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.

You’d think, at this point, I’d be somewhat used to discovering stories that reshape how I place both myself and my forebears in jazz history. To a certain extent, it’s not a surprise—I know full well there are countless marginalized identities the jazz canon and its accompanying pedagogy obscures, erases, or downright forgets—but some days, like today, I am reminded how extensive these erasures are. So I text a friend, the message full of that bitter humor that freely betrays my feelings on the subject. “I was today years old when I learned that both Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith had lesbian relationships,” I wrote, because there it was, nestled somewhat casually into a paragraph on page 41. Rainey even wrote a freaking song about it, “Prove It On Me Blues,” an absolute flex that highlights her contempt for a society that condemned lesbianism while asserting the validity and value of her relationships with women.

If gender- and sexually-marginalized people, especially queer people of color, had been given the platform and space to proportionally contribute to the documentation and pedagogical development of the jazz canon, I wouldn’t be stumbling upon this information for the first time a week before my twenty-fourth birthday, six months after finishing two music degrees. And the reason for that is twofold: first, there would be a greater pedagogical focus on (and less dismissal of) both singers and gender-marginalized people, so Rainey and Smith would be taught far more comprehensively to begin with; and second, we wouldn’t be so focused on highlighting visual marginalizations (especially race and binary gender) in the name of tokenism that we fail to consider what other, less visible marginalizations might affect their perspectives and work.

THIS IS WHERE INTERSECTIONAL FEMINISM MATTERS. We can’t just look at Rainey’s career through the lens of Black womanhood. (We arguably don’t do a good job with that as is.) We must, as a quick Google search now can tell me, consider her queerness, both in her gender performativity (“Prove It On Me Blues” quotes, “It’s true I wear a collar and a tie…” and “Talk to the gals just like any old man”) and her lesbianism (as evidenced most obviously by her 1925 arrest for “participating in an orgy with multiple women”). In fact, in the span of a single article (quoted above) I can learn Ma Rainey was a butch lesbian, Bessie Smith was bisexual, and there are in fact a good number of songs in these singers’ catalogs (and others’!) that either fully acknowledge lesbianism or strongly hint at their participation in same-sex encounters and relationships. I can learn in a swift two minutes that the dominant women of the 1920s blues tradition—arguably some of the foremothers of jazz—were more like me than I ever would have known otherwise.

And jazz pedagogues—the generations of men who have shaped jazz education in the past century and the handful who taught me—let all that slide. They may not have ever consciously decided to obliterate marginalizations in this way, but when Rainey and Smith are generally relegated to a quick mention in passing and not even given a fixed place in the curriculum, it’s not a surprise that we don’t even get a quick “by the way, they weren’t straight, and that’s something you can research if you’re interested.” (Ideally, we would do much better than that; I’m sticking to the bare minimum here.) It’s not surprising, but it’s disappointing, because when you get all the information later and look at it in retrospect, you realize that generations of male pedagogues have decided that Rainey’s Blackness and womanhood was more important than her lesbianism, that her gender performativity onstage could be displayed alone at the expense of her butchness in other areas of her life that exerted influence on her music. We learn about the domestic violence exhibited by Miles Davis and other jazz greats, but we’re steered away from queer musicians of color who at times openly addressed their (positive, healthy) relationships in their music. While I’ll never argue we shouldn’t know about Davis’ violent misogyny, if we talk about that and not the positive, queer relationships other black performers had, we’re perpetuating racist and homophobic stereotypes. Yes, we’ve become accustomed to the stories of violence and toxic masculinity that populate jazz history by virtue of the people it sets on a pedestal, but our curriculums and our teachers largely ignore the presence of LGBTQIA2+ musicians and performers in the jazz canon. And that’s bad.

And here’s why.

Because during my junior year of college, Roxy Coss came to ASU and gave a master class. She was the only woman who came through that year; I missed a class to see her speak. She played some—maybe I got up for a couple choruses? I can’t remember—and she fielded questions from the room. There weren’t many women in the crowd that day, although I’d put money on it being among the most gender-diverse moments of that year. I stayed quiet and kept my hand down, because I knew the question I wanted to ask wouldn’t get as useful an answer if announced and addressed in front of twenty-some-odd men.

Still, at the end of the session, I crept up to where she was putting away her tenor and introduced myself. The question rolled straight off my tongue, probably sounding a little desperate in the wake of the utter garbage I was experiencing in the program and the community: “Does it get any easier?”

“No.” The response was quick and surprisingly casual considering the weight of the query. “They’ll keep talking shit.” But then a corner of her mouth quirked up, and she kept going. “But someday they’ll be talking shit and you’ll be on the cover of DownBeat Magazine, so . . .” She shrugged, trailing off, and the smile grew.

