In The Wake of International Jazz Day
April 29th is National Dance Day in the US. It’s one of my favorite not-quite-official holidays; I spend time stretching and honoring what my body is capable of, I move in ways that make me happy, and I usually forget to post on Instagram until several days later. It’s an opportunity to honor dance’s lifelong role in my existence, wellbeing, and humanity, and I try to mark it every year.
April 30th is International Jazz Day. It’s one of my least favorite not-quite-official holidays; while there’s something important to be said for honoring the artists of color who pioneered and radically expanded the genre, it mostly reminds me how most of the jazz musicians I know personally are white. Moreover, the purported celebration often reminds me how much I and others don’t fit in the community.
On its face, that might not seem like a completely true statement—as many who know me can attest, I spend most jazz hangs flitting from one group to another, catching up with folks and getting lost in a good conversation. (Or, at least, I did before social distancing and isolation were major parts of my life.) I look like I’m well-loved, at least among my peer group. Even the older adults do okay at pretending I’m not trying to radically and loudly restructure the seats of power they hold and the privilege they wield. If you’re not looking closely, I look happy and supported by a community that values me as both an artist and a human.
Most of you aren’t looking closely.
Sometimes, that’s okay. I certainly don’t mind living most of my life without that kind of scrutiny. But the moment you look past the surface level, past the social interactions I’d have regardless of my standing, the picture changes. Yes, you see me laughing and bantering at jams—but when was the last time most of you saw me pulling out my horn or stepping up to the bandstand with lyrics ready to go? Yes, you see me spending time with the usual suspects, the friends who have been friends for half a decade—but do you see the anxiety in my eyes or the way I always step straight to them for hugs when I arrive and leave? Yes, you see me writing about jazz (on here) and playing the occasional gig (that I’m grandfathered into)—but when was the last time you saw me playing with anyone who’s actually my age? Yes, you know composing is my other gig—but do you see how my peers brush me off almost instantly when someone recommends me as a useful resource?
This is a delicate post to write, because the dichotomy is difficult to illustrate without being accused of needless, unproductive complaining. Since returning to the desert, I’ve already been excoriated for pointing at harmful behavior and daring to request better. I’ve had experiences determined by my gender and sexuality reduced down and explained away as though my status as a composer by training was the critical element. But I’m quickly realizing this might be the beginning of the professional fight of my life: the constant balancing act of risk assessment versus actual acceptable treatment, of belittling and reducing versus actual invitations to participate in musics that have historically erased people like me from the narrative. And it’s a fight in which my male friends and colleagues are still (likely mostly unintentionally) exploiting the expectation that I will be the first to back down and apologize regardless of who’s actually done wrong. They continually lean on the idea that I will, eventually, decide smoothing things over and shouldering needless emotional labor is the path of least resistance.
On some level, they’re right. That is the easier path. It’s the one that promises far less direct pain, far more opportunities to advance, far more likelihood of following the select few career paths clearly laid out for us. However, it’s also the path that keeps me exactly where I already am—half on the outside, half on the inside. The idea is best summed up by Vilde Aaslid in Interaction, Collaboration, and Improvisation in the Intersection of Jazz and Poetry: “In this context, singers—and, by extension, women in jazz—are tolerated as a necessary way to expand the jazz audience, but not included in the insiders’ preferred construction of jazz.” Or, in other words, it’s fine if I’m around, as long as I don’t expect to have the artistic opportunities and musical success of my peers.
Many of the men in and around my life, peers and colleagues alike, will question my credibility in this regard, will assert that because these are things they have not seen, those things haven’t actually occurred. This gaslighting is pervasive both within our institutions and among mentors in the field, partly because academia is loath to accept experiences that aren’t clearly written out and peer-reviewed. Couple that with a noticeable dearth of marginalized musicians and academics, particularly at the university level, and you get entire communities whose actions and decisions tell us they don’t really give a shit about marginalized voices in jazz, even if they claim otherwise.
From time to time, I get complacent; I begin to accept that this is how things are—to the degree that I don’t always remember they could be different. It isn’t always externally obvious, especially since many of my blogs are prewritten weeks or months in advance, but I spend a nontrivial amount of time fighting the kind of burnout that comes not with overwork but with the weight of a forthcoming lifetime with no guarantee things will get better and not worse. This exhaustion sneaks up on me and can be extremely hard to kick; in this regard, I’m exceedingly fortunate that my partners and family are continually listening, sympathizing, and saying those all-important words: “that’s not right.”
If not for that support, I don’t know that I’d still be doing this. Because those things mentors and peers try to gaslight out of my narrative, those things they disbelieve because they haven’t seen anything catastrophic, are not single events. A lot of the time (though not all the time), there’s not one bad actor. These are products of hostile work environments and studio cultures that have been categorically designed, consciously or otherwise, to prioritize young, enterprising, white men at the expense of all those who don’t fit that mold. So today, I think what I’m asking is that you (yes, you, reader, hi) begin thinking beyond the things you yourself claim to espouse; examine the positions of power you hold and the institutions you work within and ask yourself if they’re upholding those values.
Because these are the things I think about in the wake of International Jazz Day.
Thanks for reading! If you learned something from this post and would like to tip me, head on over to my Ko-fi page. For more analysis and commentary like this in your life, come back every Saturday at 8pm MST. To support the long-term work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram.