Testosterone is Not an Instrument

In a guest editorial in the March issue of JazzTimes, Lara Pellegrinelli wrote that Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra has yet to have a fulltime female musician. Earlier, Pellegrinelli had composed a scorching, longer indictment in the Nov. 14

Village Voice, and that led to a protest rally outside the Lincoln Center benefit gala, organized by singer Joan Bender. The message was: testosterone is not an instrument.

Last summer, I was part of a panel discussion on jazz with, among others, Stanley Crouch and Rob Gibson, then the executive producer and director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. I mentioned that except for singers and pianists, the abiding prejudice against women in jazz still continues – with the Lincoln Center

Jazz Orchestra a prime exhibit. My friend, Stanley Crouch, in a characteristic roar, declared, “If you can show me a woman player who can make it, I’ll listen to her!” In the front row was a black musician who looked at Stanley, and said, “Last night, at our rehearsal, there was a woman on tenor who played her ass off.”

For once, Stanley was silent. But Rob Gibson said that, as Wynton Marsalis ritually points out when asked about the absence of women in his orchestra, players are selected on their merits. Then Gibson added, as a sort
of self-absolution, that of the high school jazz musicians who enter Lincoln Center’s competition each year, 40 percent are young women.

That reminded me of Duke Ellington telling me that before the civil rights movement gathered momentum, there were a lot of blacks with college degrees in postoffice jobs or working as Pullman porters. That was as far as they could go.

I would recommend several books to Mr. Marsalis and the rest of the officials at the continually expanding jazz operation at Lincoln Center: Sherrie Tucker’s Swing Shift: “All Girl” Bands of the 1940s (Duke University
Press) and D. Antoinette Handy’s The International Sweethearts of Rhythm (Scarecrow Press). To see as well as hear that powerfully swinging band, there is a video:

Sweethearts of Rhythm (Cinema Guild: 212-685-6242).

This fall, the University of Illinois Press will publish an updated edition of Marian McPartland’s remarkable memoir, which includes profiles of Mary Lou Williams, Paul Desmond, Benny Goodman and Bill Evans among others. In All in Good Time she also writes “The Untold Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.” And why aren’t their recordings being reissued?

As more and more high schools and colleges add courses in jazz history, those books should be part of the curriculum because, as Marian noted: “Each of us is an individual – unique, different. The kind of life we have lived comes out in our music.” That’s precisely what Charlie Parker used to say. But the late George Simon insisted, “Women can’t play jazz.” They don’t
have the chops. They can’t swing. I’d like to give Wynton Marsalis a blindfold test and play not only recordings by the International Sweetheart’s of Rhythm with tenor saxophonist Vi Burnside, but also parts of On the Brink (Arbors Records) by Sherrie Maricle’s small combo, Five Play. Also, he ought to hear Israeli tenor saxophonist Anat Cohen, now with Maricle.

At the rally Joan Bender organized outside Lincoln Center, the small band of civil rights demonstrators passed out fliers that contrasted the female version of Jim Crow in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with liberated orchestras in New York: “Women are in the Metropolitan, Philharmonic, and City Ballet Orchestras because they have: 1) Job advertising; 2) Blind auditions, in which unknown candidates perform behind a screen;

3) Auditions observed by a committee (not just one man, Marsalis, as at Lincoln Center); and 4) Tenure process.” The flier quoted from Pellegrinelli’s Village Voice article: “Since the adoption of blind auditions, the number of women has risen dramatically in hundreds of orchestras but virtually none of the top mainstream bands – the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, the ghost bands of Count Basie or Duke Ellington currently employ any female players as permanent members.” The manifesto also quotes Billy Taylor, a supporter of this movement for equal time to be heard: “Time won’t do it. There has to be an effort.”

Motherhood and Music

The labor pains began 4:30 a.m. on Mother’s Day. By 9:45, my sister became a mom for the third time. I was there when little Steven, the size of a flugelhorn and as wrinkled as a prune, glimpsed the world and breathed his first whiff of air.

