As I’ve begun settling back into Phoenix, I’ve decided that being upfront about my plans and trepidation is the best policy at this point in time. As a result, I’ve been honest with folks—common refrains are “I don’t play standards anymore,” “I’m still figuring out what I want to put energy into,” and “I’m picking projects I really like and going from there.” These ones are easy to swallow for most folks (though the standards one often raises some eyebrows until I add “this community killed that for me”); however, some of the truthful answers further down the playlist of “how are you?” are already raising some pushback.
The big one, unsurprisingly, is the simplest: in some ways, it’s terrifying to be back.
Even as I try to explain this, I know I won’t be able to put it all into words, so forgive me if you’re trying to understand but can’t quite get there. My departure from Phoenix was one in which I assumed I was burning a lot of bridges, because after two years around a community of improvisers that was fractured, leaderless, and incredibly divisive, the only reaction I realistically could give was “okay, then; I’m out.” People close to me were telling me in no uncertain terms that the vitriol I continued forcing myself to put up with was doing long-term harm. They were right. And instead of waiting around for the day the nastiness and the gossip came for me, I left. I found Los Angeles, and in it, the freedom to make the music I want with people who support it emerged.
And even though I’m back in Phoenix and the stylistic and demographic complications therein, I still want to keep doing that. I’m still reaching for that persistent little light that leads to the creative life I want. However, I’m under no illusions about the path before me. I’m still not here to make people happy, and perhaps more importantly, I’ve developed a strong set of boundaries I intend to maintain. Eventually, that won’t make someone happy, and despite my best efforts, the vitriol will come for me. I’m sure of it.
This is the point where even some of my closest friends and confidants stop believing me. “It’s better now,” they tell me. It’s the same phrase, repeated almost ad nauseam like a drumbeat they’re all desperately trying to follow. I understand that, from a male perspective, that’s probably true. For the time being, at least, we seem to have stopped hemorrhaging women; the “play ten thousand notes or I’ll vibe you off the bandstand” attitude is noticeably less pronounced; the atmosphere overall feels far more receptive to new and/or nontraditional ideas, techniques, and structures. A lot of folks have done some growing up, and that benefits everyone.
For most of my straight, cis male friends, that probably makes “it’s better now” sound pretty accurate, and I can’t blame them. But my experiences with Phoenix jazz have never just been about “are people being nice to me or not?” As I once told a trusted teacher and friend, it’s incredibly draining to spend time figuring out if people are sexist assholes or just assholes—and, to take it a step further, it remains to be seen if it is any safer or easier to speak out when something does happen. It remains to be seen how the scene functions with (and despite) the knowledge and shared history of some of the shit we’ve endured. It remains to be seen whether or not things have relaxed to the point where the women are able to stop antagonizing each other and work collaboratively (because yes, much of that infighting stems in one way or another from the fact that there’s almost always only one seat at the table reserved for the female-identifying). And these are all things that might not make it onto the male radar of “it’s better now,” but they’re an inextricable part of how I do, will, and must navigate these spaces and others.
There’s one other part of this issue that I’ve hinted at but haven’t outright stated—no man will ever be able to authoritatively tell me “it’s better now.” Though in each case this has come up it has absolutely, undoubtedly been with the best of intentions, this is a variant of “we’ve solved sexism!” (or, at best, an emphasis on the non-misogynist parts of the larger issue and an omission of the critical aspects). There is a big difference between “it’s better now” and “we’re working on it.” There’s a big difference between “it’s better now” and “[female-identifying person] has seemed a lot more comfortable; have you talked to her?” There’s a big difference between “it’s better now” and “we’re going to help you.”
So, my dear friends and peers and colleagues, don’t tell me it’s better now. Our community will, at some point, prove you wrong.
Tell me you’ll be there to help when it’s not. ♦
Thanks for reading! I blog a lot about the intersections of music, feminism, misogyny, and sexual assault. I’m also giving away free large ensemble pieces during the month of September—if that’s your thing, click here. Blog uploads are every Saturday at 8pm MST. Thanks again for being here!