The Absent Women of Jazz Both La La Land and Whiplash present jazz as existing in an almost entirely masculine realm.

In the new film La La Land, aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) startles her love interest, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist longing for his own jazz club, by telling him, “I should probably tell you something now, to get it out of the way. I hate jazz.”

Disturbed, Sebastian whisks Mia to a jazz club to outline the finer points of jazz appreciation. Speaking over a live jazz combo, and barely able to contain himself, he tells her that jazz is “conflict and compromise. It’s new every time. It’s brand new every night. And It’s very, very exciting!” By the end of the film, even if Mia does not wholly understand jazz, she at least holds a tender appreciation for the genre.

In this scene, Mia represents an age-old problem in jazz: how to attract new audiences—especially young, female audiences—to jazz. Though the 2008 National Endowment for the Arts’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts notes that women attend jazz events at a similar rate to men (at 7.9 percent and 7.7 percent of the population, respectively), many commentators nevertheless believe that women are missing in jazz audiences. Some critics argue that women have been unconsciously shut out of jazz audiences through marketing; others write that jazz, as a historically “male” field, needs to find a “public tone of voice which informs but doesn’t intimidate its potential new audiences”; and still others wonder if increasing the number of female performers will increase the number of female audience members.[1]

The reality is that not all women in jazz are “exceptional,” at least in terms of their viability in a history textbook; many aspire to the sort of ordinary jazz gigs in which we see men perform in movies like La La Land or Whiplash.

Whether as audience members, scholars, or performers, women have been in short supply throughout jazz history; the representation of jazz in the films La La Land (2016) and Whiplash (2014), by director and writer Damien Chazelle, demonstrates this problem clearly. Both films offer deep dives into different aspects of current jazz culture: while the first uses jazz as a marker of value, integrity, and nostalgia, the second explores jazz as the summit of competitive drive. Both suggest that jazz genius comes from pain, sacrifice, and loneliness. Importantly, both movies present jazz as existing in an almost entirely masculine realm.

Each film deserves every bit of the praise they have received, and taken collectively, the films show the remarkable breadth of Chazelle’s talents; La La Land is in many ways the perfectly dreamy foil to the deliciously physical angst of Whiplash. However, some jazz critics and enthusiasts have registered complaints with both.[2] While some have focused on these films’ issues with hypermasculinity and their dangerous reverence of the solitary genius (male) musician, I focus on the absence of women in both movies’ jazz scenes.

Simply put, the jazz instrumentalists in La La Land are nearly all male, with only one exception. For instance, Sebastian visits the Lighthouse Cafe several times with Mia; all of the performers in these scenes are male. Later, Sebastian joins a (surprisingly popular) jazz-rock group fronted by a jazz guitarist named Keith (John Legend). Again, the band is all-male, but in concerts (not rehearsals) is accompanied by a trio of female back-up singers. In fact, the point of this group is to draw a distinction between the “authentic” jazz Sebastian plays and the commercial jazz Keith plays. It is also the only point at which the audience sees vocalists in a “jazz” group, which further distances the group from Sebastian’s ideal. That these singers recall R&B more than jazz demonstrates their outsider status. Finally, the last scene features a jazz combo with one female bassist—the only female instrumentalist to appear in La La Land.

Likewise, out of the numerous performers in Whiplash, only two are female. Unlike La La Land, which features small combos of four to five musicians, the college-level, conservatory—sponsored musical ensembles in Whiplash are big bands comprising around 17 musicians. There are no female musicians in the top ensemble. In one scene, the jazz director of the top ensemble, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), makes an impromptu visit to a lower ranked ensemble. He demands solo performances from nearly all of the performers. Throughout the scene, he abruptly cuts players off after no more than a second of playing, apparently able to determine their ability in less than one measure of music. Though Fletcher is ruthlessly insulting and crass in many scenes, in this scene, he does not offer much in the way of commentary, psychologically damaging or not, with the exception of one performer: the first chair alto saxophonist, who is also the only female musician in the band. As he walks over to her, he declares, “Well, you’re in the first chair, let’s see if it’s just because you’re cute.” After she misses her entrance by a beat, he quickly cuts her off, saying, “Yep, that’s why.”

