Michelle Obama refutes jazz as boys’ club

There are “powerful reasons . . .we ought to consider” for why musicians and listeners “tend to be a brotherhood,” according to a self-described “middle-aged white male swing-to-bopper.” He’s identifying, not justifying . . .Then the First Lady upsets the paradigm. She brings her daughters to the gig.

I’ve got pressing deadlines, but luckily several lengthy, thoughtful responses to recent blog postings, so here’s one of a series by correspondents of Jazz Beyond JazzPaul Lindemeyer ia a multi-talented reeds musician/big band leader/author of Celebrating the Saxophone, Hearst Books, 1996, and offers thoughts on the ever-popular topic of what women want  from jazz, in public dialog that was begun on this blog not long ago.  His views do not necessarily represent my own, and I wonder if they’re supported by the experience of Michelle Obama, whose personal testamony to the meaning of jazz in her own life since childhood visits to the jazz-overflowing home of her maternal grandad called “Southside” brought happy tears to my eyes.

 First Lady first; Mr. Lindemeyer therafter: 

Paul Lindemeyer:

There are, IMO, several reasons why jazz musicians and listeners tend
to be a brotherhood and not a “peoplehood.” They’re not necessarily
“good” or defensible reasons, but they’re powerful reasons, and we
ought to consider them. 

Jazz is music, of course. Music – traditionally – is a single-minded
art that dominates your life, whether you’re a player or a listener.
Indeed, that has become a kind of code for seriousness, and with it,
excellence. And pardon the rank generalization, but single-mindedness
is men’s work much more often than it is women’s. 

What are the most important values of jazz? Again, I’m going to
generalize here. (I’m a middle-aged White male swing-to-bopper; it’s
what my people do.) I’d say 1. expressiveness, 2. individuality, and 3.
that combination of proficiency and assertiveness we call “prowess.” 

Besides 2 and 3 being male-coded values that we mostly don’t encourage
in women artists, there is an underlying every-man (yes I said
MAN)-for-himself competitiveness that has become a given in musical
achievements as well as in just getting gigs. Cutting contests are with
us in spirit, even if they don’t happen as such anymore. Status and
ranking are real, and they’re mostly unquestioned. 

Obviously not the helping, communitarian ethic that’s promoted as
“essentially feminine” (which disses the ethic and those who live it,
with predictable results). And the core fanship doesn’t help; it’s
overwhelmingly male, and consumed with hobbyist obsessions which are
just as isolating.

Speaking of status, jazz itself is precarious in status – not
commercial music, not art music. This may, at least in the music’s
money centers like NYC, be permanent, and indeed, some feel that kind
of hunger keeps the music fresh. But that too discourages a helping,
cooperative ethic. 

Jazz communities, societies, and venues are loose, fractious, and short
money not just because we’re all such friggn’ individuals, but because
their place in the arts culture of North America gives them no choice.
Add back the single-minded ethic of the artist and you get music that
is generations more enlightened than the community it comes from. 

There are, in recent years, a lot of not-so-subtle hints from the
cultured classes that jazz has lost its cool; that it is growing
insular and irrelevant; that it no longer has much to say about – or
even to – the world it lives in. Mostly, jazz itself does not give a
damn. It ought to, and considering itself in light of cultural codes
and values besides the good old Black and White would be a good

Isn’t Mrs. Obama sending a straight-out message that jazz is back — enjoyable, relevant, hip, not Black and White but American multi-culti? Is the “helping, communitarian ethic” that might be as characteristic of jazz as it is of Barack Obama’s overall governing approach read as essentially feminine or has jazz turned it macho? Could powerful women such as Michelle and cool cats like Barack lead the populace back to jazz? The First Lady is celebrated in “Honoring Grace: Michelle Obama a jazz composition by renown Chicago flutist Nicole Mitchell, a commission co-sponsored by The Boeing Company to be premiered at the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s 7th annual gala on Tuesday, September 1. Will women come out in force to hear it? 

