Bandleading, Phoenix, and Three-Year-Old Scars

I met with some friends tonight (back when tonight was in September)—mostly folks in the young generation’s old guard, who were around the last time I lived here—and while we mostly got together to play, we inevitably got to talking, too. At one point, I mentioned that I was considering pitching a new project I’d be bandleading, figuring I’d get some useful insight from the group.

What I didn’t expect was the instant pushback.

Frankly, it was startling. It always is, even though it was an interesting hallmark of my last trip around the Phoenix block. The refrain this time was different: multiple folks mentioned concerns that the venues I’m considering pitching to might turn me down or give me subpar billing because they already have a token woman they hire in that capacity (and, theoretically, they aren’t interested in doing anything more than the bare minimum). While this isn’t the vibe I’ve gotten from conversations with Phoenix musicians a decade to two decades older—they’re generally very supportive of my pitching, actually—the fact that my peers (and close friends!) are shooting me down immediately is troubling at best.

First, some context, because this is complicated. I was encouraged to start bandleading as an undergrad by my teachers and mentors, but that recommendation was largely made because literally—LITERALLY—no one of my generation would hire me. Hell, most of them wouldn’t play duo or trio or small-group with me in a practice room. (Believe me. I tried.) I was told to bandlead essentially as a workaround for being the musically ugly (though competent) duckling, but at the time, I didn’t have the resources or connections to manifest gigs anyone would want to follow me to. Besides, who was going to book a twenty-year-old woman who wasn’t even being asked to sideman?

Some more context, because my friends are also complicated. On a surface level, I understand that the pushback I received was largely a knee-jerk reaction based on the experiences they’ve had with various venues and presenters in Phoenix in the past two years. Some of those stories are extremely discouraging. It makes sense that their outlooks are informed by those things. They’re allowed to be jaded. (We’re improvisers; it’s practically a second skin for us.) But the pushback was alarming, because for the first five to ten minutes, the only real message was “don’t do it.”

And as someone who already feels unwelcome in many of the spaces we occupy, as someone who needs to find a creative way forward because it’s my only option, that makes me feel very small.

See, last time I was here, lots of my friends were excited about my ideas until I laid them out in front of everyone. Then the enthusiasm faded faster than the Dodgers’ postseason. (My ex is probably mad I put that in here.) To a point, my ideas and plans were acceptable—until I needed something (anything, really) from the people around me. This time around, I didn’t even get that far. Not a single soul heard what kind of show I had planned. It was that swift.

And though I know it’s not their intention, the takeaway is that they don’t think I can do it. Or worse, that they don’t think I should, because if the door is that far shut, the odds of them following me into this project (or any project) are slim to none.

These are some of the improvisers who know my creative work the best. If the tokenism mindset is so deeply ingrained into them—if their knee-jerk reaction is to tell me not to pitch because these spaces (might) already have their token woman—how am I supposed to convince any of my peers to follow where I (band)lead? How am I supposed to mount new projects when the men who are supposed to be in my corner tell me I shouldn’t, because the theoretical single slot open for a bandleader of my gender has already been filled? How am I supposed to point out that this response really isn’t that different than the centuries of institutional sexism we all claim to be against?

Why, in the eyes of these peers, is the appropriate response to tokenism retreating into the background instead of charging forward and demanding better? Why is it acceptable for me to risk my career fighting these things while the rest of them sit back and armchair-coach?

This is one of those moments where I realize why I have so little instinctual trust in my Phoenix peers. So many of them—so many—tell me day in and day out that they like my work and support me and want me to succeed despite all the crap the gender and sexuality wars shove in my face. They tell me they’re glad I’m back, that they know I’m going to be around in a big way. But again, the moment I need them to act, they balk.

So despite everything I’ve accomplished, despite managing seventeen performers for my ASU capstone and an interdisciplinary production with dancers and lighting for my MFA, I don’t really have faith that my peers in Phoenix think I’m capable of bandleading. It’s an incredibly alienating feeling. And this time around, the deciding factor is my gender and what doors they think that will and won’t open for me.

THAT’s sexist. But I don’t even have the energy to be mad. I just feel small and mostly invisible. Because I’m twenty-three (now twenty-four) years old, and sometimes I need the men in my life to flex their privilege on my behalf. Don’t go get a gig to hand over to me—I really don’t need that much—no, tell me you’ll help me fight for the gigs I want. Tell me you’ll work to dismantle the systemic problems we face, sure, but more importantly, tell me you’ll work to dismantle the things within yourselves that say, “well, it’s not going to work, so it’s best not to try.”

Because, gentlemen, let’s be real. I work at the intersections of composition, new music, brass playing, improvisation, and sexual violence. A mindset of “I’ll only take a risk or butt heads with someone when I know it will work” would have ended my career in undergrad. That’s not an option, and I can’t have you all shoving me back into that corner. I need you with me. I need you to trust my fight and amplify it with your own.

There aren’t tons of women improvising in this city, and I don’t just do solo shows. If none of you—the men—stand with me, even in this (relatively) little way of “I believe you’re capable and I’d work with you if you asked,” my career in this city dies. And that’s not on the older generation. (The pitching problem is, but more on that in another post.)

Since I first knew I was moving back to Phoenix, I’ve been sure my relationships with my friends would be the deciding factor in my success. So if you’re willing to back me, to play on projects I’m pitching, to lend me your strength and your clout to start carving out definitive spaces where female-fronted and gender-diverse acts (plural!) are welcomed and celebrated in our city, please tell me. Because right now I’m trying to cling to the hope that some of you—hell, even many of you—would, but I don’t know. And I need to hear it, especially when I’m on unstable ground.

Guys, I need you. Please pick up.

[For the record, I’m having individual conversations with folks on this subject as well. I fully expect that to continue. But I wanted this to come to the collective consciousness, which is why it’s getting published here. Thanks for reading.] ♦

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