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”

You Are Implicated: Pedagogy Ethics and Why Everyone Should Have a Point Where They Quit Their Job

I spent my last semester at CalArts taking almost literally every class I possibly could with Tim Feeney, who’s not only a beyond-words percussionist, improviser, and composer but also arguably the nicest human being you will ever meet. During the spring, I saw Tim three times every week: Wednesday mornings for Writing for Percussion, Wednesday afternoons for Free Improv Ensemble, and Friday afternoons for The Experimenting Ear. By mid-March, I could no longer remember which thing we’d talked about in which class, and as such I spent a lot of time connecting very distant dots in front of peers missing one end or the other of the train of thought. While that was super confusing for almost everyone around me, it meant I walked around getting my mind blown for months. It was the best.

One of the most important lessons I learned from Tim—and, arguably, among the most important things I absorbed during my MFA—began in The Experimenting Ear as we were analyzing Jed Speare’s Inside the Cable Car Barn, a beautiful piece that provokes a daunting question: are the things we might find on a field recording already music, or do we make them music based on how we consume them? My analysis of the piece basically summed up as: “wow,” and my grade reflected that lack of attention to detail, but the conversations we had in the wake of the assignment piled questions on questions. Again, it was the best.

At one point, we were discussing a formal shift in the music where formerly prevalent tones give way to more rhythmic sounds. Tim posed a simple question. “What does this mean for the person holding the field recorder?”

It took us a minute, but someone got it. “They’re moving.”

That was the first of hundreds of times Tim must have uttered the words it all boiled down to: “when you are making or consuming this work, you are implicated.” Or, to put it another way, your decisions to make a thing or listen to a thing or frame a thing as music (or make any number of real-life interpersonal decisions) puts your own stamp on it out of necessity. In making/doing/consuming things, we give them perspective they would not otherwise have. In saying, “here’s a piece about a cable car barn,” we intentionally listen to appreciate sounds and nuances and decisions we might not otherwise think twice about.

“You are implicated.” Continue reading “You Are Implicated: Pedagogy Ethics and Why Everyone Should Have a Point Where They Quit Their Job”

Token Hire

I don’t like being the only gender-marginalized person in an ensemble. If you asked my peers about it, they’d probably roll their eyes and laugh. Yeah, that’s Megan. I don’t have to be with other women, though that’s obviously a blessing when it comes along; in LA, there were plenty of occasions when I performed with a section or a group whose members were male-coded but included at least one other person somewhere on the gender spectrum beyond cis man. I’ve fallen in love with working among others whose struggles to be accepted in our professional environments speak to something in my own experience. These moments allow for subtle, important moments of solidarity: little reminders that we’re not alone.

That said, I spend a lot of time being the only gender-marginalized person in an ensemble. (#BrassPlayerProblems #JazzProblems.) It’s difficult to explain why the difference is so stark, especially when I’m trying to make sense of it to folks who have probably never found themselves in such a situation. (And even if my cis male friends have, y’all don’t have centuries of systemic gendered oppression weighing on you and affecting your treatment within that scenario.) But when a well-reasoned fear of the consequences—both professional and personal—of putting even one toe out of line has been bred into you from the moment you chose your career, when you work in an industry that has a tradition of violence of all types against your gender(s), when you’re working around people you know won’t speak up if someone makes you uncomfortable, you spend a lot more time worrying and being quiet instead of working to create the art you want.

However, it’s 2019. Professionals the world over are realizing all-male ensembles can’t continue to be their default. Overall, that’s a really good thing; doors are beginning to open for gender-marginalized folks who wouldn’t have had many options a few decades ago. There’s a dark side to the change, though: musicians are beginning to reach for women and other gender-marginalized performers to incorporate into their ensembles so they can say they have one. It’s a performative, superficial kind of inclusivity that draws in folks facing this kind of oppression without considering the systemic structural changes that might be needed to make us feel welcome. It’s hastily scribbling down the answers to your math homework in the ten minutes before class without bothering to show your work (because you’re copying someone else’s), and the results are usually the same: if you don’t have a plan for getting from point A to point B, you’ll only ever get partial credit. Continue reading “Token Hire”

Here’s Your List: Recommended Resources for Folks Starting Out

Hello! If you’ve been directed to this page, you’ve probably spoken to me recently (or somewhat-recently) about looking for resources on gender marginalization, misogyny, sexual assault, trauma, or some combination of the bunch. You’ve also done so in a way that is respectful and makes it clear your self-education on these topics is a consistent priority. First of all, thank you for being cool about it. Taking the time not only to further your own understanding of the world around you but to ask appropriately and kindly for resources to assist your endeavors is a big deal.

Below is a by-no-means-comprehensive list of resources I hold in high regard. I recommend digging into them at a pace and in an order that makes the most sense for you. Be sure to take care of yourself as you go. Happy reading!

Last update: September 29, 2020 Continue reading “Here’s Your List: Recommended Resources for Folks Starting Out”

Here’s Your Damn List.

I am not a fan of the question “can you give me reading material on that?” (in any incarnation). It puts the onus on oppressed demographics to educate their oppressors on longstanding, pervasive harm that is being engaged in to this day. I particularly hate it being directed at me in any context besides a serious, direct (in-person) conversation between two people or perhaps in a small group of friendly faces. If anyone asks me in public, the answer is almost always “no, you can do your own research.” Because, frankly, that’s always true. To borrow from an internet friend, your education is not my calling. It is your responsibility.

