Nice Work If We Can Get It: Women Writing On Jazz

An Open Letter, A Thank You Note, and Pulling the Card On Jazz Journalism and Gender Bias

I’ve never really been one to write rebuttals, or counter-statements to articles that have peaked my interests or plucked at my sensitivities. However, when I read music journalist Nate Chinen’s recent piece on the lack of women writing critically about jazz, I couldn’t resist the opportunity. Not to rebut, as he’s actually a strong proponent for women journalists, and a thoughtful querier of why there is such inadequacy in the field, but to offer my perspective in hopes of shedding some light on the matter. Characteristically, most of the responses to Chinen’s article, thus far have been from men, underscoring his point. The male response has been positive and in line with Chinen, agreeing that the lack of women jazz critics is not only fundamentally disturbing, but a disservice to the documentations and observations of jazz as a whole. I concur. I don’t suppose that I can diagnose the entire problem; it’s an intensely layered and webbed subject. But as a woman, a writer, and a jazz obsessor, I can certainly put my hand on a few maladies.

I got my first taste of working in the music business when I was about nineteen years old, and I knew immediately that I would never do anything else. I’ve always loved jazz, and I’ve always loved to write. Separately, these loves are relatively harmless, but put them together and I am suddenly playing a man’s sport. In fact, throughout my career, before writing became my main focus, once it became obvious to my colleagues and associates that, accompanied by my love for jazz, was a deep understanding of jazz, I went from being a novelty to a threat. Not only do I know “All the Things You Are”, but I can groove to Mehldau playing it in an odd time signature, and “Ooh and Aah” in all the right places over those ridiculous chord progressions in the vamp. Being Black added a complexity. Now they were utterly confused. How dare I know anything about my heritage? Nothing feels creepier than a huddle of White guys having musical orgasms over Mark Turner, and turning their noses up at me and my attempt to casually join the conversation. There is an odd love/hate dynamic when it comes to Black culture, and Black people. Somehow, in the eyes of some, they are different. The assumption? I’m not cultured enough to appreciate my own damn culture. But I digress, a little.

Unlike any other genre, jazz is described for better or worse, as an intellectual art form. And just like there are issues with accepting Black culture and Black people as synonymous, I think there are still stigmas that make it difficult for people to view women as critical thinkers in such a male-dominated art form. Much like the sports industry, where jokingly or not, the all too often assumed capacity of a woman’s understanding is that, “the green team is beating the yellow team,” and that “#42 sure knows how to fill out a pair of shorts”, I think the jazz police have summoned women to the microphone and the audience. Non-vocalist women jazz musicians have it hard enough, let alone someone who actually wants to critique the music.

But I find it that more women are writing about jazz in other contexts. Women like Michelle Mercer and Farah Jasmine Griffin are both compelling authors, who write about jazz. Analytical, probing, and thought-provoking? Yes. However, critical? Not as much. The “bully pulpit” that Chinen passionately encourages women to stand behind is likely less appealing to women. It is for me. I think the reason many musicians don’t like jazz critics is not because they may have received a less than glowing review from one, but because of the presumptuous, unwarrantedly authoritative opinions, which I find are often riddled with reflections of their own personal insecurities. This is not to lump all critics in a jerk pile. There are no anomalies in life, and certainly none in this conversation. Like Chinen, and John Murph, and some others, there are journalists who are informed, respectful, and tactful.  Yet, we have not gotten away from the historically hyper-judgmental jazz critic model. This may be another reason women are slim pickings in this profession. To begin, motivationally, I don’t think many women are coming from this seemingly bitter standpoint. I think women are quicker to ponder than they are to pummel, and unfortunately jazz critics have created that sort of bad rap which women may find to be a bit of a turnoff.

I find myself in the middle of these two styles.  I’m not a critic by any means, but I am pretty fearless when it comes to writing about uncomfortable yet imperative subjects within jazz, which is motivated by my own experiences coming up in this industry, and the glaring issues within it that get talked about behind the scenes but rarely on a public platform.  Writing about these topics is healing, for one.  But beyond my own edifying gratification, the real benefit is when folks are willing to have an honest dialogue, which can be tough.  But that’s when there is growth.  If the music has to grow, then surely we have to.  Jazz journalists cannot stay in a bubble.  And just like the modern jazz musicians of today can’t (and should not be expected to) compete with their deceased predecessors, some journalists have to move on from the fact that they may have interviewed some of them.  It doesn’t give their work any more credence, especially when they think those fortunate experiences equal a right to be imperious and egotistical.

In his article, Chinen sites trumpeter Nicholas Payton as one of the notable musicians who hires and collaborates with a significant number of women (for his big band) without patronizingly doing so.  Chinen follows up this point with the question, “Have we seen a well-considered review of Payton recently from a female jazz critic?”

