A Woman’s perspective pt. 7: author Karen Chilton

The latest contributor to our ongoing dialogue with women jazz writers and so far one photographer, is author Karen Chilton. Among Karen’s notable contributions are books on the lives of two exceptional artists, pianist Hazel Scott and vocalist Gloria Lynne, who fit the bill of underrated/overlooked. I first met Karen at a Randy Weston book signing for “African Rhythms” in Brooklyn; later she contributed to our Ain’t But a Few of Us conversation with African American jazz writers, and here she returns for one Woman’s Perspective on the challenges of writing about jazz music.

Please list your writing affiliations and any books or other projects you’re working on currently that you’d like to mention.

HAZEL SCOTT: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist from Café Society to Hollywood to HUAC (University of Michigan Press) by Karen Chilton

I WISH YOU LOVE by Gloria Lynne & Karen Chilton (co-author)

AIN’T NOTHING LIKE THE REAL THING: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment (Edited by Richard Carlin and Kinshasha Holman Conwill) “The Empress Bessie Smith” by Karen Chilton (contributor)

Current work-in-progress: CONVERGENCE a stage play by Karen Chilton (Note: The lead male character is a jazz pianist. Looking forward to collaborating with Jonathan Batiste on original compositions for the play).

What has been your experience writing about music in general jazz in particular?

For me, this work has always been a labor of love—heavy on the labor, deep in love. You go into it knowing that your subject matter is not mainstream, that this is not a commercial pursuit. There will be no significant capital gains, no record-breaking book sales, no swarms of recognition… Generally speaking, when it comes to jazz as a subject, publishers are difficult to secure, the amount of distribution your book receives can be a challenge, and the marketing/p.r. will likely be up to you. So, once you’ve faced those realities, you adjust your expectations appropriately, and write the best book you can for that small but devoted audience that you know will appreciate your efforts. For those of us who truly love the music, writing about jazz and its legends is a privilege. The experience, I suppose, is a duplicitous one — a sometimes thankless job that you’re eternally grateful to be doing.

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

I quite literally fell into this work. I am an actor & writer…and an avid music lover, jazz in particular. I moved to New York from Chicago in ’92 to pursue a career in the theater. Just weeks prior to my big move, I wrote a ‘letter to the editor’ of Mirabella magazine after reading an article about the great Senegelese artist Youssou N’Dour. The writer of the article had gone on a diatribe about how African Americans don’t support African music. Long story short, I offered another perspective on the situation, and it was published in the next issue. At the time, Spike Lee was working with N’Dour and had just produced a video for him. Someone from Spike’s camp saw my letter in Mirabella, and contacted me to thank me for writing what I did. I told her I’d be moving to New York in just a few weeks to begin my acting career, as well as my day job as a contributing writer for DIASPORA magazine (formerly CLASS magazine). She suggested that we meet and arranged for me to interview Youssou N’Dour! An auspicious beginning, to be sure. The piece was well-received by an international readership. From that point forward, the publisher asked me to focus primarily on music for the magazine. Writing about music felt like the most natural thing in the world. I continued with features on artists like Seal, Sade, and Jon Lucien. By the time my first book opportunity rolled around (many years later) with jazz vocalist, Gloria Lynne [“I Wish You Love”], I had dozens of music articles to present as a ‘track record’ to publishers. Although I didn’t necessarily set out to do this work, I’ve welcomed it as one aspect of my artistic life; a great departure that, in many ways, helps ground and balance everything else.

Oddly enough, it is the actor in me, not the writer that is intrigued by the lives and careers of performing artists. It is an incessant curiosity about what makes performers tick, what makes us get up on a stage and do what we do; a curiosity centered on a performer’s instincts, our impulses. The stories of African American performers, past and present, are an endless source of inspiration. Even with regard to my recent work writing jazz memoir/biographies, it has all been fueled by my actor’s inquisitiveness. It is a character study. And once the writing is done, the hope is that my curiosity results in some compelling storytelling. Storytelling is how I tend to look at both careers as an actor and a writer. They are extensions of one another. Now whether the story I want to tell reveals itself as a book, a play, or a poem is not up to me, and I know better than to question it. Essentially, whether it’s on the stage or the page, it is the expression of the same gift. In fact, it was Youssou N’Dour who said to me all those years ago: “We are both griots.”

