Tackling the Gender Divide

Tackling the Gender Divide

by Lara Pellegrinelli
copyright © 2001 Lara Pellegrinelli

I was asked to contribute the following guest editorial to JazzTimes as a result of an earlier piece I had written for the Village Voice, "Dig Boy Dig: Jazz at Lincoln Center Breaks New Ground, But Where Are the Women?" The jazz community has come a long way in recent years to conquer racial tensions within our music, yet gender issues still loom largely unrecognized and unattended. At a time when increasing focus has been placed on Jazz at Lincoln Center -- between the construction of their new performance center, their collaboration with Juilliard for a new jazz performance program, and Wynton Marsalis's high-profile contributions to the Ken Burns series, Jazz -- that organization, in particular, needs to be held accountable for its behavior and actions. If we cannot hold our institutions to higher standards, then we have little hope of changing the attitudes entrenched at other levels of our community.

I would also say that jazz journalists do hold a great deal of power over which musicians are represented in the media and how they are seen by the general public. I urge you to make a conscious effort to include women in your writing, to help promote an atmosphere of inclusion. But this is not all. I have read so many articles highlighting a few female talents as exceptions to the norm, pioneers fighting their way into the boys' club. Others still debate which women possess the requisite talent. Writers have taken these stances for over 40 years and they are tired. They only serve to reinforce stereotypes. I would instead ask you to devote your efforts to exposing the roots of women's exclusion or celebrating the music itself. To question women's capacity to participate fully in this music is to ignore the harsh realities they have faced from their earliest involvement with jazz. They are out there, if less visible than their male counterparts.

I Guess I Would Notice, But That Doesn't Mean You Shouldn't

by Lara Pellegrinelli

On the evening of November 7, an Election Day that will live in infamy, I only left my TV briefly: to walk from my apartment to Cooper Square and pick up the new edition of the Village Voice. The paper included a feature I had written titled "Dig Boy Dig: Jazz at Lincoln Center Breaks New Ground, But Where Are the Women?" The article sought to challenge hiring practices of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, ones that, I asserted, were at least partially responsible for the absence of female instrumentalists on the bandstand.

Several months earlier, I had begun considering why women in jazz have such marginal success, particularly in big bands. Was competency the central issue? Some musicians claimed so, while others said it resulted from discrimination - the difference of opinion not falling strictly along male/female lines. Surely, at least a handful of current women players possessed the requisite talent, if they had yet to be widely acknowledged: Laurie Frink, Virginia Mayhew, Roberta Piket, Nicki Parrott, and Allison Miller to name a few. But awareness of women's contributions was minimal, even within the jazz community. To some, the issue lacked relevance, one less-enlightened label exec admitting, "I never even thought about it. But, I guess you would notice."

Without getting mired in old arguments, I examined how musicians get work and conditions that might deny women access, the way classical orchestras conquered the gender divide. As is typical in jazz, all hiring for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra takes place by word-of-mouth, without auditions or announcement of openings. Bandleader Wynton Marsalis holds autonomous decision-making power. These circumstances allow cronyism -- insider networks typically excluding women -- rather than merit to dictate opportunities. During our interview for the Village Voice article, Marsalis and Executive Producer and Director Rob Gibson refused to consider more inclusive, democratic approaches such as open auditions and dismissed obligations stipulated by their public funding to do so. Jazz at Lincoln Center holds grants from the NEA, New York State Council for the Arts, and various city offices.

Asked about the lack of female role models for those programs, Marsalis failed to see their importance. "Whether you see somebody who looks like you or not, it's not going to make a difference," he said. In its ten year history, J@LC has never employed a woman saxophonist, trumpeter, trombonist, bassist, or drummer. The orchestra has never had a female member.

Seated back at the TV with my paper, I anxiously expected -- like most Americans -- news of the election's outcome. Conversely, I figured hope for immediate change at Lincoln Center was unrealistic. I was mistaken on both counts.

A rally, albeit rather last minute and haphazard, took place November 13 outside the Lincoln Center benefit gala; 20 police officers quite amply monitored the 15 protesters. Over 100 e-mails poured in, one of the most touching from former Sweethearts of Rhythm member Roz Cron, relating how "nobody spoke up for [them] for decades upon decades." Another, from Jane Ira Bloom, recalled how she had been blocked from performing at J@LC and that the piece "fired up [her] interest again." Congratulatory messages also came from fellow writers, scholars, photographers, and others throughout the industry, male and female. While the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, International Association of Jazz Educators' Sisters in Jazz, and International Women in Jazz have fostered a growing sense of community among musicians, these responses have shown me how beneficial a support system across jazz could be for women.

Because the same chauvinistic attitudes faced by female musicians circulate at every level of the jazz world, we all need to advocate for each other. J@LC served me a personal reminder of this. As I waited to interview Marsalis and Gibson, Stanley Crouch appeared in the reception area with a female colleague. They spoke -- in not so hushed tones -- about my assignment and how the issue would blow over, as others had in the past. Apparently, it never occurred to either of them that I (young/white/female) could be the assigned writer.

Oddly, during the same week that saw resolution of the presidency, J@LC had an unforeseen turnover in its administration. Gibson unexpectedly announced his resignation December 15. His reasons, briefly articulated, stated he "would like to flex his artistic and managerial talents in new directions." This news came midway through a $115 million fundraising campaign for the new Columbus Circle complex paired with other internal promotions. Laura Johnson, director of education, has assumed "most of Gibson's duties" in a newly created position as general manager of J@LC.

Whatever the full story behind Gibson's departure, it represents a victory for the greater jazz community. Under his leadership, J@LC had already weathered charges of nepotism, reverse racism, and age discrimination. In 1993, Gibson effectively dismissed orchestra members over 30, a decision he rescinded under threat of legal action. Labor issues extended to his dealings with union, creating a contentious relationship with AFM Local 802. With "Dig Boy Dig" sight unseen, Gibson sent me bullying e-mail, calling my work "misguided" and "misinformed." He never responded to the article in print.

It remains to be seen when the LCJO will have its first female member, but renewed hope comes with the change in leadership, perhaps one that will live up to J@LC's golden image. My suggestion that men and women have equal employment opportunities should hardly qualify as a radical statement in the 21st Century, yet it remains an important one. If "Dig Boy Dig" has achieved nothing else, I hope it has effectively illustrated how much work remains to be done within jazz as compared to the world at large. Its time that we challenge our assumptions and make jazz the democratic music it professes to be.

"Dig Boy Dig" is available online at www.villagevoice.com/issues/0045/pellegrinelli.shtml.

["I Guess I Would Notice. But That Doesn't Mean You Shouldn't" originally appeared in the March 2001 issue of JazzTimes and is reprinted here with the permission of that publication. -- Editor]

C o m m e n t s

Campaign has officially launched to Protest Gender Discrimination by J@LCO 1 of 1
joey brite
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May 06, 14

Fourteen years after Lara Pellegrinelli's article and it's still just as bad: San Francisco Musicians Protest Gender Discrimination by Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra http://youtu.be/vFZ5JCZkuZ8 #Jazz #EqualAccess

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