While others have noted Fletcher’s cruelty in this scene, explaining that it is actually one of the movie’s “milder insults,” this moment is particularly notable for both the singularity and the nature of the insult. In this scene, Fletcher does not overtly criticize anyone else. Fletcher’s slight, which relegates the saxophonist to an aesthetic judgement based on her looks, rather than her musical ability, recalls long-held gender-based stereotypes in jazz that suggest that women’s ability to perform a musical instrument, particularly one other than the piano, is unnatural.

It is not simply the absence of female performers in these films that troubles me, but rather the fact that their absence is so easy.

In her work on all-girl bands of the 1940s, historian Sherrie Tucker explains that in the mid-20th century not only were most women musicians assumed to be vocalists, but they were also assumed to have no ability to cultivate talent: “In the gender division of jazz and swing labor, the normal configuration is for men to skillfully operate instruments and for women to perform privatized popular versions of femininity with their voices and bodies.”[3] Tucker compares the image of female singers to that of female instrumentalists, writing, “‘Girl musicians often inherited the girl singers’ stereotype—that they were unskilled sex objects. But the women instrumentalists were also seen as freaks in ways that girl singers were not, especially girl musicians who played instruments thought of as masculine: drums, trumpets, saxophones, etc.”

To be clear, I do not mean to simply count the numbers of women in performances of jazz on film. It is not simply the absence of female performers in these films that troubles me, but rather the fact that their absence is so easy. The bands are simply and unquestionably all-male (with only one exception in each movie). This is similar to the way in which some jazz history textbooks and documentaries fail to include female performers in a role as anything other than the “exceptional woman”; women end up as after-thoughts to jazz histories. In La La Land, consider the numerous references Sebastian and those around him make to famous jazz musicians: these include John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Louis Armstrong, Chick Webb, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Kenny Clarke, and Thelonious Monk. No one includes a vocalist, male or female, and none of the legendary musicians whose music inspires Sebastian are women.

Tucker explains that despite women’s active participation in jazz, they have been left out of many jazz histories:

 

The fact that prominent jazz and swing writers, then and in the years since, did not seek information about all-woman bands, while living sources who played in such groups could easily be located and were eager to be interviewed, suggests that the flow of the swing narratives is more likely the uncritical reproduction of dominant gender ideology than a case of careless omission. The dominant swing texts are not gender neutral (although they pass themselves off as such); they are histories of musical men.

 

I would argue that cases of “careless omission” such as these are, in fact, evidence of the “uncritical reproduction of dominant gender ideology” to which Tucker refers. The dominant gender ideology reproduces the narrative that female instrumentalists are unnatural and untalented, and therefore unprofessional and not worthwhile inclusions in academic/historical texts; hence, women are easily omitted from jazz histories. When attempts are made to celebrate individual, exceptional women (such as in “women-in-jazz” events), this often further highlights their position outside of jazz, marking talented women in terms of their difference from talented men.[4]

But the reality is that not all women in jazz are “exceptional,” at least in terms of their viability in a history textbook; many aspire to the sort of ordinary jazz gigs in which we see men perform in movies like La La Land or Whiplash. In her 2008 article “Fitting the Part,” ethnomusicologist Ingrid Monson describes her experiences as both a jazz trumpeter and jazz scholar. Monson notes her students’ confusion at “the apparent mismatch” between her physical identity and her position as Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music at Harvard University.[5] She explains, “After all, symbolically speaking, I am all wrong: a woman, a trumpet player, a midwesterner, a Norwegian American, a daughter of the white middle class, and perhaps the most damning, a lesbian.” Despite these factors, which for some would be markers of inauthenticity within jazz scholarship and performance, Monson writes that she has thrived in both fields.

