Over the last year or so one of the more impressive new voices in jazz writing has been the Brooklyn-based Angelika Beener. A past contributor to The Independent Ear as part of the series of dialogues with African American music writers, Ain’t But a Few of Us, Angelika has displayed a consistently thoughtful and informative way with words on music, displaying particularly pithy insights into musicians of her generation, folks who’ve come of age during the late 20th/early 21st century. She recently provided a sparkling partner to WBGO radio ace Josh Jackson as co-hosts of the 2012 JJA Awards program at the Blue Note. Angelika graciously consented to contribute Part 3 in our current series of dialogues with women jazz writers.
Angelika Beener is the creator of Alternate Takes, a blog geared toward discussing and exploring jazz within a myriad of cultural and social contexts. She is an award-winning producer and host. Having worked for Blue Note Records, Newark Public Radio- Jazz 88.3 FM, The Hit Factory, ASCAP and consulting for independent artists and non-profit organizations, she has won awards from The New York Association of Black Journalists and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The list of jazz artists with whom Ms. Beener has worked is long, distinguished and includes Andrew Hill, Randy Weston, Marcus Strickland, Aaron Parks, Dianne Reeves, Robert Glasper, Charles Tolliver, Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, Steve Kuhn and more. Angelika is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association, and co-hosted the 2012 Jazz Journalists Association Awards. She is a staff writer for Nextbop.com and her work has also been featured in DownBeat and on NPR Music.
What has been your experience writing about music in general, jazz in particular and how did you get started down this road?
I started writing about jazz full-time about a year ago. However, prior to that, I had been in marketing and public relations in the music industry for about twelve years, and through these experiences I got to do a lot of writing about musicians, and I think that’s how I got “the bug”. I’ve always had a love and a knack for writing and a very deep love for jazz, so the inclination to put the two together was very organic.
My experience writing about jazz has been a really good one. I feel like my voice has been fully embraced, somewhat to my surprise, given the lens through which I write.
What was it about writing about jazz that attracted you to this pursuit initially?
In my career, I was always treated as an anomaly. I didn’t really fit the mold of what a jazz enthusiast “looked” like, and I really didn’t represent what someone working in the field professionally looked like. There was a lot of marginalizing and patronizing from certain White, male counterparts over the years. The music business is very ego driven, and I was a triple threat, so to speak, being young, Black and a woman. I endured a lot, and honestly, was frustrated by the limits put on my voice. So writing not only gave me an outlet, but it allowed me a platform to discuss pertinent issues within jazz that I felt were not being written about enough. I wanted my generation to be represented in journalism; I think that is extremely important. I also wanted my generation to be written about through the lens of someone within that generation, to give some balance and perspective to the journalistic spectrum.
Would you describe your experiences writing about music as overall positive, and if so why or why not?
Absolutely, and honestly, a bit to my surprise. My voice has really been welcomed in the community of journalism as it pertains to jazz. I think I had not really realized how much of a void my my writing would fill for a lot of people who were looking for this type of coverage. And even beyond my own generation, I’ve been embraced, evidenced by things like co-hosting this year’s JJA Awards. For people within the jazz community of a different generation to be interested in my work, and valuing what I bring to the table feels good and tends to make me optimistic about where things are headed in terms of inclusiveness and diversity.
Women occupy an interesting place in the jazz pantheon; on the one hand women instrumentalists are in the distinct minority, at least as far as prominence, and on the other hand women absolutely dominate the ranks of jazz singers. What’s your sense of that imbalance?
I think we’ve come a long way as a society, but have a very long way to go in terms of equality. Generally speaking, vocalists tend to be overlooked as serious musicians and are typically stereotyped as untrained. As a side note, I believe vocalists should train just as hard as instrumentalists to be the best possible artists. However, this will never eliminate the discrimination women will face in this male-dominated art form. And I think a lot of the discrimination happens in journalism; we’ve got to be especially aware of the marginalization that takes place in this industry and be vigilant about expanding the way women are perceived.
Would you describe yourself as a music critic or a music journalist and why?
