Our ongoing series of dialogues with women music writers continues with Sheila Anderson, who is actually a triple-threat. She has written about jazz for periodicals, authored a couple of valuable books, and is a regular show host for “America’s jazz station”, WBGO, which serves the New York metropolitan area from its downtown Newark headquarters. The books pictured in this piece are all by Sheila E. Anderson
List your writing affiliations and any books or other projects you’re working on currently that you’d like to mention.
My two books are published by Allworth Press: “How to Grow as a Musician: What all Musicians Must Know to Succeed” and “The Quotable Musician From Bach to Tupac”. Until recently, for four years, I wrote the New Jersey Jazz column for “Hot House” Magazine, “New York’s Bible for 30 Years!” I’ve also written liner notes for several musicians; Akua Dixon, Oscar Perez, Anthony E. Nelson, Jr. the Ellington Legacy Band and many others. Currently I am working on two books that focus on culture.
What has been your experience writing about music in general jazz in particular?
At times it is a challenge for me to explain in layman’s terms what the musician is trying to express musically. Too often those who write about music can be overwhelming and analytical. I don’t consider myself to be a lyrical writer so finding proper adjectives to describe what I’m hearing takes time. Though I studied music and played the flute I still consult musicians to assist me in describing, in musical terms, what I’m listening to.
What was it about writing about music that attracted you to this pursuit initially?
I grew up in a very colorful family, that included professional musicians, who loved music. My dad was expert in his ability to tell stories. Also, my oldest brother and mother had great taste in music. At the age of six or seven I fell in love with the music of Richard “Groove” Holmes, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and other greats. From age ten to fifteen I considered becoming a Jazz musician. That did not come to pass but my love of Jazz and my interest in musicians as people never left me. For years I had a desire to write but not necessarily about music. I spent eighteen years in the publishing industry but I was not happy with the work that I was doing. While working in publishing I was searching for other work. Miraculously, in 1995, I was hired by WBGO, 88.3FM to host the show, “Sunday Morning Harmony”. I felt that I needed to immerse myself in the music and thought that the best way to learn was from the musicians, so I produced and hosted my own TV show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) called “The Art of Jazz” where I interviewed some incredible musicians. After a car accident, in 1999, I was fired from my publishing job and was without full time work for one year. When my money ran out a temporary opportunity came my way at Lyons Press that led to my getting published. It was Serendipity! My first book, “The Quotable Musician: From Bach to Tupac” allowed me to combine my love of musicians and to share their words and thoughts. My goal was to show the reader how interesting, introspective and fun musicians were/are.
Would you describe your experiences writing about music as overall positive, and if so why or why not?
My experience has been very positive because I had a great publisher who was willing to let me be as creative as I wanted to be. They had just started a new “Quotable” series, the first book was being written (mine was second), so they gave me a few guidelines and sent me on my way. As with my first book, my next book for Allworth Press was the second in another new “How to Grow” series of theirs, again, I was given creative license. It also helped that I had great editors for both books.
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?
Good question. Jazz is still a very male-dominated, macho, industry. I find that men, in general, are not very accepting of women musicians, that is, unless they can “play”. I’ve been told that they would rather work with a mediocre male instrumentalist than a female. However, in the last several years I have seen more women instrumentalists taking the lead, making their musical statements and being embraced by the guys. Geri Allen, Terri-Lynne Carrington, Renee Rosnes, Tia Fuller and Sharel Cassidy, to name a few, are at the forefront of Jazz – writing, arranging and playing wonderfully. Why women dominate jazz singing is difficult to answer. In talking to vocalists I understand that singing allows them to connect with the audience in a different, perhaps intimate, way than instrumentalists. On the other hand, I’ve heard so many complaints from male musicians about singers, especially women. They claim that many women don’t know music, did not study an instrument, or improperly study their instrument. Further, I’m told that they may get on stage, take all of the applause and won’t give them credit. Unless, of course, they bomb, at which time they will blame the musicians.