However, I know I’m going to be asked this question for a long time, so below is a by-no-means-comprehensive list of over one hundred resources I highly recommend to improve your own education about gendered violence (both in a physical-violence sense and a general-trauma sense). This took me weeks to assemble. Your work does not stop here. If it has an asterisk (*) next to it, that means I found it on the first page of a Google search. You could do that, too. Do better!

Last update: September 29, 2020 Continue reading “Here’s Your Damn List.”

“Lead the Change,” Emotional Labor, and Research

Once upon a time, as an undergrad, I accidentally opened up a Title IX investigation. (Yes, that is absolutely a ridiculous sentence, but it’s true.) I didn’t mean to, but no one had ever told me that “I can’t tell if they’re being sexist assholes or just assholes” was enough to accelerate an issue. So the contents of that conversation went up to Title IX, but the office never followed up. The effort I’d made to highlight the issues at hand completely evaporated, caught between higher admin who evidently decided it wasn’t a priority and faculty who never checked back to hear if anything came of it.

In the aftermath of those moments, though, I remember a comment from a faculty member that’s continually drilled itself into my brain: “You could lead the change.” It was said in earnest, with the feeling like this marked a door opening, a path forward through all the bullshit. And twenty-year-old me probably wanted to believe it was. Lord knows I spend entirely too much time contemplating where, or if, I fit within the greater Phoenix musical community. The thing is, even though I know all the way down to the bottom of my heart the idea was presented with wholly good intentions, it’s become a bit of an unwanted pest. Continue reading ““Lead the Change,” Emotional Labor, and Research”

lightning rod/harbinger (lucky/too much)

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. Continue reading “lightning rod/harbinger (lucky/too much)”

Shows, Closed Books, and Genre-Bending

Hello, friends, and welcome to another episode of Posts That Will Drive Me Insane While Writing. I am one sentence in, and I can already tell you this one’s going to be a headache of an intentionally-worded piece. Yay! At any rate, this has been on my mind since that Paying Your Dues post (which went up last week, but in my time was written about three weeks before this one). In my writing, blogs frequently spawn from other blogs, and this is no exception—tonight’s installment of Music Is Hard comes from one of the thousand or so questions I posed in that entirely-too-long edition. The question in question? (Yes, I’ve had caffeine.) This one:

“Which organizations are profiting off the free labor of student musicians and then closing their calendars to those same artists looking for a place to launch their own projects?”

And, as I’ll get into later on, why aren’t we getting onto these calendars, who controls who gets onto them, and how should we work within and around these institutions to ensure we’re getting the opportunities we want?

In the initial post, I followed the quoted question with a quip about late-stage capitalism, but that paragraph largely went under-explained out of sheer necessity (read: the weight of 3300 words). I could probably come back to most of them at some point in time, but this one in particular is lighting a fire under my butt currently, so we’re going to dive in. Continue reading “Shows, Closed Books, and Genre-Bending”

Paying Your Dues (and other bullshit)

Since moving back to Phoenix, one phrase (besides “it’s better now”) has begun to permeate my consciousness—and weigh on my mind—more than it ever did while I was in California. I absolutely spoiled any chance at a surprise with my title, so yes, that phrase is “paying your dues.” Despite all the time I’ve spent wandering through various genres and fields of music, it’s never quite rung true to me. This is, I think, partly because of how intentionally nonspecific it is and partly because of the conditions under which I make music and move through the world at large. The depths of this issue are murky, and from here it’s difficult to see the bottom, but if I had to take a stab at a thesis, it’d be this: the gatekeeping, favoritism, and institutional bias that create the foundation of “paying your dues” stifle creativity, discourage participation, alienate newcomers, and serve the white patriarchy.

Wow, that’s a lot to unpack. So let’s take it a bite at a time, shall we?

Before we get into it, I’m not sure why this didn’t come up a lot while I was in Los Angeles, but the answer is probably partly regional and partly cultural. A wise jazz musician once pointed out to me that the prevalence and outward manifestation of misogyny varies drastically by location. Generally, New York and LA are noticeably different (though not necessarily less misogynist) than most of the rest of the country. And while this “paying your dues” thing can undoubtedly play into that, I think another part of the equation is that mindless playing-for-the-paycheck work isn’t as looked down on in LA as it sometimes is in some pockets of Phoenix—in part because gigs are a step up from the carousel of day jobs, plural, needed to pay Los Angeles rent.

The other part of this, I suppose, is that I wasn’t told to pay my dues in LA; I was told to put in the work. While both phrases carry similar weight, there’s a lot more flexibility to the latter. My friends and teachers saw me making angry assault music and counted that as “doing the work.” They saw me advocating for student life improvements and institutional change and counted that as “doing the work.” They see me blogging about the need for better treatment across the board and count that as “doing the work.” But regardless of the details, I didn’t hear or talk about or think about “paying my dues” much in California, and I do in Arizona, so it’s time to break down some concepts. Continue reading “Paying Your Dues (and other bullshit)”

“It’s Better Now” And Other Well-Intentioned Half-Truths

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. Continue reading ““It’s Better Now” And Other Well-Intentioned Half-Truths”