Sexism In Jazz: Being Agents Of Change

Many elements of jazz have remained in the past, therefore artists that are trying to move jazz forward can’t be in the past regarding social issues.
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Tracy Love

In a recent NPR article, Michelle Mercer’s “Sexism From Two Leading Jazz Artists Draws Anger—And Presents An Opportunity,” has inspired much impassioned discussion, as well as hopeful determination for resolve, and affirms that sexism in jazz continues to be a fervent topic in the predominantly male genre.

There has been abundant dialogue about sexism in jazz—since I can remember - but not enough conversation with the violators and not enough self-evaluation. These current times feel especially critical and seem to be generating a heightened sense of awareness, so I have recently shared these thoughts with many leading men in jazz to evoke reflective and meaningful conversation. Many elements of jazz have remained in the past, therefore artists that are trying to move jazz forward can’t be in the past regarding social issues. I have experienced a charmed and fruitful career, feeling relatively unscathed in comparison to many other female musicians, but the current climate of activism suggests we don’t hide behind our instruments or be reclusive artists, but instead accept a call to arms. In my 30 plus year career, I should have had more female peers than I’ve had. I would like to spend the next 30 years helping to make sure this conversation becomes a moot point for the young women just embarking on their careers.

We are all a work in progress, and one of the great benefits of life is that we have the opportunity to evolve. It takes effort to not fall into the societal traps we have been exposed to for most of our lives, and to move beyond these traps, we have to question ourselves—our ethics, our value system, our ideology. Concerning sexism, men have to acknowledge their male privilege and ask ‘what am I doing to contribute to sexist thought and behavior in my field and what am I doing to abolish it?’ And for women the question can be ‘what am I doing to destroy the stereotypes and what am I doing to educate and encourage others to put their sexism or internalized sexism in check?’ When someone acts or speaks, and it hurts others, whether intentional or not, that is a real, tangible thing—and can create angry, or at least tense, exchanges. For example, words like “chicks” have become unacceptable and “locker room talk” about grabbing women by the you know what—Donald—is ludicrous. To be truly progressive, it is essential to understand intersectionality, practice compassion, and have the ability to empathize. On issues of racism and sexism, there can be impatience from progressives, expecting that after all this time everyone should just know better and stand on the correct side of consciousness. It seems illogical to be concerned with some forms of oppressive behavior and not others.

Many female instrumentalists feel like they have to be better than their male counterparts to combat sexism. This is a lot of unnecessary pressure. Musical space is sacred, and it would be far more productive for all of us to be able to relax and create. The sexualization of it can be a slippery slope. Sexuality is throughout our music, but it becomes a matter of how we contextualize it and if we are oppressing, objectifying, or stereotyping. Most of my mentors were male and from the generation before me. And though they we were not perfect, they knew the importance of breaking the molds and fostering the idea of inclusion, understanding that it creates and promotes balance in the world. Jack DeJohnette, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock have all taught me that sensitivity and strength, leading and following, confidence and humbleness—balance—helps make the magic happen, on and off stage. Feminizing or masculinizing music can be counter-productive. The studying, composing, and performing of music should be gender neutral, and I think the greatest musicians are musically “gender fluid.”

It’s not about one person’s thoughts and behavior (although it can be a great catalyst for action) or attacking anyone’s character or artistry. It’s about everyone rolling up their sleeves, digging in, widening their view points, further stretching their compassion and understanding that this must be addressed and changed in order for their daughters and sons to have a better, more equitable world to live in. Studies have proven when expectations are higher students perform better. When expectations are lower, they perform worse. There are consequences for us all if we don’t treat a classroom or public forum with this in mind. We’ll miss out on things—opportunities seen or unseen—as we do not know who the next person is that will change the world. Using art as a social weapon is far more purposeful than being part of the fabric that continues silencing, devaluing or dismissing talent or aptitude. We can all be agents of change, and as the familiar adage goes, if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.

Terri Lyne Carrington is a three-time Grammy award-winning drummer, composer, and multi-genre producer. She currently holds the position of Zildjian Chair in Performance at Berklee Global Jazz Institute, Berklee College of Music.

Erik Jacobs

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