Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and the Importance of Teaching Identity

It’s December 1, 2019, and I’m propped against the comfiest pillows in my apartment, poring over the second edition of Robert Walser’s Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History in preparation for a forthcoming guest lecture. I’ve got tons of time—until sometime next semester—but because I’m trying to highlight the connections between my musical work as a whole and the jazz tradition, I’m looking for sources that will back up my arguments. I don’t expect to spend much time in the legitimacy flames this time around, but ideally, I’ll use this lecture again in the future. So I’m reading Keeping Time in full, re-engaging with my favorite parts and digging deeper into things I might have missed or flat-out did not read when I first brought the book home as a junior in college.

While I’m trying to find useful words by men to prepare for the inevitable (hopefully distant) day one decides to argue I’m a poser who doesn’t conform because I don’t understand complex harmony or virtuosic playing or some shit like that, I’m also giving myself full permission to luxuriate in the (few) moments of words penned by women. So I dipped my toes into Hazel V. Carby’s “The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues” like it was the hot tub of my dreams. I wasn’t disappointed—in fact, in the span of a single essay, my world rearranged itself.

Continue reading Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and the Importance of Teaching Identity

On Pen Names, Impersonation, and Identity

Greetings, folks, and welcome to another episode of Posts I Didn’t Want To Write. Today, we’re using a real-life example to talk about marginalized identities in composition and repertoire. However, this example, highlighted this week by the band and orchestra communities, is of a white man using a pseudonym to represent himself as a female Japanese composer (and, by extension, to represent his appropriative works as authentic).

The man in question is Larry Clark, an educator-turned-composer who has achieved some prominence as a large ensemble composer, particularly for young groups. Clark has, since at least 2005, published some works under his own name and others under the pseudonym Keiko Yamada. Titles from Clark’s catalog are fairly standard for a white composer in this century—“Subatomic,” “Intuition March,” etc. (I will not be linking to his website or any of his content during this post.) Yamada’s titles all lean into the supposed Japanese identity—“Hotaka Sunset,” “Kon’nichiwa,” “Japanese Lullaby” . . . you get the picture. To make matters worse, parts of this false identity seem to be co-opted from actual Japanese women—one student presentation on the “composer,” found in a basic Google Search, conflates Clark’s Yamada with the popular Japanese manga artist of the same name. The “composer”’s birthdate, available through Schott Music’s page dedicated to her, is listed as August 18th, 1972, which is the birthdate of Keiko Komuro, lead vocalist of the pop group Globe.

Through this, Clark has created two footholds for himself in the world of large ensembles: one in which he profits off his own name and one in which his racist, sexist, colonialist, and transphobic business practices allow him to profit from work misleadingly billed as authentic. He has created a persona that tiptoes into spaces he would not otherwise be welcome in. He has taken advantage of the intentional programming movement; Yamada’s name and work is listed on mandatory repertoire lists in at least two states. Further, the decision to publish under a name carrying double-minority status means he, a white man, can take up spots on concerts reserved for women, people of color, and women of color.

Continue reading On Pen Names, Impersonation, and Identity