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

It has been a positive experience by virtue of the fact that I get to do it. There are worse ways to spend your time than having stimulating conversations with great musicians who are passionate about their life’s work, digging through the archives of vintage magazines and photos romanticizing about an era gone by, researching, writing and contributing a little something of your own to the jazz archives. Yet, it’s not been without its challenges. Because I am not affiliated with any organizations, universities, newspapers, magazines or media outlets, it is the one area of my career that is almost entirely autonomous. I choose my own subject matter—write what I want, when I want. I don’t have to wait on a phone call to be given the greenlight to put pen to paper. It only gets dicey when I have to pitch my work to the publishing industry and get them to co-sign my ideas. Without those aforementioned affiliations, my credibility is always in question. It takes a tremendous amount of patience having to prove yourself repeatedly in an industry where, with every published project, you think you’ve gained some ground… until you discover you’re back at square one. And I do believe that has a lot to do with the industry’s lack of interest in jazz writing in general because of its limited commercial appeal.

I’ve worked with large and small publishers and for HAZEL SCOTT, a university press. The frustration was the same. Writing about jazz, I’ve always gotten the sense that there is a presumption, whether it’s unspoken or not, that a woman writer’s understanding of the music and ability to write about it is limited. It’s a subtle thing. It can mean that after you’ve done all your homework and presented a solid draft, an editor feels he has to school you on some names, dates, or events that you may have left out. Or in your pitch to publishers, you realize that you’re in there trying to convince them not only of the validity and worthiness of women in jazz as a subject but also your ability as a woman to write about the subject. My experience has been tainted by both gender and racial bias. I recall during my Hazel Scott journey, an editor remarked: “This is a great idea for a book… it would be a great book, if it was written by someone else.” Well, someone else like whom? Why wouldn’t a Black woman writer be trusted to write the life story of another Black woman? Is our history, the history of Black music, our people, our artists, not safe in our own hands? All of these issues have come into play for me throughout my journey as a writer. It’s the dicey part.

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?

Patriarchy. It is simply a reflection of the larger patriarchal society in which we all live. Jazz remains male-dominated, male-centered, male-identified. Historically, women have been expected to look pretty and sing with the band, not swing with the band. That expectation, I think, still persists. No one expected a beautiful woman to pick up a trumpet and blow like Valaida Snow did back in the day. It was considered less than feminine. Not women’s work. It has so much to do with our definitions of the female role in society. When you consider the fact that quite a few legendary jazz vocalists like Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae were very fine musicians, you have to conclude that they did what was necessary in order to have lasting musical careers. Of course there are exceptions, Mary Lou Williams, Hazel Scott, Marian McPartland, Dorothy Donegan, and the popular all-girl orchestras that were the rage in the 1930s and 40s. But their stories are filled with the trials and tribulations associated with being female musicians in a male-dominated industry. Even today, it must be difficult terrain to navigate for women instrumentalists. When you look at the success of Esperanza Spalding, who is both a wonderful vocalist and musician, you wonder how that career would have unfolded if she had just played the bass and never sang a note.

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

Neither. I often feel like an interloper. I’m definitely not a music critic—I listen to what I like and, admittedly, I’m far too in love with the subject to write objectively about it. A journalist, definitely not. I am simply an artist who writes to support my acting habit. My tendency to write about jazz and include jazz in many of the creative works I develop is out of a deep passion for the music.

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?

Quite honestly, I haven’t really looked at the audience development issue from the vantage point of gender. I’ve always looked at it from the perspective of race. I’ve spent more time contemplating why there aren’t more African Americans in the audience at jazz concerts than why there aren’t more women. When I frequent Dizzy’s Club or Jazz at Lincoln Center or the Newport Jazz Festival, I see plenty of couples; what I don’t see is African Americans in large numbers.

I’m interested in exploring what efforts can be made to generate more interest in the music among the American masses. Perhaps it’s a matter of marketing. Maybe the promotion of new jazz recordings, jazz festivals and concerts needs to be re-worked to target a wider audience and not just the tried-and-true devoted jazzbeaus. Jazz has a tendency to come across as a unique, elite world. Not everyone feels welcome. [Editor’s note: I’m reminded here of poet Sekou Sundiata’s line about how he wasn’t into John Coltrane at first because he felt he needed “…to belong to something…” to get Trane] Or perhaps they’ve lost interest. Maybe it’s an image problem where the general public doesn’t view jazz as being new or modern or progressive. And certainly jazz labels aren’t able to spend the major dollars that commercial labels spend to promote their artists. I’m grasping at straws here because it’s a puzzling situation, and I’m afraid I don’t have a cogent answer.

This question also leads to a larger discussion about what is and isn’t jazz. I’ve noticed that many of the festivals promoted as “Jazz Fests” in major cities are really not jazz at all. The lineup is full of more R&B and Soul artists than legit jazz artists. So, the term is used so loosely which further complicates marketing and promotion efforts. You don’t always know what you’re getting.

There does seem to be some new excitement among younger audiences now with the ever-expanding popularity of artists like Esperanza Spalding and Robert Glasper. I’m also inspired by the young lions on the scene Jonathan Batiste, Aaron Diehl, Kris Bowers, among others. There’s hope, yet.

