Two prominent jazz artists’ sexism sparks anger – and presents an opportunity: The record: NPR
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Yesterday, on International Women’s Day, most of my friends were on their own. They wore red clothes, named their top five female artists, and posted pictures of mothers and daughters. But in the world of jazz, International Women’s Day was a little more … awkward. We were busy attending a much less festive Women’s Affairs, a series of online events we’ll call the Musical Clitoris Saga.
Yes, some say there is a “musical clitoris” – but don’t worry if you haven’t found yours.. It all started with an interview with Robert Glasper published last weekend on Do the math, the blog of The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson. The treasures of the jazz world Do the math for its insightful content, especially its revealing interviews, in which Iverson’s status as a fellow musician is a distinct advantage.
In the middle of his interview, the charismatic Glasper set out to forge a relationship with Iverson in a way familiar to straight men around the world: by talking about how much women love them. After asserting his own unusually authentic knowledge of R&B, hip-hop and jazz, Glasper brought in flattery: “I’ve had people tell me about your music. ask me: “I heard this band, the Bad Plus, do you know them? “”
“I guess that’s one of the reasons to play, really,” Iverson replied. Yes, Iverson knew what Glasper was talking about. Glasper continued. “I saw what it feels like to the audience, play that groove. I like to make the audience feel that way. Back to women: Women love it. They don’t like solos very much. When you hit that one groove and stay there, it’s like a musical clitoris. You’re there, you stay on that groove, and the women’s eyes close and they start to sway, going into a trance.
Alright it turns out I can’t really Explain “Musical clitoris” as a workable expression of the English language, even in context. It’s just bad.
Glasper’s comments came as a shock to exactly no one who has spent time in the jazz world. I’ve heard variations on the theme “women can’t really follow jazz” since I started going to jazz clubs and liked extremely long solos. To be a female jazz fan and critic is to live with a frustrating incompatibility: I have an intellectual passion for creative and complex music, and sometimes the musicians who make this music doubt my ability to appreciate its creativity and its complexity.
But I would like to thank Glasper for bringing up eroticism in jazz. Jazz lovers too often give up the pleasure of the body to more popular music, while jazz can also awaken the mind, body and soul. But there is no agency in Glasper’s one-sided construction of female eroticism.; claiming that women in general prefer groove to solos sees them as creatures of pure instinct. Confusing a musical atmosphere with the female anatomy makes women passive vessels for male sounds. And how do musicians figure in this gendered construction of improvisation? As Facebook commenters pointed out, Glasper didn’t even seem to realize that a musician could read what he had to say.
Yet even though social media criticized Glasper, they thanked Iverson for not removing Glasper’s sexism from the interview. Better let us see, people said. The truth was certainly good for some retaliatory humor. “It’s so painful when someone starts doing a lot of soloing and takes me out of my horny cat trance completely,” one woman commented. Cultivating a feminist rage against ridiculous language like the “musical clitoris” was certainly impossible for me, especially when that language came from a well-known provocateur like Glasper.
Unfortunately, it turned out that Iverson himself was receiving criticism for the Glasper interview. More sadly still, Iverson responded to this criticism by launching a deaf explanatory follow-up on his blog.
“I’m a liberal and a feminist; so are other liberals and feminists seeing weakness and attacking. That’s part of why Trump won.”
And so, social media went from #smh to #facepalm. If we had read the comments from the Glasper interview with incredulous annoyance, we read Iverson’s response with incredulous indignation. Iverson’s response was a classic defense of sexism: The idea that liberal politics render men incapable of sexism is part of what mobilized women in the anti-war movement to start second wave feminism.
Iverson’s defensive stance inevitably attracted some scrutiny. Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, MacArthur ‘genius’ scholarship winner and Harvard professor, did some math on Iverson’s blog and posted the results on Facebook: “‘I’m a liberal and I’m a feminist’ said a man who posted interviews with forty-two men and zero women. “
Ouch. (I’ll admit right off the bat that I never noticed the omission of Iverson’s women.) As one Facebook commenter put it, “Really, you must be wondering why there wasn’t one. A.” She added, “It’s the kind of thing we’re getting used to, unfortunately.” Hundreds of people liked Vijay’s post, and many female musicians thanked him for having the character craning his neck.. But I also agree that not everyone appreciates Iyer’s relatively secure position in the jazz industry; Not everyone has the prestige of overcoming the potential career backlash by exposing Iverson’s hypocrisy.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, Glasper was not Taking the highway: “‘Jazz Police’ is funny..if you love jazz so much, stop complaining about my quotes you don’t understand and make a good album and stop shitting.”
Iverson returned to his blog yesterday to quote his feminist references, but as legitimate as they are, they don’t excuse him from taking responsibility for what he says and does. The many online apologists for Iverson and Glasper dismissed their sexist remarks as clumsy gestures from good old boys. But inadvertent sexist remarks, such as inadvertent racist remarks, can be more revealing, as they often indicate more fundamental and systemic discrimination. The jazz world has the right – and, some would argue, the duty – to criticize speech that promotes sexist culture, whether that speech has malicious or benign intent.
Iverson’s harshness towards his critics can have an even darker effect. In another follow-up article, Iverson said his online reviews had taken on the tone of a “hate mob that has found its next victim.” Most of us don’t want to be part of a hate crowd, and tellingly there has been radio silence on this dust from some generally opinionated members of the jazz industry. A fear of weighing in here would not be unfounded, as again there could be negative professional repercussions for the criticism of these powerful musicians.
For better or for worse, the musical clitoral saga has unleashed itself in the world of jazz. I’m glad it is. Much feminist work in jazz has focused on the lofty goals of celebrating marginalized female musicians in the genre. and advocate for equal representation for them in today’s bandstands. As necessary as the representation is, this scandal reveals that the question of women in jazz goes further, in a gendered construction of music itself. We need an intelligent public debate on gendered notions of jazz, and this hot mess might just as well be the impetus for that discussion. As one industry veteran woman said online, “It may take a bomb like this to reset the course.”
If anyone is still wondering why we need an International Women’s Day, please check out the Musical Clitoris Saga. Start here, or just keep your eyes peeled online. Fortunately for jazz, this tragicomedy is still unfolding, which means there is still time to make it count for something good.
Michelle Mercer reviews jazz and other music for All things Considered.