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NPR’s Blog Supreme’s Treatment of Jazz’s Gender Inequalities

November 14, 2010 Leave a comment

A recent post on NPR’s Blog Supreme – their jazz blog – has a nice entry about being a woman in jazz.  Click here for the link.  Only one problem: except for bassist Ariane Cap all of the women are either vocalists, pianists or guitarists: all fairly traditional roles for women in jazz and popular music.  In the feature story on avant-garde guitarist Mary Halvorson and violinist Jessica Pavone in the Spring ’09 issue of Signal To Noise Halvorson took issue with the fact that she is still asked if she sings, as if all female guitarists sing.  For Halvorson this is a fairly common question by men when they learn she’s a guitarist, which shows there are still gender norms in regards to what kinds of roles in popular music are appropriate for men and women.  Unfortunately – and maybe I’m reading way too much into this – it’s possible that his well intentioned blog post by NPR furthers the stereotype that women sing, play the piano or guitar.  There are scores of extremely talented and successful women on the jazz scene today who play horns and drums, but if you check out the full list of those women that NPR surveyed they are almost overwhelmingly vocalists, pianists, guitarists and violinists.  There’s only a handful of horn players and drummers. 

Now don’t take this post to mean that I’m dumping on NPR, I’m not (mostly).  NPR could only interview who is out there, and it’s true that there are a lot of women pianists, vocalists and guitarists, which show that there are structural inequalities of biases in the way instruments are gendered, which go back well over a hundred years in American culture.  (Carol Neul-Bates’ anthology of primary sources Women In Music is a great example of this, and it’s a great teaching tool for my college students, many of whom think that gender bias and structural inequalities based on gender – and race for that matter – have largely disappeared.) 

I guess what I’m trying to get at, in what I’m thinking is a not very eloquent or clearly thought out way, is: What is the role of the jazz media in terms of dealing with the structural inequalities in jazz?  Should it try and select women musicians who are operating outside of the traditional female roles in jazz

check out how many of the women in this piece discuss the gender bias they’ve exprienced, especially in terms of how their sexuality is perceived if they’re a rhythm section player, how many women are still limited to traditionally female instruments, how straight ahead jazz is still primarily a “boys club”, etc, etc, etc, etc

in an attempt to show or create a new norm?  Or is it better, as this NPR piece does, to select a majority of women who operate, by way of their instrument(s) (the voice is an instrument too), inside traditional gender norms and have them point out the problems they face as successful women musicians?  This is a difficult question to answer, and I’m not sure what the right approach is.  Of course these possible approaches are not the only possible ways to go about changing, or at least exposing, jazz’s gender inequities, and they are not mutually exclusive.

Among it’s other benefits, one element of this piece stands out to me: as opposed to other “women in jazz” focused pieces or special issues that places like Downbeat or JazzTimes or other publications put out this piece goes way beyond only focusing on the handful of women who are prominent (Maria Schneider, Diana Krall, Regina Carter, etc – and if you’re lucky Myra Melford might show up).  There are many new voices in NPR’s piece, which is to be commended.  Perhaps just giving a voice to hundreds (if you want the full list of those interviewed go here) of women who for the most part are not heard from in other mainstream jazz outlets is a great start. 

And in lieu of trying to come up with a slick conclusion – which just isn’t gonna happen even though I’ve got plenty of coffee in my veins – I will just sign off until next time.

Two tasty nuggets from the NPR Jazz Website: Jason Moran and Craig Taborn

It took me a while, but since I finally discovered the wealth of free streaming and downloadable jazz on the NPR website I’ve been almost unable to stop mining their jazz and blues site for contemporary and forward thinking jazz.  They post live sets from the Village Vanguard, the Newport Jazz Festival and from other venues  (many of which can be downloaded for free), offer on-demand streaming of their jazz radio programming, such as Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz and Jazz Set with Dee Dee Bridgewater, and their jazz blog A Blog Supreme is updated often.  And for those like me with Catholic music tastes there’s a wealth of other sites that highlight other genres.  I’m particularly digging the live Bonnaroo set from Nas and Damian Marley.  The easiest way to keep up on the goings on at the NPR music website is to subscribe to their various email newsletters such as Jazz Notes or All Songs Considered, which can be found relatively easy on NPR’s different genre websites.

Today the Jazz Notes email, which graces my inbox every Sunday, hipped me to advance streaming of pianist Jason Moran’s newest trio album, Ten.  But you better jump on this soon, because it’s only available until the album drops on Tuesday the 22nd.  Go check it out here.  Moran is one of those guys I need to check out more, which I’m kind of embarrased to admit because he’s been a major force on the scene for a decade.  My first real exposure to him came about a year ago on Charles Lloyd’s 2008 album Rabo de Nube, which was arguably the best jazz record of 2008.  So I’m going to get as many listens to Moran’s new record as possible before the 22nd.  And then I’ll probably have to buy the record because I have a problem.

This morning’s other find^ was a live and free downloadable set from the Craig Taborn Quintet that was recently recorded at the Jazz Gallery.  Go check it here.  I’ve been hip to Taborn a lot longer than Moran, and I keep regretting my decision to sell his album Light Made Lighter a few years back (but hey I was broke and hungry, so what’s a record store clerk living in the city to do?).  His version of “I Cover the Waterfront” on that album is particularly tasty, so much so that I need to buy the album again; I hate when that happens.  But back to this set: it’s awesome (I know, a totally lame and non-descript adjective.  Would radical be any better?).  I’m mostly talking about “Untitled I” which after a quiet and pensive solo intro from Taborn gets into an increasingly complex and hypnotic section of counterpoint from the entire group, which features woodwind man Chris Speed (check out his work on Cuong Vu’s record Vutet) and trumpeter Jonathon Finlayson.  It kind of reminded me of some of Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music.  Emphasis on kind of.  Anyway, you need to check it out.

Ok, it’s time to get back to my morning coffee, the World Cup, and some cinamon (little spelling help?) chip bread from Lawrence’s super tasy Great Harvest Bakery.

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^Like you really care tangent #1: my dog Julian* had his legs crossed and was begging me to take him out because I kind of forgot about him, as I am easily distracted by just about anything – which my students and s.o. can easily attest to. 

*Completely pointless tangent #1: Julian is named after Cannonball Adderley.  Not because I wanted to name a pet after Cannonball, but because I was having a hard time finding names.  It turned out that my CD/LP shelves are great places to names without having to be creative.**  Considering I’ve got 1200 or so recordings the options seemingly endless.  Names that were immediately vetoed: Urbie, Alban, Hank, and Dean.  This method for finding pet names helps prevent naming tradgedies (sp?) like French Fry.  My apologies to my cousin.

**Completely irrevelent point #1: As my music is completely anally (not a word, I know) organized by artist last name and then if I multiple releases – say like my 20+ Miles albums – then it’s chronological by recording date.  Turns out if my music is slightly out of order, say Filles de Kilimanjaro happens to be shelved before Miles in Tokyo, I actually go into minor convulsions.  I know, I’m sick.

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