Jazz writing: A woman’s perspective Pt. 2

Shortly after we began this series of dialogues with women jazz writers, in part focusing on the subject of their various challenges towards achieving bylines in the jazz prints, along came JazzTimes magazine’s September 2012 issue – The Women’s Issue. A short survey of the issue revealed eleven pieces of reportage and interview with women artists, which is certainly laudable. The major pieces in the issue are interviews with Anat Cohen, Cassandra Wilson, and Jenny Scheinman – two essentially emerging artists, one well-established. OK, lookin’ good so far JT.

Then the acid test, surveying the various bylines of writers who contributed to The Women’s Issue. Surprising from the perspective of the theme of this issue, but not surprising I suppose from the women writers out here striving mightily for bylines (including writers like our Pt. 1 contributor Bridget Arnwine, who was summarily turned down by one of the major jazz mags because supposedly they already had enough contributors – only to experience new male writers joining said publication’s contributors’ list AFTER she had made her pitch). of those eleven pieces on women in The Women’s Issue there is – wait for it – but one solitary woman contributor. The very thoughtful and brilliant flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell contributed the piece “Women in the Avant-Garde”… which wound up on the very last page of The Women’s Issue. As the world turns…

Our series continues with a contribution from Andrea Canter.

Andrea Canter

Please list your writing affiliations and any books or other projects you’re currently working on that you’d like mentioned in the introduction. Please also attach a jpeg photo of yourself, or whatever image you prefer to represent you, when you return your responses.

Writing Affiliations: JazzINK (www.jazzink.com); Jazz Police (www.jazzpolice.com); blog at www.jazzink.blogspot.com

Photography (in addition to above): Twin Cities Jazz Festival

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

I began writing about music/jazz by accident. A long-term jazz fan, after attending a local gig at the Artists Quarter (Craig Taborn, Anthony Cox and Dave King) in 2003, I found myself writing about it in an email to several friends, including Craig’s mom who passed it on to Craig. Craig told me “you should have your own website” to post my writings. My web and technical skills seemed to preclude that idea. But I started looking at jazz sites on the web and a few months later came across Jazz Police. Coincidentally it was the first day the site went live, and administrator Don Berryman was seeking material to post and writers to contribute. I sent him my review of Taborn et al as an example, and he posted it (three months after the fact). I became the Contributing Editor overnight. I retired from my long-time day job a few months later and this became my second career. So it was sort of spontaneous combustion.

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

Initially it was just a way of communicating my feelings about the music to others, as a way of expressing what moved me about jazz in lay terms. Since I was not a musician myself, I wanted to make jazz come alive for others like me—more or less intelligent but untrained consumers. Too many people regard jazz as “ivory tower” music requiring extensive training to understand and appreciate. I wanted to write for a more generic but curious listener – it’s the only way jazz will expand its audience. Actually my motivation has not changed—this is still the audience I most want to reach. Jazz can still be “people’s music” as it was 100 years ago –it brings diverse people and cultures together, and that is the audience I hope will read my writings.

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

Because I have a good pension, I am not dependent on my writing or photography for survival, so my experience is different from someone who needs her work to be compensated to make ends meet. I make my own decisions about what I write about, how much I take on, and usually the timeline. Most of my experiences have been positive—I love the people I work with, the musicians I interview and promote, and the audience response that I receive is generally very positive. I only review something I like and want others to enjoy and recognize that we all have specific tastes in music or art generally, and if I don’t like something, it probably will appeal to someone else. My only really negative experience has come from a short stint writing assigned CD reviews for a publication that disregarded writers’ intents and perspectives in their editing process. When I read reviews in that publication now, I wonder whose opinions are actually expressed. It’s made me extra cautious in editing material submitted to my sites.

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 it is the same imbalance we see in other professions – women dominate in the ranks of elementary school teachers while men still dominate (in most areas) in university teaching. Men used to dominate in professions that required advanced graduate school training like law and medicine, not so much now but historically men dominated our field of journalism and still do in some areas like sports and…jazz. Historically women have been encouraged to be singers in male dominated bands and discouraged from the “tough life” on the road of touring artists. One could also look at the collateral imbalance—not so many men in the ranks of prominent jazz singers, versus instrumentalists. Maybe singing has been considered womens’ work? Or men had a wider range of options? I think the imbalance is slowly changing as we see more and more women leading their own ensembles, rising in the ranks of composers and arrangers, represented in critics and readers polls in areas outside voice. And that shift is occurring outside jazz, outside music as well. It takes a while for at least some professions to catch up with general changes in society. Women today are not limiting themselves, or being limited by others, to follow professions with family-friendly hours. There are more role models for young women who play piano, horns, bass and drums so over the next generation I expect we will see more and more women instrumentalists in jazz. I doubt that means we will see fewer women vocalists. I think we will just see more women in jazz, period. But I wonder if we will also see more male vocalists?

