The following is a blog post from 2021 Library of Congress Jazz Scholar, Terri Lyne Carrington.
As I took a walk on a cold February afternoon in Massachusetts, I continued working through feelings I have formed in response to the inequities women have faced in jazz. Although I thought I was taking a break walking, I soon realized the work never stops, that it is a daily practice and that I am continuously working through systems that I have strangely grown accustomed to.
I listened to a message on WhatsApp from a world-renown drummer, expressing his anger and solidarity, recounting a story where another drummer came on his online platform, proclaiming that women couldn’t play drums – and specifically that myself and Cindy Blackman were on that list of non-playing, women drummers. And though he wanted me to come on “live” with him to talk to this person and address these issues, instead I took a moment to check in with myself – to pause. My first instinct was to accommodate his request, but my second thought was that men have to work on these issues on their own and hold each other accountable. Though I’m equipped to talk about jazz and gender, one thing I don’t want to continue to do is accept the position of proving myself. It’s boring and burdensome. And it represents some of the additional and invisible labor that women do just to be included in playing this music. None of my male colleagues would have to publicly discuss their right to be there, nor defend nonsense.
But as I probe further into my own evolving thoughts on jazz and gender, I ask myself a few questions.
First, at what point do I just say no, “you got this(!),” and just decline invitations and conversations, public or private? At what point do I declare to my friends and colleagues: you don’t need me, when you can say the right thing, do the right thing, educate others and lead by example. Maybe it is self-care or self-preservation, and in some ways, a form of love to simply decline. Love of self, and displaying love for others by asking – or demanding – more of them.
I have accepted that patience and growing pains will be a part of the journey. My friends, Angela Davis and Gina Dent, did not take me by the hand when I was speaking in some ways like my male counterparts about women jazz musicians – distancing myself from them and from the work of gender equity, and worse, replicating the established structures I now speak against. They let me come to my own consciousness in my own time over a multiple decade friendship (OK, I admit I was a bit slow…), but now I see the depth of their action or non-action. They, however, found a way to sprinkle drops – or more like buckets – of wisdom on the topic for me to engage with in my own time, showing a tremendous display of patience, something that I keep processing to understand the larger lesson. I walk away with the idea of practicing some of that same kind of restraint. When a person comes to these awakenings in their own time, it can be much more powerful and transformative for them. I am living proof, though I am not suggesting this be the default methodology in tearing down the walls of patriarchy. I am just suggesting that some fluidity with the approach depending on the people and situations could be more productive. I know my friends must have a sense of pride that I finally get it – that I can finally, fully embrace ideals that were as plain as day to them, but that I was resistant to.
I, too, experience a wonderful sense of pride knowing that I’ve contributed to the evolution of grown-up peers and elders – male and female. At least three prominent jazz women have called me to say that they are now looking at this subject matter differently. Also, a few jazz men have contacted me as well, saying that they have been “old farts” or that they just never thought about it – much like patrons and consumers that say they just never noticed, once I point them to their own record collection or concert ticket stubs. But there is also a pervasive sentiment from many of the male musicians I speak to that they would hire women if they were there, or if they can play, meaning if they can play up to a particular standard that has been established – by men. I quickly point out to them that, similar to race, systemic forms of oppression have made barriers with education, mentorship and access, that instruments themselves have been gendered, and that both men and women have been socialized to behave a certain way, which often does not work in women’s favor when trying to be a part of the dominant culture in jazz. I encourage them to think about it out of the box that we have accepted as normal for so long and that, in fact, women have always been there, but have not been archived accurately. And when they cite me or a few others, I speak about how pointing to exceptions is not the answer for the kind of change needed. I then ask them what they will do to help make a difference, and express that the future and progression of the music rest on all of us making sure that everyone has equitable opportunity to authentically contribute to the art form.
I also ask myself and others if we as a community are ready to consider – and hear – a different aesthetic in jazz. How would that impact the future of the art form? Are we open to new possibilities in sound, celebrating different artistic offerings based on the varying ways we experience the world? And are we ready to embrace the idea that the music itself won’t reach its full potential until the contributors are across the gender spectrum? This understanding has to be ubiquitous in order for jazz to again be a leader in social justice. Notably, jazz was an important part of the civil rights movement and is fundamentally progressive, but can it embrace the opportunity to imagine and give shape to a more complete and equitable future? Jazz has also been ethnically inclusive, welcoming diversity with race and often exampling democracy, though it has had trouble making the connection that achieving democracy includes gender equity.
