Jazz Writing: Women’s Perspectives Pt. 1

During 2010 and 2011 The Independent Ear fostered a refreshing dialogue with African American jazz writers that we dubbed “Ain’t But a Few of Us.” A few women writers participated in that dialogue and some of their responses were flavored with a sort of double-bind perspective of being not only African American writers but female as well, gender lending a slightly different tint to their sense of pursuit of the music writing craft.

Reading the jazz prints and blogs suggests an ever so slight increase in the number of women writing about this music, but still pretty much in the same decided minority numbers as African Americans writing about jazz in particular, music in general. (And if you’re wondering why we may seem to vacillate between referring to these writers as “jazz writers” and/or “music writers” its because few prefer to be pigeon-holed and indeed cover a variety of music genres; but all have at one time or another written about jazz music.)

Given the number of women who write about music it seemed another dialogue was in order for The Independent Ear. Apropos our first contributor is a woman who also contributed to “Ain’t But a Few of Us,” Bridget Arnwine. I first met Bridget years ago when the Jazz Journalists Association fostered a one-time mentorship effort for aspiring jazz writers. After the passing of my friend and colleague, the Harlem chief of the jazz prints Clarence Atkins, a Clarence Atkins fund was established that enabled a small coterie of African American writers to attend a journalist conference in California. One member of that crew was Bridget Arnwine, who I had first met when she approached me about writing in Cleveland. She got an opportunity to write program booklet content for the Tri-C JazzFest and has developed her craft from there, with increased opportunities coming her way since her job relocated her to the Washington, DC metro area where Bridget is currently based. Like many a young writer she has been a contributor to All About Jazz. Our conversation began with her current writing affiliations.

Bridget Arnwine

I am currently writing for examiner.com as the Washington, DC Jazz Music Examiner and the National Jazz Artists Examiner. I was recently added as a new contributor for Pure Jazz Magazine.

What has been your experience writing about music in general, jazz in particular and how did you get started down this road?

My experience writing about music has been mostly positive. I really enjoy it and I love the added responsibility of being my own photographer even more.

I started writing about music, because I first wanted to write a book. I wanted to interview jazz musicians about what they loved about the music and what inspired their paths, but I only landed one interview.

I reached out to every jazz musician I found contact info for, but they all turned me down. I eventually contacted Jazz at Lincoln Center to see if I could appeal to the musicians there, but their PR department turned me down too. After a while I was put in touch with someone who suggested that I reach out to Wynton Marsalis‘s right hand woman so that I might plead my case to her. I sent her an email and she responded. She told me in a nutshell that no one would talk to someone they didn’t know, so my task was to become known. She suggested that I join an organization and take on as many writing tasks as possible. That’s what I did. Within a week of that exchange, I found the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA) and allaboutjazz.com. Funny enough, my first assignment for the Jazz Journalists Association newsletter turned out to be a book review. It was for W. Royal Stokes’s book, “Growing Up With Jazz”– a book of interviews. I knew as soon as that book arrived in the mail that I was on the right path.

That was a little more than seven years ago. Thanks to Gen for the invaluable advice and thanks to Wynton for being the only musician to say yes.

As for other genres of music, I’ve written about country, R&B, opera and hip hop for as long as I’ve written about jazz, but I’ve never done anything with those reviews/articles. I started writing about heavy metal, because I saw a help wanted ad seeking contributors for an upstart heavy metal publication and I replied. I did that for a year and I loved it. It’s been almost four years since I’ve written non-jazz related articles, but I recently began receiving requests from metal bands and R&B acts. I’m considering trying it again.

What was it about writing about jazz that attracted you to this pursuit initially?

Initially, I was attracted to jazz because of my introduction to the music. To round out the details of my response to the previous question, my first jazz concert was a Wynton Marsalis performance back in 1995. I lived in Atlanta at the time and I was an intern in the office of then Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. One of the summer interns tricked me into riding with her down to Augusta for a three-day weekend. Wynton Marsalis was in Augusta for a set of concert dates, and the plan was to register voters at his shows.

I was not a jazz fan at that time. The only reason I agreed to go was because the intern convinced me that taking the initiative to register voters in Augusta would really make a good impression on Congresswoman McKinney. I aspired to work in politics at the time, so I went along with it. Needless to say, I had a real bad attitude leading up to the first night’s show.

