Gender & Jazz: Cape Town Public Debate Tuesday March 20

Two quotes from artists, both appearing at this year’s CTIJF:

“I’ve seen what that does to the audience, playing that groove. I love making the audience feel that way. Getting back to women: women love that. They don’t love a whole lot of soloing. When you hit that one groove and stay there, it’s like musical clitoris. You’re there, you stay on that groove, and the women’s eyes close and they start to sway, going into a trance.” – ROBERT GLASPER

“Music is action: the sound of bodies in motion. When we hear a rhythm, we imagine the act that gave rise to it. Some call it neural mirroring, or empathy. Music and dance are linked in this way: bodies listening to bodies. If music has ever moved you, then you already know.” – VIJAY IYER

And if – in the immortal words of Louis Armstrong – you have to ask why one of those statements (both discussing pretty much the same thing) is deeply misogynist and the other one isn’t, well “then you’ll never know”.

Glasper mis-spoke. He has apologised, and so has his enabler, columnist & musician Ethan Iverson.

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Lil Hardin Armstrong

There’s as monstrous a failure of imagination in his statement as in the demands of the irritating groove bunnies of all genders who interrupt sets, loudly demanding musicians play only what they can dance to. At least as outrageous is the implication that imaginative soloing can’t move bodies. The wise and wonderful Sydney Mnisi playing at last night’s Voice reunion (more about that at the end) demonstrated that you can take a reed line to the Sun Ra asteroid belt of outer space and back and still get an audience swaying.

Such failures of imagination characterise sexism. The creep who gets way too close while mentoring a woman musician; the bandleader who demeaningly asks a trained woman instrumentalist “What songs do you know?”, the carpet auditioneers, leering commenters and bum-pinchers (“Where’s your sense of humour, girlie?”) and the solo hogs who just never make space for their female co-players, all share an empathy deficiency severe enough to warrant confinement in an institution. (Vibist Sasha Berliner has told some of those stories vividly at http://www.sashaberlinermusic.com/political-and-social-commentary-1/2017/9/21/an-open-letter-to-ethan-iverson-and-the-rest-of-jazz-patriarchy )

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Melba Liston

But that’s not all we’ll be discussing at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival Public Debate next Tuesday 20 March at 1:30 in the Artscape Opera Bar.

The gendered blinkers we rarely talk about also determine who plays jazz, what instruments they play and how their playing and composition are classified and discussed, including in the media. (And, let’s not forget, these blinkers oppress everybody whose music doesn’t fit the gender mould, whether nonconforming cis people, members of the LGBTIQ community, or people who refuse all labels. )

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Dorothy Ashby

The labels determine how the history of the music and the literature about it are written. In this country, pioneering work by Lara Allen (summarised in her introduction to the first edition of Chris Ballantine’s Marabi Nights ) allowed us the first insights into the key role played by women in the development of precursor musics on the vaudeville stages.

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Valaida Snow

For the USA, Sherrie Tucker’s Swing Shift and other books, as well as documentaries such as Lady Be Good (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-phpjXJZ08s ) and The Girls in the Band (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-phpjXJZ08s) begin to tell the story.

You probably already know of Lil Hardin Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams and Melba Liston – shame on you if you don’t – but if you doubt the breadth of the history of women instrumentalists in jazz, listen to the early sounds of Leona May Smith, Dolly Jones or Valaida Snow (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2ffobYKq8o ) and the jazz harp of Dorothy Ashby (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8zPorum2p0&t=11s and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ojuz4XlxKmM ). If you think women have been absent from classical composition, check out Florence B Price (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=189GH0gUBd4 ) or the experimentalism of Julia Perry (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dK2TNTu3HB4 ). And, believe me, there’s more: much more.

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Julia Perry

It’s not accidental that these great but hardly known players and composers are women of colour, and not only because communities of colour were the wellsprings of the music. Exclusion and erasure are intersectional: they operate at the crossroads where race, gender, class and power intersect. That jazz studies ignores women is about power: who has it, who doesn’t, and how that plays out in the discourse of the field (see https://journals.cdrs.columbia.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2015/03/current.musicology.71-73.tucker.375-408.pdf ).

But whether your interest is the theory or the practice of the still-gendered world of jazz, come to Artscape next Tuesday 20 March at 13:30 and join in the debate.

Our panellists are performers, teachers and composers Nicky Schrire and Nomfundo Xaluva; Professor Nirvana Bechan who heads the Media Department of CPUT and, for the CTIJF Arts Journalism Programme, myself and writer Percy Mabandu. #We have voice. Let’s use it to make creative noise about these issues!

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The International Sweethearts of Rhythm

 

*******

It’s us, the listeners, who sometimes want bands and players to stay the same. Musicians themselves are forever growing, exploring, and taking new roads – and that’s a good thing. Last night at the Orbit, Voice reunited for a single, remarkable night. It was worth the ticket, and even the late start and the hour-long wait in a queue. (That tells you how popular the outfit were). It was clear, though, that this wasn’t going to be a night for nostalgiacs right from the moment Sydney Mnisi launched into his first solo on Scullery Department and invited John Coltrane and Archie Shepp into that back kitchen to chow with Kippie. Everybody brought all the journeys they’ve travelled in the last decade-plus back into the music; nobody sounds like their ten years younger selves any more. The playing was fierce, powerful and often hot with emotion, with jaw-dropping solos from Andile Yenana, Mnisi and Marcus Wyatt and calm, masterful drum work from Morabo Morejele holding the strong visions together. By the closer, Blues for Green (there were two encores after that, despite the midnight hour) Yenana had coaxed bassist Herbie Tsoaeli into one of those tight walking lines to recall midnight at another club, ten years ago. But the set also announced that if these players work together again – and the imagining was magical enough to make us hope they do – there will actually be no going back to those days and it’ll be another journey onward & outwards.

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