It is clear that the elements of Monson’s identity that she calls “wrong” had a great impact on her experiences in jazz. For example, Monson recounts a moment, when she was 14 years of age in the late 1960s, with the trumpeter Doc Severinson: following a concert, Monson’s male teacher took her backstage to meet Severinson, telling Severinson that Monson was one of his best students. Severinson’s response to Monson’s teacher indicated his assumption that Monson and her teacher’s relationship was more romantic than educational. She writes, “As I look back on this now, I realize that Dick’s [her teacher] generous attempt to welcome me into the inner world of trumpet players—which was unfortunately answered by Severinson’s sexualized gaze—was simply the first incident in the complex double bind that would follow me throughout my life with the trumpet … There was something about being a woman that was disqualifying.”[6] Regarding her time in a big band at the New England Conservatory of Music, during the years 1978-1982, as one of only two women in the band, Monson describes a white male director who “liked to tell earthy locker room-style stories that brought out the worst in the men.”[7] That director tended to blame Monson for mistakes in the trumpet section (which other trumpeters were happy to allow him to do). Monson explains that at the time, she simply felt that she “just was not good enough to be entitled to basic courtesy,” not that she was on the receiving end of musical sexism.

Monson describes other examples of misogynist treatment during her time as a performing trumpeter, explaining how she developed “snappy” comebacks to those who would offer her backhanded compliments such as, “I didn’t know a girl could ever play so good!” But eventually, she began to realize that reactions to her playing such as these “were not personal, but structured by a history and culture that were beyond any individual’s control.”[8] In other words, those reactions that seem to exclude Monson from the realm of “authentic” jazz performance based on her race, gender, class, or sexuality are not necessarily intentional. Rather, they are the result of stereotypes that implicitly link certain identities with certain behaviors. So even when women (and especially those who are instrumentalists) have success in jazz fields, they are working against gendered narratives that presume either their absence or their inability. Monson’s lived experience therefore mirrored those of the women Tucker studied—the women missing from jazz narratives.

Lest the reader think Monson, as a woman who happened to have success in a field so clearly dominated by men, was an outlier, I offer my own experiences in jazz performance. Similarly to Monson, I grew up in a white, middle-class household in the Midwest, and was, like Monson, a female trumpeter with no initial inclination that the instrument I had chosen was “for men.” But that did not stop others from marking my choice as somehow subversive: in fifth grade, the year 1999, one of my fellow trumpeters, a boy, provoked me by stating that the trumpet was supposed to be for boys (my attempt at shutting him down included calling him a misogynist pig and hitting him with my trumpet case).

Later on, during the high school years of 2004-2006, comments from judges and audiences members like “Who knew a little girl could play like that?” were encouraged by my high school band directors, who requested that I wear all black pant suits (not dresses) to make my tiny figure appear even smaller on stage. I was just as amused by such comments, so I happily played along, harnessing my musical difference to gain a more substantial surprise factor when audiences realized I really could play. Later, my band director selected “Boy Meets Horn,” a difficult and humorous trumpet feature initially written by and for Rex Stewart of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The piece contains a variety of half-valve, smear, growl, flutter tongue, and glissando techniques meant to evoke a boy learning how to play the trumpet for the first time. Eventually, the boy figures it out, and the piece, described by Ellington as a “concerto for trumpet,” climaxes with emphatic high notes. My own performance as a boy meeting his horn gave another layer to the joke, of which I happily became a part, never realizing that the punchline was my essential difference from an “authentic” jazz musician.

While Monson’s and Tucker’s accounts both show how women can be successful in jazz, and Tucker’s work also works to insert those women into jazz historical narratives, my own experience complicates matters by asking about the women who are not only absent from jazz history, but from jazz participation. After all, how can we write a history of absences—of gigs not only unheard by the “right” people (critics, musicians, audiences), but of gigs unplayed?