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”?

It’s definitely not the nature of the music. Music has no gender.

Nevertheless, it was once suggested to me that jazz is a medium that demands a certain male energy, a kind of high-testosterone virility that’s needed to really handle an instrument that women simply don’t come by easily; that female sensibilities are better suited to song, interpreting a lyric, bringing emotional depth to a tune… unless she’s playing an instrument that is considered more feminine—a flute, perhaps, or a harp, a violin. Now, I thought this comment was rather absurd but, again, I think it comes down to our perceptions of the female role in this music and in the larger society in general that frames this discussion. Where do we fit? Who gets to judge? And in the final analysis, does it really matter as long as the end result is great music? I mean, is there something particularly masculine about the sound of Oscar Peterson and specifically feminine about Mary Lou Williams?

Early in my career, a literary agent asked me why I bothered writing about jazz—“You can’t make any money off of that,” she said. “And besides, all those books are written by European men anyway.” So, according to her, it’s not just a ‘boy’s club’ –it’s male, white, and probably not even American. Her comments stayed with me for awhile, and I don’t think she was totally off base. The suggestion here is that people from other nations might have a greater interest and respect for this American music form than we do.

While I don’t think there is any overt exclusionary process keeping women from writing about jazz, I do believe there is an expectation that writers on the subject should be men.

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.

Proving gender bias is a delicate matter. It’s rarely overt, like modern racism. It comes at you ever so subtly. It’s having your ideas dismissed before they are even given careful consideration. It’s being condescended to as if you aren’t fully capable of handling the task at hand. It’s how something is said, not necessarily what’s being said that can leave you feeling like you’re merely being tolerated, not respected. I remember when working on HAZEL SCOTT, the editor wanted me to “hurry up and get to the music.” Well, I had access to Hazel’s personal journals and she spent a great deal of time writing about her childhood. I recognized how important her upbringing was to her overall success so I wanted to honor that in the book. The editor felt that the early chapters were “too precious” but I’m writing about a child prodigy—so, how can I skip over the childhood? And why should I? What’s the rush? Is it the page count? I’ve seen biographies on male musicians that were four and five hundred pages long, why do I have to get this woman’s story in under 300 (including the source notes, bibliography, and index)? We worked through it but I did feel a certain kind of impatience coming from the publisher’s end. Fortunately, we were able to find a middle ground, but I STILL wish I had a few more of her wonderful childhood stories in the book that were cut. Here I am years later, mourning that 100 pages that were crossed out with red marker. Oh well.

A more egregious experience was when a writer contacted me by phone and asked if I could help him with some research for a book he was writing on a lesser known jazz musician, a sideman for many greats. I’m typically more than happy to help out a fellow writer, but how this writer found me was a bit shady. Turns out, his editor had GIVEN him my book proposal for HAZEL SCOTT. A proposal he had in his possession because the publishing house had passed on my project. Apparently, they found my work very thorough, well-researched and well-written and believed that this first-time author could benefit from my expertise. Now. Let me get this straight—the same editor that passed on my project somehow thought it was cool for him to pass along my book proposal (full of five + years of research), photos, marketing ideas, endorsements, contact information, etc. to a writer whose book idea he did choose to publish? I was expected to graciously assist this first-time author writing a biography about a lesser-known sideman who landed a deal with a major publisher who passed on my project but thought I was just the person to help HIM? I still can’t fathom why either of them thought this was anything but insulting. Needless to say, that was a very brief conversation.

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

For us girls to keep doing what we’re doing. I’ve seen firsthand what a source of inspiration we can be to other women when we show up at book signings and events where they can see us, hear us, read our work. There is a certain level of camaraderie that exists among women writers. While I may not be able to hook up a fellow woman writer with an agent or a publisher (as I’ve often been asked to do), I can give her the lowdown on how to navigate the terrain, real information that can help light the way.

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 last year, I can only recall experiences. It’s been a minute since I’ve written about jazz. One of the most amazing concerts I attended was the tour de force duo of pianists Jonathan Batiste and Aaron Diehl at Dizzy’s Club. Aaron reminded me of what it must have felt like to see Billy Strayhorn or Teddy Wilson back in the day and Jonathan is such an original character, so adventurous and ambitious, an old soul with a youthful spirit. It was wonderful. Roy Hargrove at the Village Vanguard last year also blew my mind. I’m a huge fan of his. Huge. In fact, I wrote HAZEL SCOTT to his album ROY HARGROVE WITH STRINGS. I listened to it over and over for hours each day. There was something in those arrangements that was comforting, not at all distracting. And Wynton Marsalis’ MIDNIGHT BLUES which is also trumpet with strings that I listened to repeatedly during that process. Why I chose to listen to trumpets while writing about a pianist, who knows…


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