Ironically, I’d say, “Yeah, from me!”  Well, it’s not a review per se, but it’s a gutsy ass piece, nonetheless.  And at the end of the day, that’s what Chinen is really calling for…(right Nate?)  Although critics, by very nature of the definition, don’t exactly evoke warm and fuzzy thoughts, they don’t have to make us cringe. Criticism, when done right, should actually inspire, inform and intrigue.  It doesn’t have to be wrapped in a big, pink bow…the idea is not to love everything, of course.  But taking the time to seek out the interesting aspects to write about is what separates a critic from a jerk.  (For example, don’t slam someone because you don’t know what else to do!  Trust me, I’ve seen it).  Simply put, let’s do an overhaul of what it means to be a critic by finding inspiration in the really good ones, and I’ll bet we’ll see more women.  And that would be great.

Thanks, Mr. Chinen, for inspiring me to think about this subject a little harder.

This is a blog post, and not a study.  I kindly ask that you not assume that I am making any sweeping judgments about any one group (women, men, critics, Black folks, White folks, etc.)  I am not.  I welcome your feedback.

25 responses to “Nice Work If We Can Get It: Women Writing On Jazz

  1. i love that you digressed–but only a little 🙂 keep pondering and pummeling in equal parts. i love your style. i’m not a student of jazz in any sense but your focused fearlessness is inspiring and can be applied in any setting. i’m staying tuned!

    • Thank you! For the comment and the encouragement! I promise that I will! Appreciate your thoughtfulness…you’re right, most things in life are applicable in more than one area. Thanks again!

  2. Thanks a lot Angelika! This was essential reading to me. Very inspiring and encouraging. This article definitely helped to put things into perspective for me 🙂 I’m staying tuned too.

    • I’m always grateful for your support and encouragement, Rob! Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart! Yeah…I was really inspired to speak on that matter. Really glad Nate decided to spark the conversation. Peace and blessings, Rob =)

  3. Oh Angelika,

    What a special person you are. I’ve told you this before, but I just really think there is a space for you in the Academy. I won’t be able to make it but the The Department of English & Comparative Literature and The Center for Jazz Studies will hold a graduate symposium entitled: Producing Race: Technology and the African Diaspora at Columbia University on Friday October 28. Please drop by if you can.

    Two doctoral students screamed at me when I began to talk about jazz and what I was doing and encouraged me to apply for the Ph. D in this area.

    The keynotes at this symposium include:
    Brent Hayes Edwards, Department of English & Comparative Literature, Columbia University

    Fred Moten, English Department, Duke University

    Alondra Nelson, Department of Sociology and Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Columbia University

    Students were invited to write on a number of topics, one of those topics was Music, Soundscapes and Social noise. Your work engages jazz in the realm of these three ideas, and probably so much more. I could really see you becoming like the Tricia Rose of Jazz. You are mining, expanding and complicating a perspective of jazz in a way that I don’t think has been done before. Your gift of writing about jazz in an interdisciplinary way, your gift of cultural criticism, and your gift of archiving is wonderful.

    It is one of my quests as well. In a doctoral program, I could really see you teaching, getting funding, traveling, embarking upon amazing research and writing books. You are a unique scholar and some university would jump at the chance to have you as a doctoral student. Of course it will be challenging, but in the end it will give you a larger platform to shape and influence the world of jazz.

    NYU has a great Performance Studies program and they have a lot of scholars on faculty that I think you would dig.

    I understand the pain of being a woman in jazz. I’m not as immersed in this area as you are, however, I know it is very heteromasculine.You have to be tough and a tad anal to fit in.

    Anyway, I’m so excited about you!

    • Hi Kaye,

      I would like to respond to this offline…well, online, but in another forum, LOL.

      Would you mind sending me your email address? I can address this wonderful note there.

      Best,
      Angelika

    • Yes! This is amazing. I feel like every time I read it, something else jumps out at me. It’s all so profound, and I find myself thinking about some of these ideals throughout my day. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. Hi,

    One of the problems that I had with jazz are the same obstacles that African American males who desire to become scholars and female rappers have. When playing in jazz groups in high school and college, there were very few African American female jazz pianists that I had exposure to. Well, let me think…there were actually no African American female jazz pianists that I had exposure to.

    Mentors of the same race and gender, in any field, visually encourage and that is equally as powerful as verbal encouragement.

    Some jazz male musicians are very cocky, and carry strong ideas about traditional gender roles, even though they may try not to. So you really have to come in proving that you’re not some type of groupie. It’s funny b/c the meaner and more critical that I am, the more I’m respected.

    I’m so interested in learning how Geri Allen developed her chops within this space.

    Okay, I’m done.lol.

