After I first stepped out to sing jazz songs in public at the tender age of twelve, I was greeted with applause and then, a day later, an obscene phone call. I can see that moment so clearly still, the excitement of my parents as they handed me the phone, thinking this was something important coming up, and my horror at what I heard when I did say hello. My brother, who had also been on stage with me, didn’t have to put up with this kind of crap.
It was a pivotal moment in my view of my future, as I could see our paths diverging and the bumpy road I had up ahead of me. Reading Lionel Shriver’s misinformed and utterly unhelpful article this morning, with her claims that “The matter of ‘too many’ men in jazz is especially perverse, since there’s little evidence that women have been actively discriminated against”, this image floods back into my brain, etched in there like everything Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was talking about during her statements on Kavanaugh’s drunken attack.
In the 1990s I got so fed up with people saying there are no women in jazz that I started a web page that was just a simple reply to that, a page full of links to the websites of women in jazz. Like, look, there are tons. Duh. My idea was that if there was a long, long list, people would have to give up and not assume, as Shriver does, that there simply are no women in jazz (disinterested shrug goes here) so why make a fuss? I kept the web page up for a long time, even as my url, www.jazzgrrls.com, was mimicked by a porn site, another kind of bashing on the head to please stay in my place and stop protesting. Or was it to say, oh, you’re looking for girls so here’s what you really want?
I took the page down eventually because I was overwhelmed by the neediness of the women there, the endless cds arriving in my mailbox, so many from the overlooked, underappreciated women trying to get a bit of visibility and they had mistakenly assumed I might be able to provide it. And I also ended up on the lists of promoters of anyone in jazz i.e. the men, and my inbox was inundated with requests for gigs, for recordings, for anything to help other people make money. Also, I didn’t always find that being female was enough to bond me to other women. We could be female, love jazz, perform jazz and still have wildly different views on everything. Never mind some other weird hairsplitting where singers are considered something lesser than instrumentalists. So whatever. I took down the page.
Nowadays I’m on the sidelines of the debate, working on my music from home, working on my own shit, learning new things to help achieve my musical goals my way. And I occasionally get drawn into a conversation with an older man in the jazz world who is puzzled, who doesn’t understand what this new movement towards equality means. Why isn’t it ok for him to make fun of chick singers anymore? Oh the times I have been berated as a chick singer when someone is mad at me for not letting them insult me some other way! Why isn’t it ok to indulge in a little flirting? Oh the endless attempts at flirting or worse I had to dodge as a student, all the gropey hands, all the patriarchal language, and how exactly did anyone think I was supposed to actually have the time and space to study and to learn something?
I look back on my journals now (yes, dudes, watch out, I wrote it all down!) and the hours I spent with my art teacher chasing me around a desk in his studio (how did I end up there?), or the math teacher driving me to god knows where in the dead of night, or the jazz musician chasing me in an elevator, asking how old I was over and over again (in case I was jailbait). But ok, whatever, you eventually figure out who to avoid, and you try to make a living as best you can, although, ah, maybe you don’t finish your degree because you can’t stomach the environment anymore, and then you head out to the pink collar ghetto only to discover the job market is also riddled with wandering hands.
I’m sorry, where was I? Have I lost focus? Can you focus when you are being hunted? Are you motivated when you sit on a jury for arts grants and realize only one 10% of the applicants are female and when you protest you are told, can you please tell the ladies to apply?
My brother put together a band with good gender balance recently, or maybe there were even more women than men on stage. When someone exclaimed, oh Reg, where did you discover all these lovely talented young women?!! he replied in his usual deadpan manner, it’s easy if you don’t ignore them. So yes, kudos to the men who support us. And kudos to those who are standing up the old tired privileged mentality that Lionel Shriver is immersed in.
As Drake says, you gotta be nice for what? Let’s not be nice. Let’s point fingers and let’s change stuff. The simple fact is that the world needs more music and it will only benefit everyone if more women are encouraged and making it. It’s a win/win. Stop worrying that the entitled men are going to lose something. They’ll be way fine. They’ve had their turn for a long, long time.