I have always been jealous of my male friends in the jazz world.
Not because of their skill or their musicality—though I admire that also—but because of their freedom to focus on the music first and foremost. It’s a tricky concept and often difficult to explain, but today, I’m going to try.
Before we begin, though, it’s important to note that I’m keeping this jazz-focused specifically because the prevalence of jam sessions and more consistent shows (at least in Phoenix) means we’re doing a lot more running around and getting together as a community than some aspects of the classical scene. More things are casual, but there’s more happening overall. When my CalArts friends asked me why on earth I would go back to Phoenix jazz in any capacity, the answer was convoluted, but part of it was that’s where the people are, and I need people.
That said, spending time in jazz spaces as a gender-marginalized person (and a queer one) becomes difficult not only because of the behavior and treatment of your peers but because of the myriad things we bring into the room on our shoulders that must be addressed before we are free to focus on the music.
Things like the decisions that must be made about clothes and makeup to communicate a persona that is attractive and friendly, but not to the point that we are dismissed as just a pretty face. (I’d like to say I’ve given up on this, but the truth is I still care way more than I probably should.)
Things like the ramifications of not having functional pockets—when you get up to play, where are you leaving your purse so it won’t be at risk of theft? If you get in trouble, are your mace and your phone still easily accessible?
Things like how I’ll be perceived and treated if I opt to sing instead of play the instrument I’ve been trained professionally on—because we all know there are differences there, both between singing versus playing and your first instrument versus your second.
Things like how there is exactly one person in our entire community I can ask to walk me to my car under any circumstances without feeling like a burden. (Plot twist: it’s probably not who you think it is.)
There’s one person in our entire community who will ask me to text him when I make it home safely, so he knows nothing happened to me en route. When I’m in a particularly active (read: scary) part of town and for whatever reason it doesn’t make sense to ask anyone to walk me out, I’ll add a check-in when I get to my car, too.
There are two people in our entire community who will get together with me to play (outside of rehearsals and ensembles), even though they know I’m still not back to playing standards yet.
There are many people in our community who mean the world to me and who I’m not comfortable asking for help. Because that’s what the one-two punch of sexism and tokenism can do: make you feel like asking for anything above and beyond what your (presumed) straight, white, male peers need makes you a burden, because you’re damn lucky they’re letting you be here at all.
And that’s what gets me—the feeling like even though I know I need more, I should feel lucky. I worry about my safety closing the distance between my car and most sessions, but the guys think I’m cool because I’m self-reliant, so I should feel lucky. I’ve never been hit on by the guys, so I should feel lucky (even though not getting hit on when every other woman does/has frequently prompts a weird, slimy, counterproductive moment of is-something-wrong-with-me). I don’t play standards much anymore and I’m still allowed to exist at jams and shows with some modicum of something akin to respect, so I should feel lucky. I have spoken and continue to speak out against systemic injustice within our community and was only ostracized for it once, so I should feel lucky. I carry the strength of character that means all my friends know I could go scorched-earth on the whole scene if I decided I should, and that affords me a Machiavellian kind of respect, so I should feel lucky. I am commonly seen as either a lightning rod or a harbinger, but our community still listens to me (sometimes), so I should feel lucky. I am the one who is constantly asking the people close to me to alter their wording or their actions because it’s important to make feminism intersectional, and they don’t chew me out for it or abandon me (sometimes), so even when they don’t change their behavior, I should feel lucky.
My therapist would tell me that’s a load of bullshit. And she’d be right.
I live in constant worry that at some point, I will be deemed too much, even by the people who say my intensity is a good thing, even by those who admit my perspective and my drive to change and improve is needed here. That makes it easier to throw myself into things that seem to have a shelf life, because the way I move through our community, almost everything does. And it’s not usually measured in time—it’s marked by the thing I will say, the change I will ask for, that will finally cross that threshold of too much, when people will reach the point that rage-quitting me makes more sense than continuing to push for better things.
And this might seem farfetched until you realize that I have been told I am intense as a subtle method of keeping me in my place, I have been told I am too much as an easy out of a conversation or a relationship, for most of my teenage years and my entire adult life. Occasionally, it’s presented as a positive, but those occurrences are rare even now. Many of my peers, friends, and colleagues tell me I am doing good work, necessary work, but for some, when the spotlight turns on them or their behavior, suddenly I am too much.
Sometimes I see it coming. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, intense is a brief light illuminating the path through a storm; frequently, too much and the you’d be much nicer if you’d just shut up implications underlying it are the beginning of the storm.
It makes sense, then, that I don’t ask people to walk me to my car even when I know I really should.
It makes sense, then, that the one friend who always needs to know I get home safe confounds me with that compassion I’ve been programmed to think I don’t deserve. (For the record, if anyone’s curious, that friend is Vince Thiefain. I don’t shout out on here often, but this one matters.)
It makes sense, then, that I still call myself lucky, because when you’ve been told for more than a decade that you’re too much, it starts to seem increasingly impossible that anyone would put up with you for any reason beyond tokenist obligation.
That feeling—the one that’s “they only let me hang out with them so they don’t look like sexist assholes”—is a multifaceted, often-misattributed one. It’s an issue I want to dive deeper into, because opening these lines of communication is critical for a healthy, functional musical community. It’s critical to preserving the wellbeing of everyone—marginalized or not.
But, on the days when the analysis isn’t enough and I’m still trapped in those feelings of lucky and too much and everything other than the music, I’m jealous of my male friends in the jazz world. It’s a tricky thing. ♦
Thanks for reading! I blog weekly about the intersections of music, gender, violence, sexual assault, and activism. If you like what you read, take a look around! Come back next Saturday at 8pm MST for more like this on similar topics. To follow my ramblings and creative process in real time, or to support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @ordinarilymeg on Instagram.