[10 December 2008]
Jazz is not only a pastime of good fun and musical renaissance. It also marks a time of struggle for musicians, especially for women of color. They were abruptly pegged into “best supporting actor” roles in regards to the musical stage. As a result, their performances were often undocumented. However, when they were written up, publications belittled them to nothing more than fragile characters alongside their strong, male counterparts.
Women’s history and feminist theory have just recently been integrated into survey courses on music history at certain schools. This will help ensure that the knowledge of women’s representation is standard and not supplementary as once portrayed.
Big Ears, which is part of the Refiguring American Music series, goes to great lengths in the description of how women in general faced an uphill battle in receiving the spotlight and the accolades they deserved. It also digs into the core of jazz’s gender roots, when singing and piano-playing were considered feminine. So it is that men also faced gender discrimination when taking to the stage on a piano or for vocals.
Today, when comparing these antiquated views to current jazz and modern music, the gender lines seem more blurred. Artists are appreciated now more for their versatility in instrument-playing and vocal abilities.
One of the opening chapters focuses on an interesting pair of women who shared camaraderie and circled the same groups. Lovie Austin (born Cora Calhoun) and Lillian Hardin are illustrated almost as twin sisters separated at birth. A more outstanding commonality is that both have been largely omitted from jazz history. Both pianists became active circa 1923 and performed with a variety of acts well into the late ‘20s.
Differences between the two are highlighted, as well. Hardin not only played supportive roles, but embraced them. Hardin supported her husband Louis Armstrong early on in his career by feeding him encouragement when his confidence was absent and working hard to achieve publicity for him.
Whereas Austin was more of “one of the guys” in the sense that she was more often than not sitting in the conductor’s pit with a group of men, smoking a cigarette. The imagery of Lovie created here is rough, but no matter her “manly qualities”, she and Hardin were often excluded from the fraternity. This led to the lack of their solo records and piano rolls during the 1920s. Thus, the appealing aspect of their talent was faded by their comedienne, secondary roles to the great male soloists of the period.
The book alludes to the assumption that blacks expressed their true feelings, hopes and aspirations in song. Once these black men gained access to instruments, they abandoned their voice. Male voice in musical history has been linked to setting the male apart as a man whose words were most important [over the woman’s]. So it was the women that did most of the singing in elaborate repertoire.
During the 1890s, the piano became the male performer’s main instrument. Leaving the blues, men had moved to the more masculine ragtime, where instruments (e.g., rise of tools, technology) played a bigger role in performance. Nevertheless, gender was still an issue as many early ragtime and jazz pianists of the time were openly homosexual (such as Tony Jackson). Efforts still existed to “de-gender” the piano. One of the outcomes of these labors were “cutting contests” where pianists competed to outplay one another. This helped to create a “masculine aura” around the piano, which was once considered a “feminine” instrument.
Jazz pianist George Russell was at the cusp of this spectrum between masculinity and femininity. He often confused critics with his finesse, language and intellectuality, In all aspects he did not fit the preconceived notions of the typical black jazzman. Russell further understood the need to exhibit the mastery of jazz and to retain music as a spiritual outlet. Nonetheless he had a difficult relationship with critics due to the fact that he didn’t want to be pigeonholed into the politics and racial agendas of the time. Still, during this musical prime of the ‘50s, reviews often illustrated cartoonish images of black, jazz musicians in raffia skirts.
By the beginning of 1941, 80 percent of male dance musicians had registered with the National Service or had been called to duty for World War II. At this time the BBC fashioned various singers billed as “radio girl friends” for men in the armed forces. This soldier morale-building project opened up opportunities for women bands, such as Ivy Benson and her Ladies’ Dance Orchestra. No matter their talent, Ivy Benson and her girls had to establish themselves through live performance before they could enter radio. Sexiness was not the key to getting in, but talent—and Benson knew this. Yet Ivy always had to negotiate between her masculine-dominated profession as a band leader and the expected femininity of her gender. Researchers say that this is why she served as a band leader and stellar performer.
When Benson and her girls finally made it onto the radio, a published musical review coyly asked Ivy to come clean with the names of the men she’d used to solidify the band. Other critics inquired as to why Benson made the sex of her band public, saying there was no way of knowing they were women. This kind of response only continued and ultimately served as a derogatory slam at the band. Male bands of the time, on the other hand, did not undergo such scrutiny from the public.
There were some ethnic and cultural avenues that could have been explored more in the text. Among the book’s contributing writers, only Ingrid Monson, “Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music” at Harvard, touched on Latin jazz performers such as Juancito Torres, Eddie Palmieri, Johnny Pacheco and Gran Combo. She also goes into the dark and light-skin factor of being black, Latino and white. Appropriately, Monson questions whether such classifications explain the economic and sociological differences among ethnicity, blackness, class, and gender.
By and large, despite the adversities faced, women always found a way to create an outlet for themselves in arenas that were usually saved for men. They certainly paid their dues and in the process fought off sexism and racism. As a final charge of sorts, Big Ears calls for researchers to challenge jazz history as we know it and continue to discover some overlooked, talented company.