Most everything the intern told me about the trip was a lie. We weren’t invited to stay with one of Congresswoman McKinney’s staffers; we weren’t going to register voters at Wynton’s concerts (we were allowed to register voters at a Black Business Expo that happened to be going on the first day of our visit); heck, she hadn’t even secured permission for us to attend Wynton’s show. We were only allowed to go to the show because we arrived at the venue a few hours ahead of show time and the intern sent a “hello, I’m the girl who…” note backstage. To my surprise, one of the septet members happened to be there to receive the note and he remembered meeting her! We were told to meet the group in the lobby of their hotel and we’d walk to the venue together. It was then that I learned that we didn’t have a place to stay, so I ended up booking the last available room at the same hotel.

What changed for me was meeting the guys–Wycliffe Gordon, Eric Reed, Wess Anderson, Victor Goines, Wynton and a tour manager named John. I remember the first night; I was amazed by what I heard. They were fantastic. The intern was supposed to be the jazz fan, but I was the one excited about attending all of the shows that weekend. There’s no way I could walk away from an experience like that without trying to learn more about the music. I eventually became so enamored with the music that I felt I had to do something jazz related… I couldn’t play an instrument; nobody wants to hear me sing; I don’t like being around people enough to want to become a road manager, so I decided to write. Meeting them, and hearing them play, changed the course of my life forever and they don’t even know it.

Long story, I know, but I think of that weekend whenever I think about why I’m here.

Would you describe your experiences writing about music as overall positive, and if so why or why not?

My experiences have definitely been mostly positive. I love the music and I respect those who care enough to create it. Sometimes the demands of my day job present a few challenges to my life as a writer/photographer, but writing about the music and photographing what I see is what makes me feel most human. I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life.

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?

My two cents: audiences and the industry are just getting comfortable seeing women do more than sing.

Women in general have been placed in a box and expected to adhere to certain standards. We’re expected to interact with/engage people a certain way; we’re expected to dress and look a certain way; we’re expected to maintain traditional roles in relationships even if we thrive in non-traditional roles professionally; and we’re not supposed to put our interests ahead of anyone else’s. Now women are living by their own definitions of what it means to be a woman. One of those definitions is capable. Not capable for a woman, or capable compared to men, but capable in the fullest sense of the word.

Getting back to the music, Ingrid Jensen and Anat Cohen are constantly referenced as among the best on their instruments- male or female. Tia Fuller performs in 6 inch stilettos and body-conscious outfits and she manages to blow her face off every time she plays. How’s that for womanhood? Helen Sung, Geri Allen and Amina Figarova can conjure some of the most beautiful sounds out of the piano. Regina Carter is as close to flawless as I’ve ever heard. Esperanza Spalding‘s Grammy win has changed the game for female musicians. Cindy Blackman-Santana is my idol. Terri Lyne Carrington and Shirazette TinnenNicole MitchellClaire DailyBria SkonbergTineke PostmaMimi Jones… they’re all awesome.

The imbalance is slowly disappearing, because these talents won’t be denied.

Would you describe yourself as a music critic or a music journalist and why?

I use music journalist on my business cards, but in hindsight, I think music journalists are far more polished than I am. I’m definitely not a critic either. I would have described myself as a critic when I first started out, but not now. I think jazz writer sums me up. Jazz writer AND photographer.

It’s 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?

That’s an interesting question. I have noticed that I’m usually the only unattached woman at shows. I’ve seen single guys at shows, I’ve seen groups of guys, but rarely have I seen women without a male date. How do you get more men to “follow” if they’re already well represented in the audiences? I do think it’s possible that even more men would show up if more women were present at shows, but the same can be true in reverse– find a way to attract more men and women would show up.

That said, I have noticed that there’s no shortage of women in the audiences for jazz artists with crossover appeal. Roy Hargrove‘s shows are always crawling with women. Same thing is true for Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding. Roy Hargrove and Robert Glasper work with hip-hop and neo-soul artists. Esperanza Spalding was thrust into the spotlight. That’s earned them more media attention than many of their colleagues. I’ve not noticed a shortage of women in the audiences for the more popular genres either, so in my opinion it’s not a“where the ladies at?” issue as much as it’s a lack of media coverage issue.

I think if we find a way to get the major, mainstream publications interested in stories about jazz musicians who play jazz music, then audiences could change. I’m working on being a more active contributor, so I hope to do my part to help improve things.

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”?

Honestly speaking, you get out of this work what you put into it– man or woman. I haven’t always put a lot into it, because of the demands of my day job and a few other things, but the world seems to open itself up to me when I’m plugged in.