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  1. Andrea Wolper says

    Mr. Lindemeyer makes some compelling points, and he makes them sensitively and respectfully. I think we can take a closer look, though, at his assertion that the “three most important jazz values,” which he identifies as expressiveness, individualism, and demonstration of prowess, lead more naturally to male participation in jazz. First, I’m very surprised by the absence of communal music-making in his list of the most important values. If we add community or communality to his list, the balance shifts: now we have two values (community and expressiveness) we might call (to use his term) “female-coded,” and two (individualism and demonstration of prowess) that might be considered “male-coded.”
    But I’d venture to say that individualism — the development and expression of individual voice, the appreciation and encouragement of originality — has lost considerable currency in jazz. If we go along with my assertion for a moment, and we remove individuality from Mr. Lindemeyer’s list of values, we’re left with two “feminine” values, and only one “masculine” value.
    How, then, do we explain the current state of affairs: fewer women players, fewer women in the audience? First, let’s question the idea that certain human qualities (expressiveness, creativity, individualism, etc.) are gendered, are more inherently male or female. Let’s face it, there’s an awful lot we don’t know about the difference between sex and gender, about what’s innately male or female.
    But maybe all that’s irrelevant anyway, or maybe it’s only part of the story, and we have to turn to old-fashioned sexism (and its good pal, homophobia), for answers. Can we look at the history and development of jazz without looking at racism? I don’t think we can; I don’t think anybody thinks we can. But, then, we really shouldn’t leave out sexism, either, especially if we’re asking why there aren’t as many women in jazz as there are men. We also have to look at the ways and places that racism and sexism have intersected, in the early days and through the decades. None of this — the development and evolution of the music, or who plays it or listens to it — occurs in a vacuum, apart from society, politics, and culture. I do think things are changing, that women and men in their ‘20s, while they may be as confused as everybody else, are a little more used to thinking of each other as equals than previous generations have been. It will be interesting to see how this social development, if it does exist, will impact the music over time.

  2. Steve Kaldestad says

    What’s with the awful elevator music in the background? She’s talking about America’s greatest artistic contribution to the world (too right!), and we hear smooth jazz with a cheezy keyboard bass? Does that really enhance Mrs. Obama’s speech? I don’t think that’s what the music at the White House sounded like! (I hope not, anyway…)
    HM: Be practical here — we’re focusing on what Michelle’s got to say, not a bass solo as deep as what Dave Holland, Charlie Haden or William Parker could lay down. She didn’t take long, and then, presumably, the musicians came on to blow. . .

  3. says

    Mr. Lindemeyer’s highly specious argument breaks down under any kind of scrutiny.
    As one of the other commenters noted, jazz’s collective ethos is not even mentioned as being a core value – so Mr. Lindemeyer is looking at the music solely from a selfish soloists point of view. Which is amazingly myopic.
    Secondly he describes single-mindedness and ‘the combination of proficiency and assertiveness we call “prowess”‘ as not being female attributes. Really? So how does he explain the fact that some of the greatest classical soloists alive today – a music that demands ruthless single-mindedness and prowess – are women? Martha Argerich, Mitsuko Uchida, Midori, Anne-Sophie Mutter etc etc
    The argument just doesn’t stand up

  4. says

    There are so many arguments against the idea that there are so few women in jazz because the simply aren’t as good and can’t be, since they’re women, that I have no idea where to begin. Maybe we could begin by going back to the days when there were (serious) arguments about why Whites were constitutionally incapable of playing “real” jazz.
    I recently had the pleasure and great honor to see Kendra Shank on three different occasions, in three very different venues — and let me tell you, this lady has prowess! First of all, the bravery to take on the Abbey Lincoln “Songbook” and successfully make that powerful, compelling, innovative, and unique repertoire her own. And second of all, Kendra doesn’t even seem to break a sweat as she puts 75% of all male jazz singers to shame.
    Is she the only one? An aberration? A fluke? I would say absolutely not. As noted, she had Abbey Lincoln for a model — and prowess doesn’t come much more powerfully packed than in Abbey. And Kendra takes such risks that you wonder how she holds on to edge of the cliff that she and her musicians lead each other to… and with just a smile, she’s back!
    So stop with the generalizing about inherently male traits and inherently female traits. There are amazing jazz artists of all colors and all genders, from around the world… jazz is probably the most inclusive of musics, not because inclusivity is such a good thing — but because there are simply so many people of all kinds who are composing and playing mind-blowing jazz in every generation!
    Chill out on the divisiveness. It ain’t pretty. And it certainly ain’t relevant.
    Peace, Justice, and Bread for Everyone!
    – Bill

