On Jazz Performance and the Isolation of Women

[hi. I’ve written about this post a lot since 2017. especially because I’m nonbinary! and getting shoved into these boxes really set me back in figuring that out. this post speaks in woman-centric terms, but many of these issues apply to broader swaths of gender-marginalized people, albeit in different ways. look through some of my more recent stuff if you want to get a fuller picture; good places to start include here, here, and here.]

*If you don’t like opinions, keep scrolling, friends.*

I don’t talk very much about being a jazz musician. I’m not sure I specifically discuss being a classical musician, either; I’ve spent enough time crossing between the genres that I’m not sure I really care what my label is right now. But I do spend quite a bit of time in the jazz world, listening to jazz music and interacting with jazz people. A lot of them are really awesome, and almost all of them are rational, reasonable individuals when spoken to one-on-one. But the problem with jazz, as with plenty of other male-dominated fields, is that when you get large groups of us together, mob mentality takes over and things are said that shouldn’t be said.

Even without the large amounts of people, jazz lends itself to weird metaphors and generalizations about who listens and who plays and all that (jazz). So you end up with highly visible people saying things that are at best extremely unclear and possibly insulting, like this interview that Ethan Iverson, the pianist for The Bad Plus, did with Robert Glasper. After a ton of backlash on Facebook and Twitter, Iverson posted this response, of which I think the most recent update is the most levelheaded and genuine. That said, despite the controversy of the interview’s content (which is perhaps a discussion for another time), I found myself watching my friends and peers argue on the internet, refraining from commenting myself but remembering well how isolating it can be as a woman in jazz when nobody, even the women, can seem to agree on how you should be treated. In an effort to shout into the void join the conversation a little more actively than I have in the past, I’m sharing a reflection I wrote a year ago on my experience playing a show at a jazz festival as the only woman in my twenty-piece big band:

I am the only one. I am the only one.

It’s easy to look around at the three men beside me and forget the rest of the group. After all, these three are the ones I see the most. When I close my eyes, it could be a roomful of men or a roomful of women making this music and I wouldn’t be able to tell.

At least, I think I wouldn’t. I’ve never actually heard a roomful of women making this music, so I can’t be sure. But I have heard it from many, many rooms of men.

But beyond those three men I rely on so heavily, there aren’t any others like me. I am the only one. This has never happened before. My voice—my actual speaking voice—blends well with theirs. Maybe it blends too well. This changes with the people I’m around; with women I’m more of a mezzo-soprano, with these men I’m practically a tenor. I don’t know if my voice blends well because that’s where I want it to sit or because I am afraid of what will happen if it sounds different.

Because I am the only one, some count me as the token minority. It’s not a term I like using—the way the media throws it around makes you want it to describe anyone but you—but if I turn my back on it, I do the same to everyone fighting for the right to be heard and valued the same amount as the straight, white men at the top of the food chain. So yes, today I am the token minority, and it is draining. Because it means I have to sit (or stand, usually) and smile conspiratorially at the jokes about wives and girlfriends and women at gigs when really I’m cringing internally because they can’t not know it’s sexist, because if I don’t pretend it’s funny then it will be awkward and they’ll worry they offended me (which they totally did, but I in all my femaleness have been conditioned to avoid awkward at all costs, because me outwardly showing that I’m offended isn’t remotely acceptable), because they are supposed to be my friends—because they are my friends—and that means they aren’t supposed to offend me. And so I smile and shake my head and they assume it’s all okay, and I wonder when I became the girl who let her friends, her peers, get away with saying sexist things.

All I can come up with is that I am the only one, and the banner of womanhood is heavy. My femaleness creates a dichotomy, one in which I am too naive and womanly and weak to be expected to speak with any credibility about my own self and yet in a roomful of men am expected to be the omniscient spokesperson of everyone who has ever identified as female. So on those days where I smile and nod and mentally kick myself, no, I am not on my period, thanks for asking; I’d just like myself, [Eris], to exist separately from my femaleness. I would like to be allowed to crack a joke or voice an opinion or even just ask one question without someone wondering what’s really motivating me to do so.