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

I consider myself a music journalist, but I believe that term encompasses criticism, or at least it could. My first priority is to promote jazz broadly — to inform readers about local and national artists, upcoming performances, material that will enhance their enjoyment of stars and rising stars, and introduce them to new artists and trends. Sometimes that will include my perspective on recent performances and recordings. I am not a musician and my “criticism” is not sophisticated in a technical sense, but I will share my reactions on music in an artistic and emotional sense that hopefully will resonate with listeners and potential listeners who make up the majority of audiences and the general jazz market. And typically I present my reactions as a means of promoting jazz, not knocking it down, so I generally publish about music and musicians I am trying to highlight. That does not mean I like everything, I don’t. I believe I listen and evaluate “critically” but what I choose to spend my time writing about is usually the music that moves me–the music I want to share. I think this precludes labeling myself a “critic” although I will participate in “critics polls.” I like that experience — considering favorites, the “best.” I’m glad we don’t try to come up with the “worst” of the year!

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? 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”?

Actually I think writing about most anything that is not traditionally viewed as “women’s work” can be described as coming from a “man’s world.” Women do not make up a large share of the writers about sports, science, arts in general, politics, etc. — nonfiction across the board. I don’t think the nature of the music has anything to do with it, but the nature of the music business has everything to do with it. As women become more prevalent as instrumental performers, publicists, producers and broadcasters of music, they will become more prevalent as critics and general writers. And certainly as women become more prevalent consumers of jazz, there will be more women writing about it.

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

I don’t see any gender differences in the reactions of friends and colleagues. I don’t think my women friends give the fact that I am a woman writing about jazz any thought at all – not that they mention anyway. They are generally encouraging and seem to find my writing useful, entertaining and credible. (Or else they are extremely tactful!)

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 think print media tends to be a good ol’ boys club but not sure that is limited to jazz or music, it seems to be the general nature of journalism. It’s not easy to find a way into the major print journals as a writer, it seems easier as a photographer, although even at that it’s difficult to be “new”, male or female. I don’t know that I have been impeded directly by gender issues. My online experiences have been pretty gender-free; my main outlet is a site with a male administrator and I otherwise have my own sites. I’ve been invited to participate in other outlets by male and female writers and editors. Still, both writing and photography in jazz are still dominated by men as editors, staff writers, staff photographers. And perhaps there will have to be a big shift toward balance in instrumental musicians before we see more balance in terms of who is writing about them. But that goes two-ways. Maybe more women need to be in positions to promote jazz in order for more women to see jazz as a viable profession.

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

My thoughts here are not limited to writing about music, but to writing (broadcasting, communicating) more generally. Women need to feel that their opinions are valued by men. Period. We’ll share our thoughts if we believe there’s an interested audience, an audience that finds us credible, knowledgeable, worth listening to. A lot of girls and young women participate in music in school through high school. A lot continue with music into college. Women generally are interested in music and surely have significant opinions and make up a significant share of the audience –even at jazz events. Women certainly have the language skills to articulate their opinions!

Women need to become more assertive in sharing their interests and opinions about music just as they have needed to be more assertive in other areas. Schools can do more to encourage young women to express themselves by providing role models, both on faculty and as visiting instructors. Are women teaching writing and journalism as well as music classes? Are schools bringing women journalists and musicians (especially jazz musicians) from the community into the schools to work with students—especially the young women? Are college journalism programs addressing arts journalism and encouraging participation from women students? Are music and general publications actively seeking women to participate as writers and reviewers? Are critics polls striving to have a more equitable gender balance of participants? Are print and online sources seeking women in editorial and management positions?

Those of us who are women writers in music and jazz need to actively mentor and encourage young women who show the slightest interest in joining “the club.” That starts with encouraging them to become an active part of the jazz audience. And that starts early. Moms and dads, bring your sons AND daughters to band concerts, jazz concerts. Download music for them to hear throughout the day. And encourage them to share their reactions to music with friends and family. Just talking about it is a great first step.

What have been some of the most personally satisfying music performances you’ve either written about or simply experienced over the last year?

In the past year – Writing about and particularly seeing/hearing live “Speak the Truth” with Angelique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright at the 2011 Detroit Jazz Festival; two live performances by newbie New York vocalist Nancy Harms, both in somewhat unusual configurations that truly use voice as a collaborative instrument – Double Bass/Double Voice (with vocalist Emily Braden and bassist Steve Whipple) and Finger Songwriter CD release tour with Jeremy Siskind (piano) and Lucas Pino (sax); Sheila Jordan, observing her master class and then her duo with bassist Cameron Brown at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival; Vijay Iyer’s two-night mini-festival at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis where he performed two sets solo and sets in collaboration with his two trios (Tirtha and Vijay Iyer Trio) and in duets with Wadada Leo Smith and Mike Ladd; the Bad Plus with Joshua Redman at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival—the collaboration seemed to push both Redman and TBP to a new zone of music, even more interesting than what they have done on their own. Beyond those events, performances by students musicians, in their own ensembles and as guests with professional bands.

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5 Responses to Jazz writing: A woman’s perspective Pt. 2

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