I have had a few “things that make you say, hmmm” moments as a writer that seem to definitely be “boys club” related, but I’ve learned not to care. One example that I’ve shared before, I’ve approached the same magazine on two separate occasions about contributing articles and I’ve been turned down and told that no new writers were being accepted. I was offered an opportunity to contribute free/unpaid work to their website, but I was told in no uncertain terms that I would not be accepted as a contributor to the magazine. That hurt a little, but it’s hard to be offended by “no new writers,” so I accepted it.

I do buy and read the magazines, so imagine my surprise when I saw new names, of guys I know, added to the list of contributing writers. So much for not accepting new writers. The first time I approached the magazine’s staff about contributing articles was at a JJA Jazz Awards event. I’m sure they’d never heard of me, so maybe my approach was a little too… I don’t know… I acknowledge that I can be a bit aggressive at times, so maybe I was too much. The second time I approached them, maybe they had read my work and decided that they didn’t like it. I have absolutely no idea what their reasons were for not accepting me, but I do know that they didn’t tell me the truth.

I didn’t begin writing about this music because of a publication. I’m here, because I love this music. I’ve found a way to create my own opportunities.

How do your women friends and colleagues view you as a jazz writer?

My friends are happy for me. They know what led me to this music, so they know how excited I am to have access to this world.

I don’t know what my colleagues think of me as a jazz writer or photographer. I’ve never had that conversation with anyone. All I can say is that I’m happy for every writer and/or photographer I’ve ever met. They seem to be accomplishing great things, and I’m pressing forward in hopes of accomplishing great things of my own.

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.

Aside from what I detailed in one of my previous responses, I’d say not really.

The only real difficulty I have had is trying to maintain relationships with publicists and editors.

If an editor changes my work and I question why, it’s not always been received very well. I’m not opposed to having my work changed. In fact, I welcome input from anyone who can help me get better. But why can’t I ask why something’s been changed and why can’t you explain why your change is better? Now, I have to worry about if I’ve offended someone because I’ve asked questions. If a publicist tells me that he/she is going to arrange an interview and I question them about the status while receiving no response, what’s the publicist going to tell the artist about why the interview doesn’t happen? Is it my fault? If I am blamed, do I need to show the artist the unanswered emails I sent out or do I leave it alone? What about publicists from arts organizations who renege on press requests? Should I reply with a “that’s ok, I’ll try again next year,” or Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?! On the flip side, if I’m long overdue on a promise to deliver a review, do they hate me because of it?

These are definitely woman worries. At least they are some of this woman’s worries.

What can be done to encourage more women to write about music in particular, jazz in general?

I do think there are more women writers than we acknowledge. You know me, because of my involvement with JJA and the Clarence Atkins Fellowship, but, after seven plus years in the game, I’m still introducing and reintroducing myself to the same folks. Nobody knows me. Again, some of that is my fault. I could be doing so much more than I am doing; I’m taking steps to make that happen. I can’t imagine I’m the only woman going through this.

I see the JJA monthly members’ updates. There are a good number of women out there doing awesome things but I rarely hear of those things outside of the JJA. When I look at the number of articles women are contributing to major publications, the numbers are unimpressive but at least there’s a presence. I think just like the musicians, women writers and photographers are beginning to put themselves out there more. It’s only a matter of time before we make our presence felt.

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 fortunate enough to see and hear lots of great music during my time as a writer, but last year I realized that there were three artists I’d not yet seen that I really wanted to see: Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter. I can now say that I’ve seen them all!

Aside from those, I’ve attended a few cool festival performances by Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington, Amina Figarova, Winard Harper, Delfeayo Marsalis, Wycliffe Gordon, Ravi Coltrane and Regina Carter. In DC, the Ertegun Jazz Series [presented at the Turkish Embassy] has featured some really awesome performances by Orrin Evans, Helen Sung, Tia Fuller, Jonathan Batiste, Gretchen Parlato, Warren Wolf, Roy Hargrove and Marcus Strickland. And I can’t forget about that James Farm performance at the University of Maryland. They’re fun.

I have plans to increase my festival attendance next year, and I hope to spend more time traveling to NYC for some of those awesome Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts. Jason Moran just became the Artistic Advisor for Jazz at the Kennedy Center, so I’m beyond excited about 2013. I’m going to be all over the place. I can hardly wait!

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