By taking the stage with 15 musicians, none of whom is female, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra presents the music as segregated and outdated.
By Clea Simon
Wynton Marsalis seeks respect. When the Celebrity Series brought his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to Symphony Hall on Sunday to perform the music of Duke Ellington, the program was in keeping with Marsalis’s overall mission to establish (enshrine?) jazz as America’s classical music, defying decades of racism and racially biased neglect. Ellington fits this message perfectly, as the great American composer who was famously denied the Pulitzer Prize during his lifetime despite brilliant compositions, several of which were beautifully performed on Sunday (Arts Fuse review). And in unspoken rebuke to such prejudiced slights, the orchestra is both multi-ethnic and multigenerational: a rainbow of musicians performing pieces that deserve to be heard by all. And yet, for this listener, the overall effect was discordant, though it took a few numbers before I realized why. As band member after band member stood to solo, it finally hit me. Every one of the 15-piece orchestra was male.
This jarring realization threw me back to my own musical youth, playing bass in rock and jazz bands in the ‘70s. Although I loved the music – loved to play – I recall well how odd it felt to be the only female in any given combo. How awkward to be up on the stage, and not dancing before it, like the other girls my age. I was no virtuoso, and therefore it was unlikely that I would have pursued a musical career in any case, but this isolation didn’t help. However, I was reminded at Symphony Hall of those gigs decades ago – at least back then I was up there, on the podium. Feeling odd, perhaps, but definitely a member of the band.
Rock and pop have certainly changed since then. Punk encouraged the do-it-yourself sensibility that brought female (and non-heteronormative) musicians to the fore, making underground stars of performers like the Slits and Patti Smith, Suzi Quatro and Joan Jett. The riot grrrl movement of the ‘90s pushed gender equality further with bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. But even the seemingly staid world of classical music has evolved. As a result of the adoption of blind “curtain” auditions in the ’70s, for example, the percentage of female musicians in the top 10 U.S. classical orchestras – including the Boston Symphony – has risen from roughly 5% to 35%. These days, it’s the rare orchestra that remains all male. Contemporary jazz – an admittedly cerebral, progressive art form – has also worked to embrace gender equity. Even beyond stars like Harvard professor Esperanza Spalding (a bassist like me) and Brookline’s own Grace Kelly, the field is full of journeymen female musicians. Players like Ingrid Jensen and Jennifer Wharton routinely play in the bands of bigger names, like Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, without any fanfare about their gender.
Equality doesn’t have to mean that every performing group is integrated. There will continue to be small groups of one binary gender, just as there are of one race or ethnicity. Creativity – and the friendship that often first brings musicians together – doesn’t answer to quota. However, ideally we are working toward a more equitable landscape where, for each such self-selected small group, another with a different makeup – or, even better, a more mixed composition – will share the stages and the opportunities to reach an audience, make a living with its art, and inspire another generation.
As I sat in the packed Symphony Hall, however, I could not see Wynton’s band as part of that vision. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is no small group of friends. An internationally touring ensemble, Marsalis’s band is the flagship jazz orchestra of the day, the one that he is using to establish the importance of jazz around the world. Taking the stage with 15 musicians, none of whom is female, presents the music as segregated and outdated. Ellington would understand that landscape, but Marsalis should know that isn’t what his art is about.
A former journalist, Clea Simon is the author of three nonfiction books and 25 mysteries. A contributor to such publications as the Boston Globe, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle, she lives in Somerville with her husband, Jon Garelick. She can be reached here and on @Clea_Simon.