The thing is, when you’re a female in a group like this, you either are lurking in the shadows of the men in front of you or you are forcibly thrust into the spotlight because someone wants you to tell the world how you’re so glad to be here and that your community is making so much progress and that you’re excited for more females to be joining the program next year even though sometimes you want to tell those females to turn and run before it’s too late. Because the scene is unforgiving. Because the scene will only let you say what it thinks you should while your male colleagues frolic around town putting their feet in their mouths left, right, and center. Because most of the time, the scene and the people (mostly men) in it will tell you they are your friends and they are helping you and they want you to succeed, and individually those might all be true but together with the language they use to politely silence you they are the most elaborate lie you’ve ever been told. And they will tell it to you every day.

When you’re a female in a group like this, you become the sometimes-willing, mostly-reluctant ambassador of Femaleness Around The World. After a concert we put on last semester, we were talking with audience members in the lobby when a man congratulated me on my group’s performance. “I didn’t even notice you until the next to last song!” he exclaimed, which told me several things. It told me that he’d tuned out for my solo in the second tune of the evening (seemingly counterproductive but not surprising or cause for irritation); it told me that he meant what he noticed was my femaleness, because you can’t really hide on a brightly lit stage containing twenty mostly stationary people; it told me that of all the things I did on that stage, the only highlight-reel-worthy one was playing the role of Visibly Female Jazz Musician (even though I apparently wasn’t that visible). And while I wanted to mention something, anything, everything along those lines, there were three more people coming my way, I had a program to represent, and he probably wouldn’t take the time to really understand anyway, so I smiled, acknowledged his comment, and continued feeling like a terrible feminist because I am surrounded by opportunities to affect positive change and yet I rarely feel secure enough to do so.

The kicker is, when I do speak up, I usually say too much. More than a couple sentences’ worth of simple statements about Femaleness Around The World (or just Femaleness In This Room) and the men around me start picking apart my words, forgetting that I am an individual as well as a woman and that occasionally I’d like to share a thought that isn’t intended as a blanket statement because that’s not the only thing I’m good for. More than that and I am consoled with empty responses about how I can take advantage of those who see me as a gimmick and use it to further my own career. Sure, that’s undoubtedly true, but I can only do that if I’m okay not only with people continuing to see me as a sexualized object on a stage but also with that sentiment being passed on to the next generation of women in jazz or women in music or maybe just women in general, if all the world really is a stage.

I am twenty years old, and the banner that I and many others carry necessitates that I be already thinking about the next ones. I am twenty years old, and I already worry if my passiveness, or maybe just my lack of aggression, has ensured that those next ones will have just as difficult a time as I am having. I am twenty years old, and I already know that bringing this up again and again with the people who need to hear it only ensures that I will be ignored more and more each time that I do. I am twenty years old, and I am already wondering if walking away and leaving this music I love behind would send a more powerful message than continuing to battle ever could.

So while the rest of the group will be focusing on the music they have to play in the moments before they step onto that stage, I will be thinking about this, wondering who I’ll have to be during that time. Recently, one of my instructors has been asking me what kind of a trumpet player I want to be. Nobody has ever asked me this before, so I am grateful to him for it. I spend so much time focusing on my battle strategy for a day or a rehearsal or the next twenty minutes that I’m not even used to wondering who I’d like to be in almost any capacity. I have yet to give him a solid response; I’m still working around my tendency to answer “not like him, maybe like him, not like him” and only hear “him, him, him.” Someday I’ll have an intelligent, coherent answer, but only after I get used to the weight of this banner and find better ways to help both myself and my compatriots carrying this one and others.

Oh, and only if I can start believing that I make a more positive contribution by staying, existing, and fighting within the scene than I would by removing my sound from it. But today, I am the only one, so I don’t really have much of a choice, do I? ♦