The intervening years and my subsequent musical development (plus my coming out, which happened after I originally published this post) have all but guaranteed I will probably never be a shoe-in for the cover of DownBeat, but Roxy’s comment that day has continually stuck with me because for the first time, someone was showing me a way through. Someone living and breathing and in front of me was saying, “it sucked, but I got here, and here’s not a bad place to be.” It wasn’t secondhand from a male teacher or an assumptive comment from a peer—it was real, solid, true.

That said, Roxy was the only gender-marginalized jazz professional (to my knowledge) I met that year. Mary Petrich was the only one I met the following year. I was more fortunate at CalArts, but even there, the ratios were far from ideal. And to a certain extent, that’s why I didn’t engage with jazz-with-a-capital-J while I was there beyond commissions and the rare recital request.

When we’re prioritizing the contributions and presence of straight, cisgender men in our educational spaces, how are we supposed to tell our queer kids and our gay kids and our gender-marginalized kids that there is an actionable, sustainable path forward? If we don’t talk about the queer artists who were brave enough to put their gender performativity and their sexuality on display in their music, how will those students ever feel like their bodies and identities have a place in this music? If we don’t talk about the intersections of identity, how will our queer students of color ever feel like this music holds space for them? If we reduce people to their most obvious marginalization(s), how will the straight, white, cis men learning this music ever understand the true diversity that has allowed it to thrive? (I gagged as I wrote that sentence, but the question is genuine.) How will our marginalized students see a path through the absolute bullshit they (we) have to endure every step of the way? How can we see ourselves in this music—where we are represented—if the gatekeepers who determine our resources and curriculum have not yet learned to see us at all?

Once, years ago when this blog was still very new and I wasn’t informed enough to be adequately angry about all this, I wrote the following: “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.” The writing in that post dates back to the spring of 2016, but I still think about it regularly. Today, though, I think I’m updating that statement. (The original will continue to stand; I won’t rewrite my feelings as a twenty-year-old.)

That most elaborate of lies told by peers and mentors and teachers and friends and community is the supposed support coupled with the polite silencing, yes, but it’s also the ways in which they keep you from seeing the truth that you are not alone in this idiom’s history. You are not occupying a rarefied place in time. You are one of legions of marginalized people, of all genders, races, abilities and disabilities, of sexualities, of queernesses, who foster deep and meaningful connections with this music. You are not alone.

This is not the first time women and gender-marginalized people and LGBTQIA2+ people and racially diverse people and disabled people have been able to be good and valued in the jazz tradition. This is (maybe) just the first time the rest of the scene can’t sweep those parts of us under the rug.

And we have every right to see our contributions to this music and this tradition in its curriculum—starting at the beginning.

We are told we are isolated because keeping us that way is easier, and many of the straight white cis men in our lives would rather be complicit and comfortable than good and just. We are told we are isolated because the men in our lives in positions of power have little to no interest in doing the necessary work to educate themselves on what a safe, equitable educational experience or workplace would look like or sound like or feel like. We are told we are isolated because the singular idea of success in our fields is often only feasible for men of incredible privilege. We are told we are isolated because most of our teachers can’t be bothered to find guest artists or colleagues who look like us or experience the world as we do. We are told we are isolated because justice and equity is an inconvenience to those currently in power. (To the men, including my friends and former teachers, who I just pissed off: bite me. Of you and me, I am the authority on this subject. I’m the one living it.)

I don’t know why it took me this long to reach this point. Maybe it’s because it’s far more daunting (to me) to be openly queer in the jazz community than it is to present as a straight, cis woman. Maybe it’s because I can’t really hide what my body looks like, but I can—and do—hide details about how I define myself because it’s not safe to talk about with everyone in Phoenix. Maybe it’s because I know adding more marginalizations increases the chances of me being fetishized (though I am extraordinarily lucky, in that regard, that I am white and able-bodied). And to discover, after years of internal back-and-forth about whether I belong in the jazz tradition, that these greats of the genre were a lot like me, in ways that went beyond gender, and still managed to cement a place in history? To find out there’s been a way through this whole time and not one of my teachers thought it worth mentioning to any student? I think that’s the thing that twists the knife. That’s the polite, subtle silencing. That’s where I see the “we don’t want your identity because we don’t give a shit about it” mentality.

So this is me, your friendly (not so friendly?) neighborhood [queer, demi/bi woman]* musician with an MFA, letting you know: those of us who spend our lives balancing a stack of marginalizations need you to realize picking and choosing one or two above the others isn’t acceptable. We as an artistic community will not understand the nuances of individual musical contributions to the canon if we can’t accurately see through the lenses of their creators. Put simply, marginalizations change your life, and your life changing means your music follows suit. If we continue to knowingly exclude marginalized people (and the intersections of their marginalizations) from the jazz history we teach, we will continue to exclude and diminish the marginalized people in its present.

And that’s bad. ♦

*we’ll talk about it some other time (when I trust you)

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