Would you describe yourself as a music critic or a music journalist and why?
I have to say that I am neither. A better description may be that I am a narrator or emissary. To be honest I am leery of critics and criticism, unless it comes from musicians. I don’t feel that I have the ability to dissect a musicians’ work or performance whether I like it or not. What I do is document their creative process and what they are trying to impart to the audience. Over the years I’ve found that, no matter how weak I may think some music is, someone will like it, so who am I to say that music is good, or not? However a prominent musician explained to me that, by being a radio personality, I am a music critic because I decide what I spin and not therefore I make a musical decision about what is worthy and not.
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 creative ways to attract more women to their audiences; some wisdom suggesting that where more women go, men will 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’ve heard that assessment before from musicians but I’m not sure that I agree. Like Karen Chilton, in a previous post contends, I too look from a perspective of race. At any given time, when out in clubs, I’m hard pressed to find more than twenty Black people. Too often I hear that the expense of a club is prohibitive. Some time ago, one night I went to the last set on a Sunday night at Iridium to see Bilal. The line was around the block, 80% of the line was Black. No one seemed to have a problem paying the cover or the minimum. It blew my mind. There are so many factors that go into audience development but I believe that one major problem is that many young Jazz musicians do not consider themselves entertainers. People want to hear what they hear on a record and perhaps shy away from improvised music. Also, it is hard to ignore the lack of exposure. I see young Black audiences for artists who get written about in JET, ESSENCE and EBONY. Nor can I ignore the segmenting of radio, the lack of Jazz on commercial stations and the challenge in finding Jazz. Besides, young people find music from so many other sources it is hard to keep up. I do see a glimmer of hope when I go to the Thursday and Saturday late night sets that Michael Mwenso hosts at Dizzy’s. It was wonderful to see so many young people there. The place was packed with both men and women. Actually, the first night I went I left feeling OLD, which was a good thing…LOL!
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”?
I think that it is a little of both. And I think that men tend to be more critical than women when it comes to the dissection of jazz. When I do read about music penned by women they tend to be more generous with positive criticism. I’ve heard from women that it has been difficult for them to break into the field. In my opinion, those who have broken through have been and are quite good.
Have you ever found it more difficult to pursue writing about music due to gender issues? If so please detail some of your writing experiences that may have been fairly or unfairly colored by gender.
My experiences in writing and in Jazz, for that matter, have been incredible. Opportunities have, for the most part, come to me. Being on WBGO has given me an entree into the Jazz community. But I worked very hard to ingratiate myself. [WBGO] On air host Michael Bourne, gave me the moniker, “Queen of Hang” that has stuck. However, I believe that my being overweight may have caused me to miss some opportunities. Since 1995 I have been producing/hosting “The Art of Jazz” on MNN. When BET Jazz channel started I reached out, several times, expressing my desire to host a show. Each time I was rejected or dismissed. Yet, two of my friends, one white, one Black, both an “acceptable weight” and “look” did some hosting. Neither had my experience or knowledge. I had a conversation with a musician who suggested that, given my interview skills, and with so many great shows under my belt, had I been a white woman that I would have been snatched up by a major player.
What can be done to encourage more women to write about music in general, jazz in particular?
I encourage women to follow their passion. There are so many outlets now, for example, blogs are great outlets for writing. Women should not take no for an answer. Often we have to make our own opportunities.
Since you’re the “Queen of Hang” according to Michael Bourne, what have been some of the most personally satisfying music performances you’ve either written about or simply experienced over the last year?
I’ve been to so many performances this is not easy to answer. Some of my favorite artists who always give great shows are Eric Reed, The Clayton Brothers, Christian McBride and Inside Straight, Monty Alexander, Johnny O’Neal, Ulysses Owens, Will Calhoun, Geri Allen and Roy Haynes. To be honest, there are to many to name. These days I find the Jazz scene so exciting!