One Musician’s Thoughts on Exclusion in the Jazz World

One Musician’s Thoughts on Exclusion in the Jazz World

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Is the jazz community always so inclusive? Maybe not – as musician Karl Seigfried explains.

For a music that is fundamentally about making a joyful noise, jazz is full of silence – not silence between sounds, but between people. With a modern emphasis on identity politics, many members of the jazz scene promote their own particular social group; few involve themselves in the struggles of others. As a straight, male, German-American bassist obsessed with Norse mythology, I’m unable appreciate the obstacles faced by a gay, female, African-American saxophonist who practices Santeria…or can I?

In my jazz history class, I discuss how Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” expresses social and emotional life in the complicated mid-twentieth century. That Strayhorn was both gay and black made the lyrics - and the life - even more complicated. He said, “It’s a song most persons have to listen to twice before they understand it, and then lots of them don’t know what it’s about.” He was furious with performers like Nat Cole who made subtle word changes to, in effect, straighten out the lyrics.

On today’s jazz scene, not much has changed. After hours, when the audience is gone, the bartender is sweeping the floor, and the musicians are hanging out and gossiping, the orientation of this or that classic jazz musician sometimes comes up. Invariably, someone knows for certain that so-and-so was gay, and someone else is heatedly adamant that it couldn’t possibly be true. For both sides of this typical conversation, it’s clear that homosexuality somehow lessens the musician’s standing.

You might expect a more open discussion in education, given its focus on multiculturalism and diversity. In a conversation with jazz educators about topics for an interview series, my suggestions of “Jazz and Social Justice” and “Hispanic Perspectives in Jazz” met with general approval. However, when I mentioned “Homosexuality and Jazz,” one colleague was indignant. This was not something that should be discussed in a public forum.

Other voices are silenced by the jazz scene. The endless argument over cultural ownership and appropriation of jazz is often reduced to black and white. It ignores questions of ethnicity as complicated in jazz as in all facets of American life. Singer Keely Smith, who made some of jazz music’s most indelibly Italian-American recordings with Louis Prima. She was Cherokee and Irish, and not a bit Sicilian.

Bassist Oscar Pettiford was born to a Choctaw mother and a half-Cherokee father on the Okmulgee Indian Reservation. He insisted that the 4/4 swing beat came from Native American drumming. He was a creator of Bebop in the early 1940s with Clarke, Gillespie, Monk, and Parker, yet goes unmentioned in most histories. Illinois Jacquet was Sioux and Creole, and set the foundation for rock’n’roll saxophone in the same period; Ben Webster,however, gets the credit.

Women’s status in jazz is paradoxical. As vocalists, they are lauded, almost worshiped. As instrumentalists, they are critiqued and largely ignored. This duality affects how they see themselves. One performer told me she refused an invitation to join an all-female big band. She didn’t want people to think she couldn’t hang with the boys in a co-ed group.

Female instrumentalists respected by jazz scenesters exist, but the way they are represented underscores the problem. A female bassist was recently on the cover of every major jazz publication happens to be young, thin, beautiful, and a vocalist. When a middle-aged woman with the body-type of Charles Mingus and the drumming ability of Max Roach appears on as many glossy magazine covers, we’ll have made real progress. Jazz musicians and educators must choose between leading our society in a visionary way or merely reflecting its prejudices. We must stand up for true diversity - not merely advocate for whatever subcategory of humanity we happen to belong to, but take the repercussions for standing up for those we don’t. When we’re unsurprised to see African-Americans argue for the inclusion of Jewish perspectives and Puerto Ricans fight against negative portrayals of Asian-Americans, then we’ll have a scene fit for the 21st century.