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.”