Part 4 in our series of dialogues with women jazz writers on their triumphs and challenges in the medium, and how gender may have influenced their experience, continues with a young woman in the early stages of her efforts at documenting the music in her community and beyond. Based in Detroit, one of the historic cauldrons of jazz history particularly as the birthplace of a raft of great musicians, Veronica Grandison was an early respondent to the beginning of this dialogue and we wanted to get a sense of the experience of someone relatively new to jazz journalism – and someone whose entry point was through web-based journalism, with particular interest in her story of how she became determined to write about jazz and other music.
I am currently a freelance writer for The Jazz Line, an online jazz news website. I write album and concert reviews, and also write feature articles on various jazz musicians. My work has appeared in Real Detroit Weekly, a metro Detroit entertainment publication, and Model D, an online Detroit based magazine. I also manage my own music blog called Roots, Rhythm, and Rhyme. I am in the process of starting an online magazine called ColorBlind, with two friends of mine. The magazine will be devoted to young, minority women ages 15-26, and will cover topics such as lifestyle, culture, politics, travel, and entertainment. The mission of the magazine is to present positive representations of women and celebrate their accomplishments. The magazine will be launched in Summer 2012.
What has been your experience writing about music in general jazz in particular?
My experience writing about music has been good so far. I am still in the very beginning stages of my career as a music writer, but I have received some great advice from other music critics and I am continuing to learn more about this remarkable art form. I love the idea of being able to express my opinion about music through the written word. People are always going to have opinions about topics such as music, politics, education, and so forth, but it is such an exhilarating feeling being able to share my opinion about something I am passionate about and allowing people from around the world to read my work.
What was it about writing about music that attracted you to this pursuit initially?
I have wanted to be a journalist ever since I was a sophomore in high school, and writing has been a passion of mine since I was very young. It was not until I reached college that I decided to fuse both my love for writing and music together. After taking a jazz music history course my freshman year of college, I became hooked on jazz and wanted to learn as much as I could about the music of artists such as Art Blakey, Benny Golson, Charlie Mingus, and all of these other brilliant musicians whom I had never heard of before. I wanted to inform everyone I knew about how important this music is to our culture, and how much of an impact it has had on American music itself. Once the class was over, I thought that one of the ways I could share my experience with jazz and encourage others to learn more about the music was to write about it. In addition to writing about jazz, I also find great pleasure in writing about the music that I grew up listening to like hip-hop and R&B. As a fan of music, I love the idea of being able to not only express my opinion about a particular song or musician, but being able to start social discussions that go beyond music. Society plays such an important role in shaping music and its rewarding knowing that one opinion could progress into something way beyond my expectations.
Would you describe your experiences writing about music as overall positive, and if so why or why not?
My experience writing about music has been overall positive. I have been able to connect with some great writers and learned so much about music writing from my mentor Charles Latimer, who is a jazz writer for the [Detroit-area] Metro Times. I have also been able to interview some incredible musicians that are continuing to elevate the standard of musical expression. Of course, there have been challenges along the way, mainly with me trying to make a name for myself in various music communities. When you are not well known, as in any field, that makes it more difficult to get published in magazines and journals. However, every time I see my work published, it just encourages me to continue to strive for excellence so that I can make a difference in the music journalism field.
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?
It is unfortunate that we have come so far as a country, both from a racial and gender related standpoint, and many female jazz instrumentalists are still not ranked on the same level as men professionally. I’m glad to see that there are a lot more female instrumentalists making a name for themselves, but when it comes to promotion and performances, sometimes the gender biases are still there. Take an artist like Esperanza Spalding for instance. She is a phenomenal bassist, but I believe it has been easier for her to claim the spotlight in jazz because of the fact that she is also a vocalist. Just like it was during the 30s, 40s, and 50s, the same is still true that it is much easier for women to get credit and take the spotlight in the jazz field if they are vocalists. But, I always think that just because many female jazz instrumentalists did not get credit during the heyday of jazz, it doesn’t mean that they were not around. For every Louis Armstrong there was a Melba Liston, and for every Count Basie, there was a Mary Lou Williams. The same thing remains true today. For every Branford Marsalis, there is a Tia Fuller, and for every Roy Haynes, there is a Terri Lynn Lyne Carrington.
Would you describe yourself as a music critic or a music journalist and why?