No symphony, no jazz solo, no piece of Earthly music could ever sound as beautiful as his first gurgled cry. Babies. I want one, two, even a trio would be absolutely great. But I may have waited too long. The anti-baby mantra began when I was in school. “You have plenty of time,” teachers told me. “Wait. Get your career going first ” That message was especially hammered into women brass players competing for an equal place beside men. Sometime that mantra changed from waiting to have a baby into an either/or position: either you have babies or you play professionally, but not both.

Ironically, as more corporate companies focus on being family friendly the anti-baby mantra lingers yet in the world of music. I’ll never forget a conversation I had while on tour in an all-women big band. Riding to a gig in Florida we talked of topics of life: finding a soulmate and having babies. Out of more than a dozen of us that day, I was the only one who said she wanted a baby. In fact, one childless-by-choice bandmate even gasped at my
longing, saying: “Why would you do that and ruin your career?”

Months earlier, another woman musician soured on a friendship, made what she thought was a caustic remark about a recently married musician in the band. She hoped that the woman would start “spitting out babies” and quit the music scene. Although I was dismayed to hear both comments, I wasn’t surprised. A year earlier an article from a jazz organization in England gave written advice to young women wanting to become jazz musicians. At the top of the list was the credo: don’t marry but if you do – do not have children.

It was a female brass player in a rehearsal – a mother-to-be – who showed me that brass players can and do have babies. Marissa Benedict, a trumpeter in Maiden Voyage, the Los Angeles-based all-women big band, was in her eighth month of pregnancy. This woman was belting out trumpet lines while looking like she swallowed the proverbial melon.

During that same rehearsal her husband, a saxophonist, brought in their two other children. Far from being over, her career was enhanced by her view of life outside of herself.

Ballads became a little sweeter, she said. Practice time more concentrated, more disciplined. Concerts more precious because of who was listening. Or who wasn’t kicking invitro, she added with a laugh Women brass players can and do have children because women can do anything they want in today’s world. Since then, I’ve met a few more brass playing moms, but they’re still rare. Sometimes, it feels like it’s other women, not men, who have the most unliberated views when it comes to motherhood and music.

One final note, waiting to have babies until you’re in your thirties or early forties could also mean never having a child. Six million American women
have already discovered the disease of infertility hits older women first.

A Salute to Women in Music at Emory University

Outstanding contributions by women in composition and performance served as the base for a concert given by the Emory University Wind Ensemble in Atlanta, Georgia under the direction of Dr. Scott A. Stewart on April 20, 2001.

Composer Carolyn Bremer, formerly of the University of Oklahoma, and now a freelance composer in Los Angeles, was present for the performance of two of her pieces. The first, Early Light, a lively and rhythmic overture, opened the program. Her other work, Venus Palimpsest, was commissioned by and dedicated to the Emory Wind Ensemble. It received its world premiere on this concert. The piece explores various facets of the goddess Venus, including her relationship with Mars. She quotes from Gustav Holst to Frankie Avalon, which adds fun to this colorful and sparkling new piece. Bremer has produced a number of wind ensemble pieces, including Tinker to Evers to Chance, Regional Accents, and Next of Kin to Chaos.

Her brass output includes The Four Winds (premiered at the 2000 IWBC Conference), Opposable Thumbs, and Throw Caution to the Wind. Other works on the program included Cindy Mctee’s Soundings, which provided a unique palette of sounds. Each of the four movements exploited the various possible “soundings” made by different combinations of wind and percussion instruments. McTee is on the faculty of the University of North Texas, and has composed other literature for the wind band including Circuits, and Timepiece. The minimalistic work Danza de los Duendes by Nancy Galbraith opened the second half of the program. Galbraith is a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University, and composer-in-residence for the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Other wind ensemble pieces by her include Concerto for Piano and Wind Ensemble, and Two Psalms. Brass players may wish to examine her Fanfare and Fantasy for Brass Quintet.

The finale of the evening was a riveting performance of the Concerto for Trumpet in A-Flat by Alexander Arutunian. The soloist was Susan Rider of “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band in Washington D.C. This spectacular evening highlighted the brilliant musicianship being brought to the music community from women all over the world. The transformation of a predominately male music profession to one in which women excel in composing, performing, teaching, and conducting is exciting to experience.