I’d describe myself as a journalist. I’m not a critic… at least not of the music. My style of journalism is to give readers a window into who these musicians are as people. I’m about discussing what informs the music as much as I’m about discussing the music itself. My style is bridging the gap between culture and what I believe is the end result, which is the music. There has been a disconnect here, which has been detrimental to the Black audience and has misrepresented our contributions, and our genius. To be a critic is fairly easy, but to explore these other areas takes more thoughtfulness, a deeper understanding of the music and an ego which has been put aside; all things a critic should embody, anyway.
Its been suggested that one of the real keys to solving the critical jazz audience development issue is that those who present the music must find more creative ways to attract more women to their audiences; some wisdom suggesting that where more women go, men will surely follow. Is this an apt characterization of the jazz audience conundrum, and if so are there elements you might suggest to those who present jazz as to better attracting women audience members?
I think this is absolutely true. I’m not making any sweeping judgements, but I think the first problem is that often times musicians seem to be playing for other musicians — forget men or women. The music is not as accessible and inclusive as it once was. So we have a male dominated genre playing to a male dominated audience, which is not going to attract a strong female presence. Frankly, the music has gotten so heady, and lacks soul, and I think women are attracted to the depth (soul) of the music, and less interested in how many time signatures and key changes one song can have. In saying this, I am not marginalizing a woman’s capacity to grasp intricate musical concepts. Nor am I saying that intricacy and soul cannot co-exist, as there are too many artists and albums across decades of jazz music which would dispute such a theory. I am saying, however, that the jazz audience is waning in general because of a general self-inflicted (if unknowing) sense of exclusivity, which comes out in the music. I think once this is rectified from a creative standpoint, we can then address how to market to women, or any demographic.
Clearly writing about music, and particularly writing about jazz, could well be characterized as “a man’s world.” Do you feel like that’s due more to the nature of the music or to some form(s) of overt exclusion from the “boy’s club”?
This is a great question. I would have say it’s a combination of the two, stemming from overt exclusion. Having experienced this myself, I know what it is like to be in this position. I believe there is an intellectual element to the music that most men believe is over most women’s heads. The fact that I have perfect pitch, can sing solos, or can spell out chord changes continues to baffle most men. Liking the music and understanding the structure of the music are two different things, and it is in the understanding that the male ego is threatened because women are still not treated as equals mentally. We are still economically discriminated against, paid less for doing the same jobs, and society as a whole has yet to value our minds as much as our behinds. Ridiculously, I think we’re not expected to understand.
How do your women friends and colleagues view you as a jazz writer?
They are hugely supportive. Even my female friends who are not jazz enthusiasts or aficionados are devoted followers of the work. They find the stories interesting regardless of familiarity with the artists. I also have to say that I have a very strong readership of Black women.
Have you ever found it more difficult to pursue writing about music due to gender issues? If so please detail some of your writing challenges that may have been fairly or unfairly colored by gender.
I have not. I think when you know what you’re doing and boldly (not egotistically, but boldly) make your presence known, you’re on the right path. It’s an issue of confidence. A horrible critic can convince readers of his theories if he’s confident enough. Confidence matched with actual skillful and thoughtful journalism can’t be denied, either. Confidence is a big component. I’ve just always known that I have thoughts and theories that are just as interesting and warranted as any man’s. I refuse to be colored by gender. The discrimination exists, but it hasn’t deterred or derailed me. If anything, it has strengthened my platform.
What can be done to encourage more women to write about music in particular, jazz in general?
Largely, I think it has to come from us, as women. We have to be each other’s biggest supporters. I remember a well known critic posing a question about the lack of women writing critically about jazz. It was another writer — a Black woman — who made it a point to note me as one of them. We have to be our own and each other’s strongest advocates. We have to nurture each other’s talent and pull each other up along the way. I think has always been the most effective way to progress.
What have been some of the most personally satisfying music performances you’ve either written about or simply experienced over the last year?
I tend to write more about the music of my generation. I think this is an exciting time for jazz, and we can credit the younger generation for a lot of it. I think musicians are striving to grow away from the pack and find their own voices, regardless of criticism and that’s the way it was when this music was being invented. Artists were fearless back then. I see that same fearlessness in many of today’s artists. There are some true trailblazers in my peer group, and they are courageously being themselves despite judgements or pressures to fit a familiar mold. It’s inspiring to witness and really exciting to write about.