Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Women in Jazz, Gender in Jazz Journalism

Anat Cohen -- She doesn't just look good, she sounds great!
© Andrea Canter

Recently I was invited to participate in a blogging project about gender issues in jazz journalism. The perpetrator of this series of commentary is Willard Jenkins, writer/producer/consultant on a wide range of jazz-related projects who blogs via The Independent Ear on his Open Sky Jazz website. (Check it out, there’s always some great music playing.) Willard posed a number of questions about our experiences as women writing about jazz as well as our thoughts about gender issues in jazz more generally. It was an interesting set of questions and it will be more interesting to read the responses. (To date, Jenkins has posted two commentaries, mine and one from sometimes-Jazz Police reviewer Bridget Arnwine, who writes regularly for All About Jazz. See Independent Ear.)

As if it was planned, at the time these commentaries were posted on the Independent Ear, Jazz Times mailed out the September issue, dubbed “The Women’s Issue.” A lovely Jimmy Katz photo of clarinet star Anat Cohen fills the cover along with the names of Cassandra Wilson, Jenny Scheinman, Carmen Lundy, Cheryl Bentyne, Mary Halvorson and Nicole Mitchell—meaning there is some article or review about or by these artists. The Women’s Issue, just from the front cover, also includes a “special report” on the “death of smooth jazz” and a commentary from Nate Chinen on “The Kickstarter Revolution.” OK, these are not about women in jazz but no theme issue of JT is exclusively dedicated to the theme.

Fast rising star Tia Fuller
And it is great to see some of these artists getting attention. While of course Cohen and Wilson seem to be well represented in current jazz media, other women highlighted by JT are certainly among the many artists (of both genders) whose talents seem neglected or at least given too little recognition. JT Editor Evan Haga also addresses head-on the inevitable criticism he has received for publishing a “Women’s Issue”—noting comments such as “patronizing, pandering, no longer necessary.” He defends the decision to go with a gender-specific theme, noting that “the music is still largely a boy’s club, and I’m convinced that homing in on the contributions of jazz women—especially non-piano-laying instrumentalists—helps more than it hurts.” He goes on to reflect that complaints generated by this theme are really good signs of progress—“proof of progress not only in jazz as it exists on the bandstand but in jazz journalism as well.”

I applaud Haga and JT for addressing gender. But the special issue itself seems to contradict the notion that there has been substantial progress in jazz journalism. Haga even quotes trumpeter Laurie Frink, who more than 20 years ago told the New York Times that “Women have always been playing but the men haven’t written about it.”  So here is an issue of one of the major jazz magazines with a long list of men writing about women performers. The women, at least for the moment, caught their attention.

Avant-gardist Myra Melford
Where are the women journalists? A quick look through this issue of JT and it still looks like a boy’s club – a boy’s journalism club. The only woman represented in the photos is Deena Katz, collaborator with husband Jimmy on the Anat Cohen cover shot. In an issue devoted to women in jazz, was it really impossible to find one woman jazz writer to contribute? There is one female byline--flautist Nicole Mitchell's engaging back-page “Artists Choice” feature on “Women in the Avant-Garde.”  Artists’ Choice one of the most interesting ongoing features in the magazine, bringing one performer to talk about others. But it circumvents the concern about the limited number of women working in jazz (or generally arts) journalism.  Jazz Times has women contributors in its corral, not many, but some… and not one participated in this issue?

Yes, in some ways, it is progress for a major media outlet to highlight women in jazz, but then, every other issue can be dubbed “The Men’s Issue.” Maybe it is indeed patronizing and pandering – is that what it takes to level the gender playing field? What would happen if women were writing about the women – and men—who are making significant contributions to jazz? And what would happen if a Women's Issue was instead a Gender Issue-- with discussions about gender as it affects performing, bandleading, recording, teaching, reporting and criticism?

For now, apparently, we should be encouraged that the men are finally writing more about the women, at least once. One day, maybe a “Women’s Issue” will be substantially written by women. Or better yet, any magazine issue. It might give the boys a whole new slant on the music. 

Lauren Sevien breaking down gender barriers--playing a bari sax in Delfeayo Marsalis's band

 All photos by Andrea Canter