I see myself as both a music critic and music journalist. It is mainly a matter of what I am writing about and on what level. Coming from a news journalism background, I had gotten so used to reporting from an objective standpoint, so it took me a few years to get comfortable writing from a more biased perspective. As a music critic, I feel most effective because I do not have to sugarcoat anything and I can let my opinion speak for itself. However, I also feel that my voice can be heard as a music journalist because I can inform the public about various issues going on in the music business. I really have a lot of respect for music critics such as Amiri Baraka and Stanley Crouch, who were never afraid to voice their opinion about African American music, regardless of how unpopular their views may have been. They are critics who I aspire to be like.
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 don’t think it’s just mainly a matter of getting more women to attend jazz concerts, but how do we get more young people interested in the music and willing to come out to jazz concerts and festivals. I have attended plenty of concerts and seen many women there, but a majority of the women were older and either were with their husbands or were there alone.
I think the older you get, the less concerned you are with going to events with a group of people or having to be with someone when at a concert. I recently attended a jazz concert at a museum and there were more older women there than younger women and they were just as excited to be there as any other person.
I think social media has done a good job of promoting jazz events to the younger generation and it is an area that has helped to further bridge the gap between young and older jazz audiences. But, there can always be more done to encourage both women and our youth to be engaged in jazz.
I also believe that if female instrumentalists were promoted in the mainstream more often, then that could also help with attracting a larger female-based jazz audience. There have been times when I have gone to see Detroit based female jazz instrumentalists, and there have been more women in the room than men. But, if you are not really engaged in the jazz community or know female instrumentalists personally, then it is more difficult to find out when they are performing.
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”?
The music industry itself has always been viewed as a men’s club, and with writing it is no different. I do not necessarily believe it has a whole lot to do with the nature of the music, but mainly with who is in charge of things. Many magazines, or in particular music publications are run by men, and so that makes it more difficult for a women to move up the ranks if a man continues to hire other men in editorial and other managerial fields of the publication. In a perfect world, there would be an even balance of both men and women in management positions when it comes to the music industry or running a publication, and that would help with there being more female music writers as well as editors.
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.
Thankfully, I have not yet come across any issues as a music writer where my gender has played a role in whether or not I get a writing gig. But, I can say just being a woman, and knowing that women are not in the majority when it comes to music criticism, that was somewhat of a discouraging feeling when I began to pursue a career in music journalism.
Most of the music writers whose work I read about in college and even to this day are men, and it has really taken some digging and searching to find many female music writers, particularly those who focus on jazz. So, when I read the work of writers such as Valerie Wilmer or Linda Dahl, it’s encouraging to know that they made it in spite of gender discrimination and that their struggles made it possible for me to achieve success as a music writer.
What can be done to encourage more women to write about music in particular, jazz in general?
There are a lot of female music writers out here and there is a growing number of female jazz writers. But, the reason why it’s hard to find them is because many are grouped into certain communities. If you are not active in the jazz community or read jazz magazines such as Downbeat or Jazz Times, then you wouldn’t know that many exist. I think it is important for writers, especially female writers to not be boxed into a particular category or to only associate themselves with one musical clique. I try not to label myself as only a jazz writer because I know that there are so many opportunities available in this field, and I want to take advantage of as much of it as I can. I hope that with the magazine I am starting, I will be able to give more young women the opportunity to write about music and pursue their passion in this field without having to go through a ton of steps before they have their articles published.
What have been some of the most personally satisfying music performances you’ve either written about or simply experienced over the last year?
Seeing saxophonist Benny Golson perform a few months ago was one of the highlights of my life. I have been a fan of his ever since I first heard him on Art Blakey’s Moanin album, and it was such a gratifying experience to not only see him perform classic tunes, but being able to write a review about his performance was also very rewarding. Robert Glasper is another artist who put on an incredible show this year. I thought his Black Radio album was a great collaborative effort, and it was cool to hear the entire album in a live concert setting. Some of my friends had not heard of Robert Glasper, so I was glad that my review of his concert and album encouraged them to want to listen to his music. I am really looking forward to the Detroit Jazz Festival, which takes place in a few weeks. I cannot wait to see Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter perform, who are both living jazz legends. I made it a mission to see a jazz legend whenever they come to town because I never know when they might come back to my city. Reviewing the festival performance of Rollins and Shorter will definitely be another highlight of my writing career as well.