I routinely reflect upon the philosophy of Fannie Lou Hamer and others that none of us are free until we are all free, and the teachings of Audre Lorde that there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives, both pointing to intersections in social justice struggles. It feels ridiculous to me to speak of gender justice without race being in the conversation, and vice versa. And I often cite the importance of environmental justice, it being the nexus of all justice struggles.
Ella Baker guided us to examine ourselves and how we may be unconsciously supporting a racist [and sexist] culture. And Angela Davis has expounded on the transformative power of music and how it allows us to feel that which we cannot put into words. These concepts helped me to see responsibility in the art I create, resulting in my being more mission oriented and purpose driven – a point of view that I pass along to my students to help them realize that their creativity has the power to change the world for the better.
We are experiencing a momentous and historical time period of challenging the systems that have shaped us. Racism, sexism, heteronormativity, classism, ageism, ableism, religious bigotry, have all worked in establishing a “defined norm” of male, white, heterosexual, Christian, able bodied, youthful, and with access to wealth and resources. It also represents the majority of people who have the ability to exert certain kinds of power over others. When we call for equity, we are calling for a recognition that not everyone starts from the same place given the historical legacies of discrimination that people from marginalized communities experience. And when we look more deeply into equity, we learn more about systems of supremacy, power, and privilege. This is not easy work of course, but essential for progress. And jazz is not exempt from doing this work.
We have to continually ask ourselves and others questions. For example, why are women not referred to as geniuses as casually and frequently as men? Why are women not as often considered experts or jazz scholars? Why is the sound we try to reproduce steeped in stereotypical masculine characteristics of hard, strong, fast, as well as some of the terminology we’ve grown accustomed to – killing, cut, axe, shed, etc.? And why are women’s drop off rates so high from middle school to high school, then to college, then to the professional world? To this point, I will suggest it ceases to be fun after a certain point, especially without the support from teachers and peers, along with the kind of “social distancing” that happens among adolescent kids. The struggle is not only real, it is a major hindrance to advancing the music – and society. Additionally, women shouldn’t have to have to be like one of the boys to “make it,” and shouldn’t have to ward off sexual advancements either.
When the ACS (Geri Allen, Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding) trio came together I was surprised to hear my other two bandmates mention how they felt more relaxed and able to let their guard down in this setting, without some of the extra burdens that women have had to deal with when playing in all male settings. They agreed there was a feeling of safety and non-judgment that was different. I realized as well, that I might be experiencing something different, but had been so entrenched and inherently invested in the patriarchal structure that I knew for so long that I was unconsciously reproducing it. This began my journey to understanding better what parts of myself I had buried or ignored in order to fit in and thrive in my environment.
Luckily, the conversation on jazz and gender is moving rapidly and will hopefully soon start to feel passé. In fact, comments that used to feel common (and offensive or even disrespectful) are more and more being shrugged off with a laugh. Someone wrote that Esperanza Spalding is no Ray Brown. She and I had a light chuckle and she replied, “Well, who is?” Or that Ingrid Jensen does not play trumpet like Freddie Hubbard. I’m thankful that she doesn’t sound like Freddie, and that she sounds like Ingrid! Her sound can and should be appreciated as it is. She has earned that. I have heard people say – in print – that I don’t hit as hard as “the cats,” when in fact I was often criticized for playing too loud in certain venues and asked to play softer, left scratching my head about the conflicting expectations of women drummers and questioning if they would have asked a male drummer to play more quietly. These kinds of comparisons have to stop. The standard for the sound we identify as good in jazz was created by men, so most of the women that succeed are women that people can successfully compare to male musicians. I doubt we will have gender parity until enough people are open to a different sound without the same comparative stance, a sound they’ve possibly not heard yet – the sound of jazz without patriarchy.
There has been – and still is – a prevailing code in jazz that has historically repressed and rendered invisible many of the art form’s creative contributors. We must challenge this so that jazz can once again be a transformational, spiritual and social movement on the global stage, creating a new legacy that will shed the residue from the embedded legacies of sexism and other forms of alienation.
I remain excited and hopeful for the future. At the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, our mission is to recruit, teach, mentor, and advocate for young musicians desiring to study jazz in a safe, egalitarian and nurturing environment, with gender justice and racial justice as guiding principles. We believe these issues must be honestly and collectively addressed in order for us to experience a cultural transformation that includes a shift in the narrative and setting new and/or different standards.
Young people are incredible and can lead us if we let them. I have come across many in this generation that are rejecting performative masculinity as the norm in our field, though it has deeply permeated the culture. The justification that it has always been this way is no longer good enough. They are calling for something different.