Arts and Entertainment

Who Gets to Be a Jazz Musician?

Katie Van Note, Staff Writer avatars-000198483310-5qbcx4-t500x500

What does a stereotypical American jazz musician look like? This is the question Naomi Moon Siegel asked that prompted conversation in Jeffrey Chapell’s jazz ensemble class last Tuesday, February 21st. Siegel is a composer, trombonist, and educator who visited Goucher College to present a workshop titled “Gender Equality and The Feminine Principle in Jazz.”

Siegel received her bachelors degree in jazz trombone from the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. It was through her training that she realized conversations about patriarchy, sexuality, race, and gender – very much present among students in the liberal arts college – were not present in the conservatory. The majority of her teachers and fellow students were white males. In her music history classes, she learned about men. All of the books she read were written by men. If there was ever a section in a textbook on female musicians, it was given a special label, “Women in Jazz.” Yet, as Naomi stated last Tuesday, “women have always played jazz as instrumentalists.”

 

So, who is a typical jazz musician in America? Who is given space to sing, play the piano, guitar, drums, flute, clarinet, trumpet, or saxophone? This is where the conversation started at Goucher.

Eight of the attending jazz student musicians were given the task to identify stereotypes of various races and genders in jazz. Siegel asked, “What images and messages does the society receive at large about these groups of people in jazz?” Students identified these stereotypes about men: “they are white, instrumentalists, intelligent, they have an expected level of know-how, they are cool cats, aloof, elitist, middle-class, most able, and most visible.” One Goucher musician added, “they can afford gigging around,” as yet another symptom of privilege and class.

Stereotypes of women in jazz included “non-instrumentalists, sometimes pianists, sex objects, vocalists, wives, and non-composers.” It is important to note that female instrumentalists, such as Lil Hardin Armstrong and Alice Coltrane, both jazz pianists in their own right, were known for their marriages to their jazz musician husbands. Within the first two sentences of their descriptions on Wikipedia, they are mentioned as wives to John Coltrane and Louis Armstrong, whereas both men are described on Wikipedia by musical style and accomplishments with no mention of marital details. This begs the question – would these female musicians have been documented and remembered in jazz history if they hadn’t married male musicians?

Students also offered stereotypes of African Americans in jazz as “natural, the best jazz musicians, best sense of rhythm, and the originators.” Furthermore, stereotypes were discussed of Asian Americans as “classically trained piano players, can’t swing, and non-existent in jazz,” while Native Americans, Arab-Americans, Latino-Americans, were all labeled as “non-existent in jazz” as well. Siegel noted that greater intersectionality between sexuality, gender identity, and cultural backgrounds were not mentioned either, as they further separated a person from the “norm” in jazz.

Yet, how have these stereotypes developed over the hundred or so years of American jazz history? Siegel identified the creation and distribution of magazines in the 1920s as a major cause – propaganda that sexualized women vocalists and prioritized white bands.

In her lecture, Siegel explained her own internalized stereotype as “socialized to believe that females are inferior jazz instrumentalists.” She gave examples by quoting her fellow female jazz musicians, Esperanza Spalding and Kate Olsen: “I’m just a jazz musician,” and “I’m just one of the guys.” In reflection, Siegel pointed to the implicit meaning behind their quotes: denial of the patriarchy “as if somehow it doesn’t exist.”

One female vocalist in the audience told an account of her own experience: “My mom has always said she sees me lying on a piano in a slinky red dress singing jazz.”

As individuals in the jazz arena, Siegel noted the importance of “telling counter-narratives.” These counter-narratives serve as challenges to the perpetual stereotypes marginalized groups face in jazz. She emphasized the development of an individual voice and sound. “My goal is for us to be fully expressive.Only in defining and challenging these stereotypes can we begin to discover our potential as musicians.”

In creating a space for dialogue of this kind, Siegel left some students with another perspective, some with a validation of experience as female and black musicians, and some with inspiration to challenge the concept of a stereotypical jazz musician.

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