    • I love this…

      It’s so true. I think at first glance, there are preconceptions about where someone like you or I are coming from, but once the time is taking to really think about it, I think it starts to resonate. It’s true. You know, someone once said to me “Black folks are voting for Obama because they’re Black and he’s Black.” While I had to tell that person that Black people are actually understand politics and policies and have every capability to make informed political decisions (I doubt Black people will be running to the polls to vote for Cain, should he get the GOP spot), the other side of the coin is that, “Yes, that’s part of it also. And???” To your point about female jazz pianists, we do need to see a reflection of ourselves in, especially, positions of power or creative inspiration. Not only in our formative years, but I think throughout our lives. And there’s actually nothing wrong with that. Similar situations in jazz.

      I know what you mean about critical/mean = respect.

      Funny, I’m actually hoping to interview Allen. She released a new Christmas album last week, and I’d LOVE to talk to her about her projects, and some of these subjects as well. That would be incredible. I’m working on it!

      Kaye, thank you, I really enjoy reading your perspectives, and I am truly thankful, and appreciative of your support and kindness.

  5. Thanks for your response! Amen!

    Your work is amazing and I’m so excited and inspired. I have been guilty of buying into patriarchy and it’s ways. We want to see the jazz female artist that is “better than the guys.” So I’ve found myself overlycritical of jazz artists, thus overlycritical of myself. I wonder if Allen ever felt this way? Feeling the need to play like a man? Whatever that means? But at the same time, we know what that means. Jazz can be such a skill showy, competitive sport-like art form.

    Excited about your work. I’m learning to do close readings of works. I listen, write 100 things that I notice about a piece, study about the artists, and try to see what the piece may be saying politically.

    As it relates to your newest post, I dug Glasper’s Enoch’s Meditation for WGBO. A very important moment in jazz history. He puts the piece in conversation with theology, civil rights, race, and politics and American history and I don’t even know how intentional this was. Maybe it was very intentional? But maybe not so much? But this is where we help jazz right? Enoch was translated into heaven by God, he transcended the wickedness of humanity. Glasper’s insertion of the speeches of Obama and King amazingly intertwines jazz, theology, and prophecy. Enoch is within the lineage of Abraham and Noah, biblical men whose life’s work included proclaiming God’s righteousness to communities who had lost their way—they were righteous leaders. King and Obama both transcended the problem of racism/oppression and Glasper documents this…in a hoodie..lol. But there is so much that could be read into that as well. Glasper’s clothes representing a type of political resistance within our generation.

    Many of these jazz artists start in the church and the Spirit seems to stay with their music.

    People feel what is done through the music, they “get it” but can’t fully articulate it.
    A very important piece.

    Okay, I will shut up now…lol.

  6. Pingback: Around The Jazz Internet: Oct. 21, 2011 | Jazz Forum

  7. Thank you so much Angelika for writing this very insightful blog post and for bringing Nate’s blog about female music critics to my attention. I, too am an aspiring music critic and fellow jazz lover.

    I’m glad I came across your blog and was able to learn more about your work as a jazz writer. Most of my guidance and mentoring in terms of jazz has come from men, so it’s very refreshing to see a young, African American female within the jazz journalism circle who is very passionate about this music.

    I look forward to reading more of your work and hopefully we will cross paths one day.

    • You’re welcome…
      Thank you, Veronica. I appreciate your comment. I’m glad that the discussion is taking place.
      Best of luck to you, and I’m glad to be a source of encouragement. Thank you for the support, and yes, hopefully we’ll cross paths one day.
      Angelika

  8. Hi Angelika, nice to read your thoughts. As president of the Jazz Journalists Association, I invite you to look into joining — your voice and participation would be a boon. http://www.JJANews.org gives you a glimpse of what we’ve been up to, but getting younger and more diverse in every way people using any and all media to cover any and all jazz is an important goal. This invitation extends to your blog’s readers, too. Michelle Mercer, who you reference, has been a member, Farah has participated in some of our programs, and a member doesn’t have to be critic in the sense you rightly question. Hope to hear from you — Howard Mandel

    • Hi Howard,

      Thank you very much for the compliment.
      I had the honor of Michelle writing me about a piece I did some time ago, and I think she mentioned (or I found out on my own, can’t remember) that she was involved with JJA, which is fantastic. I love Farah also. I will certainly look into joining, I’m glad you reached out. I had a couple questions about membership, if you don’t mind, I’ll send you an email along these lines…

      Best,
      Angelika

  9. Hi!

    My email address is… spiritmovers2004@yahoo.com. Looking forward to your thoughts… I was inspired by taking a class with the author of your uncle’s biography. R.Kelley (the other R. Kelley…lol. ) He made us work. We had to listen to music, watch documentaries on Mingus, Abbey Lincoln, etc. Hands down, you’re more advanced than some of the students b/c of your background….Anyway, we’ll talk.

    Thanks,
    K

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