In my sophomore year of college, 2007-2008, I became the only woman in the top jazz ensemble. While Monson dealt with a sexist director and bandmates, my experience could not have been more different; the band and its director were welcoming and kind, and members of the trumpet section cheered me on during auditions. I received none of the overt sexism Monson endured. However, it soon became obvious that I was to some degree out of my depth in the “higher, faster, louder” trumpet section of which I was part. My desire to be competitive with the Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown-style soloists clashed with my natural inclinations toward the smoother melodies of Miles Davis or Chet Baker. One piece we did featured a battle of the trumpets, each taking a solo, and eventually soloing over each other in a big-band style cutting contest. With best intentions, the band director excused me from the “contest,” making it a fully masculine display of sonic testosterone. This moment stuck with me for a long time. But while Monson was able to carve a place for herself within jazz performance by locating her experiences within the broader culture of jazz masculinity, I lacked the knowledge to be able to do so. Not knowing the history of female exclusion in jazz, and not understanding how subtle comments about my playing may be linked more to gender norms than my actual performance, I stopped playing the trumpet altogether at the end of that year. Instead, I focused more intently on my piano major, and began to accompany and sing in the university’s choirs, unknowingly fulfilling a gender norm that encourages female pianists and singers.

I suspect that my experience—that I quit the trumpet and jazz performance spring of 2008, without understanding why—is more common than Monson’s perseverance. However, this is not something that is easily known or trackable. While Monson’s and Tucker’s accounts both show how women can be successful in jazz, and Tucker’s work also works to insert those women into jazz historical narratives, my own experience complicates matters by asking about the women who are not only absent from jazz history, but from jazz participation. After all, how can we write a history of absences—of gigs not only unheard by the “right” people (critics, musicians, audiences), but of gigs unplayed?

Given that historians and critics frequently neglected to include active female performers in their histories of jazz, the continued uncritical absence of women in media representations of jazz performances as performers and audience members, including in La La Land and Whiplash, is largely unsurprising. However, as Tucker writes, such easy replications of jazz’s stereotypically masculine culture that occur without thought to either the realities of past and present female performance or the consequences of future female performance are not simply careless. They are part of a system of implicit sexism that limits what La La Land’s jazz-lover, Sebastian, describes as “the conflict and compromise” of a genre forged out of diversity and complexity.

[1] Perhaps most inflammatory is this account, by jazz critic Walter Kolosky:

The next time you are at a jazz show, check to see how many women are present. Then do a head count of how many women are there without a man. If you should find a woman alone; she is either the wife or girlfriend of one of the musicians or she has been stood up. Two women together are lesbians who think they like real jazz. I recently asked some women I knew why they didn’t like jazz. Every single one, including my dear wife, responded that they absolutely loved jazz. In other words, they all lied.

Walter Kolosky, Girls Don’t Like Real Jazz: A Jazz Patriot Speaks Out (Cary, NC: Abstract Logix Books, 2004), 30.

[2] For example, jazz critic Ben Ratliff of Slate explains that La La Land, like Whiplash before it, relies too heavily on jazz clichés such as female hatred of jazz, jazz musicians’ ostensible obsession with torment, jazz as a music of the past, and jazz as a music of the future. Likewise, Anna Silman of New York Magazine complains that La La Land revolves too much around the stereotypical masculine obsession for jazz Sebastian exhibits. Drummer Peter Erskine criticized the lack of joy Whiplash demonstrated in each of its scenes. Others explained that Whiplash’s presentation of jazz was factually incorrect, warping it into a “grotesque and ludicrous caricature.”

[3] Sherrie Tucker, Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 6.

[4] Tucker argued this in a lecture given at Skidmore College, 5 October 2015.

[5] Ingrid Monson, “Fitting the Part,” Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies, ed. Nichole T. Rustin and Sherrie Tucker (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 267.

[6] Ibid., 270.

[7] Ibid., 275.

[8] Ibid., 280.

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