, and I’d be lying to say I didn’t desperately miss those aspects (and others, like playing with the Nash Composers’ Coalition out in Phoenix), but if you’ve been with me for awhile you know that all the jazz scene manages to do is break my heart and piss me off. I spend almost all my time in male-dominated fields, but for whatever reason, traditional jazz is the one intersection of maleness and music that seems to just keep kicking when I’m down.
Before I go any further, let’s be clear: I’ve spent the most time in jazz circles that glorify swing and bebop, that don’t advocate for experimentalism, whose primary interest seems to be preserving tradition. The jazz people I’m around now aren’t like that; indeed, lots of the creative jazz scene in LA seems to intrinsically value the blending of genres, including jazz and non-jazz. I like that a lot more, but I’m still hesitant to dip my toes back into a world that has repeatedly told me I have no place in it. I thought about trying to explain why, but then I found some old writing I did on the subject and never sent out into the world. It still rings true, so I’ll let it speak for me:
I remember the day I decided I was uncomfortable within the culture of my school’s jazz studies program. It was a Wednesday, just before noon. One of our skilled, widely respected instrumentalists was holding court before our section of jazz piano. I was new, and I didn’t know the names of half the guys in the room, so I was just listening to them banter. Learning the studio’s politics. Figuring out what to say to make them laugh (or, more importantly, to get a few of the motormouths to stop talking and think for a few moments). It was nice.
Until he made the joke. I watched as he tugged the collar of his v-neck down and leaned forward toward a friend, mimicking every seductive collegiate debutante you’ve ever seen on TV. “But, professor,” he trilled, his voice rising into falsetto, “I really need this grade!” The room erupted with baritone laughter as my eyes skittered from one face to the next, hoping for a sympathetic onlooker to commiserate with. But the room full of men (and thankfully devoid of our male TA) didn’t care to consider that making jokes at the expense of invisible women would only succeed in silencing the woman in the room who they’d not yet learned to see. I enjoy participating in classes, but I didn’t say a single word in that classroom for a week.
I remember when I walked into a conversation full of dick jokes (which, for the record, don’t generally bother me). One of our rhythm players turned to me, introduced himself, and followed up with the ever-charming statement, “I like sexually harassing my friends.” Props to him for correct terminology, but the assault survivor in me could barely shake his hand. I left soon after.
I remember a different day in jazz piano—a Thursday, in the spring—when the man trying to trick the class with what he was playing on the piano decided to call me out. Not for being wrong, for looking like I’d understood everything he was now explaining. “Here you are, nodding along like you knew all along.” What I didn’t bother explaining to him was that when you’re one of two women in a class of fifteen, being 75% or 90% or even 95% sure isn’t enough to get your voice to work long enough to volunteer an answer. I did get an apology the following week. But if you’re going to shame me in front of my peers, if you’re going to show them that behavior is okay, you’d better be prepared to make it right in front of them, too.
I remember one of my friends asking me to play on a gig he’d booked at the end of the summer—a real, paying gig! I tried to follow up with one of his bandmates (also a friend) while he was out of the country. Several miscommunications later, the bandmate told me I wasn’t on the gig, apologized “for the effect [it] had on [my] feelings,” and sent me on my way with a heaping plate of condescension. After being told by half a dozen friends to sleep on it, I tamed my inner tiger for the night. I got a proper apology the next day, but not until I spelled out exactly what he’d said. We didn’t talk for six months afterward.
I remember asking the faculty—almost all the faculty—how long it had been since a woman had made it to graduation in the program without getting harassed or belittled so much she quit. They didn’t have an answer for me.
I remember crying to my roommate the night I knew I had to step away. I was learning lots from several really fantastic instructors, but at the end of the day I was faced with more stress than reward. Making the decision to take myself out of a world whose music I love but whose inhabitants had me walking on pins and needles was among the hardest choices I’ve faced in my twenty-two years. It was also one of the healthiest decisions I’ve ever made, because now I can focus on my education without worrying that someday the words will turn into actions. ♦
Thanks for reading! I write a lot about contemporary performance and my experiences as a woman in the professional and academic music world. I’m also passionate about using music to explore societal issues like sexual assault and rape culture. Feel free to take a look around, and if you like what you see, stay tuned!