  5. Jayn Pettingill says

    I think it is wonderful that the Obama’s are bringing the Arts into the White House in such a visible manner. What I noticed about the recent Jazz event at the White House–where many in the audience were young students–was that these aspiring practitioners were predominately male. As a female saxophonist, I tend to take notice of the population at jazz education events.
    Perhaps it’s not the fault of the music, as in Jazz exacts “certain requirements” from its players (and males are supposedly endowed with these) as discussed with great ignorance by Mr. Lindemeyer, but in our education system. Mentoring plays a large role in any serious musician’s life and some of these opportunities are either closed to females or simply present hurdles that are not easily negotiated by a young female.
    I can not tell you how many times I was refused private lessons simply based on the fact that I was female. This was in the 70’s and now that I possess an advanced degree in music and play professionally, sometimes I’m not so sure the culture around education has changed all that much. I evidently possess a kind of prowess ( according to Mr. Lindemeyer’s definition, prowess refers to having proficiency and assertiveness) for having made it as far as I have!
    However, I think Mr. Lindemeyer’s comments underscore my believe that music education, particularly jazz education, needs to take a long hard look at itself and ask why aren’t more females participating? Who tends to teach? I would suspect that they are mostly guys and may have attitudes similar to Mr. Lindemeyer’s. I would have cheered the recent White House jazz event all the more if there had been more female jazz musicians included. What a powerful image that could have been for the young Obama girls to witness.
    HM: What you seem to possess, on the basis of your story about yourself, Ms. Pettingill, is determination to play jazz. Your comments are true — I’m sure getting a mentor is not easy, and yet I think of Ingrid and Christine Jensen, trumpeter and saxophonist, growing up on a small Canadian island (same place where Diana Krall came from) and finding their ways to professional careers. I think of Jane Ira Bloom and Myra Melford teaching jazz, of Matana Roberts having emerged from the AACM School that is headed by Ann Ward, of Amina Claudine Myers having been among the first generation of AACM players, getting herself taken seriously by a troupe of men (read George E. Lewis’s account of Amina and other women having struggles within the AACM in his book Power Stronger Than Itself). I think of Maria Schneider following her instincts towards jazz and towards finding mentors in Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer. Of Mary Halvorson, pursuing a very distinctive guitar line into music that a lot of people wouldn’t call jazz . . . It isn’t easy being in jazz if you’re a woman. It isn’t very much easier for men, though maybe a little easier. Maybe it’s easier for women today than it was for Lil Hardin, Mary Lou Williams, Valadia Snow, Margie Hyams, Marian McPartland. Are we losing great talents because they are not encouraged? Or are we gaining great talents like Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lynn Carrington, Geri Allen, Nicole Mitchell because they want SO MUCH to be expressive musicians, recognized in their own right for the music they can make, that they make careers for themselves, as you have, Ms. Pettingill — as I read, having found collaborators (if not mentors) in Frank Morgan, Anthony Braxton and Art Lande, playing in the Montclair Women’s Big Band, the Bob Enos Big Band, and teaching, too. It can be done! Weren’t the odds stacked against musicians like Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker — born poor, of oppressed and insulted minorities, in remote locales, though yes, they were men — to have concocted international careers by creating inspired, enduring music? There are very few examples of artists in any media born to privilege and advancing without struggle to esthetic heights. Edmund Wilson, in The Wound and the Bow, is among those who theorized that artists are made by overcoming their dourest challenges. Maybe the women who succeed in playing jazz are making advances for everyone by showing how to overcome false impressions and sexist bias.