An Open Letter to Ethan Iverson (And The Rest of Jazz Patriarchy)

Ethan Iverson (and presumably, the rest of the jazz world),

I'm going to start with some disclaimers.

I know you didn't mean to cause any harm by your Robert Glasper interview, what you allowed him to say, or how you responded to it. I know you probably do believe in the many women in your life. You respect them. You want everybody to have equal rights because, like you said, you're a liberal. In other words, we know you never had the intention to contribute to sexism. Intention and implications can be very different things. I also know it's not fun to be under siege of an internet attack where the majority of people don't personally know you and aren't forgiving, even when you did have good intentions in your response. The internet is the perfect platform to spew words you would be hesitant to express in person. The anonymity and distancing the internet creates resolves much of he guilt that might usually be associated with “ganging up” on someone. Additionally, forgiveness for ignorance is something that is easily forgotten in today's PC world. I'm not going to attack you, but rather, explain with as much transparency as I can why people are making a big deal out of your words. Why it is okay (Robert Glasper) that calling out the interview and the sexism connoted by jazz culture, is one of “the most exciting thing(s) to talk about in jazz”. Women are finally claiming voicedness in a genre and industry that has rejected and demeaned them time and time again, and that is something to be visibly celebrated. This is by nature of adverse consequences and covert sexism that can occur from denial, deflection of blame, assuming the “liberal” label as a free pass to excuse negative contributions towards marginalized groups, and lack of action being taken, all of which I will delve into. And while I felt compelled to write this specifically following the interview's publication, these are actions I have seen perpetuated by the misogynist jazz community as a whole.

You had said you were annoyed that the majority of the criticism did not come from women themselves. Here is my word, a 19 year old female jazz vibraphone and percussion student, presenting my personal experiences in the context of sexism. I hope I can help you and some of our male colleagues understand why we have to take something that is seemingly insignificant to you so seriously. The accumulation, dismissal, and defense of these issues is revealing itself in a disturbing, discouraging way that we simply cannot remain complicit about.

 

Lets observe a situation together. I am in ensemble at my college, The New School, normally run by drummer Matt Wilson. Matt is on tour so we have a sub, a relatively well known NYC bass player whose name I will not disclose. We play through one of our songs that was composed by our ensemble's drummer. I am merely playing a melody. The teacher is shouting at me to play louder, claiming “Bobby Hutcherson didn't play like that! Milt Jackson didn't play that timid!”. He had no idea I studied with Stefon Harris, who prioritizes full tone and projection and still gets into situations where he cannot be heard all the way. I am always sure when I am not miced to play as loud as I can without compromising my technique or completely botching my tone, using the weight of the mallet head and gravity to my advantage. Our drummer happened to be overpowering the band, which he had done in countless settings whether or not I was present. Yet, it was on me, un-miced, standing at 5'2 and barely 105 pounds with stick thin arms, using projection techniques taught to me by one of the modern day vibraphone masters. It was somehow my fault (side note - I later played a gig with Matt Wilson on drums and a group roughly of the same size, and one of the first things he said was “it's nice to be able to actually hear you!”). This teacher spends the time telling the drummer to give more, not in a negative way that connotes low expectations, but in a grand and encouraging way. He keeps exclaiming “yes!”, calling out affirmations to the drummer who starts to lose the time for the sake of playing chops-heavy fills after every four bars. After the song, the teacher praises the drummer like crazy and the drummer's ego rises with a giant smile, basking in approval. The sub says, “you must feel so good about yourself after that.” The drummer responds “yeah, I feel hella good about myself right now.” The rest of the band feels something is wrong in the air because of the utter contrast between the way I was spoken to and the way the drummer was spoken to, and they felt the drummer overstepping them as well as me. It's uncomfortably silent. I try to just ignore it because at this rate, this has already happened to me on several occasions. Next, we play a song by our pianist which includes a fast blues solo section and things escalate. He hadn't even heard me improvise at that point before he asked, “Sasha, can I ask...do you know the changes to an F blues?” As we all know, the F blues has to be the most standard jazz progression. It is almost always the first chord progression and the first key to learn. I could hardly say anything because his words felt so condescending and shocking and I didn't want to show him emotional vulnerability. He stuttered and took it back after some of the band members made sounds of disbelief, muttering “of course you do...”. But the point was that something compelled him to say it in the first place. Meanwhile, the drummer didn't pay any mind because he was still riding on self-affirmation from the last song. I am standing there humiliated because I have worked extremely hard at my craft, and anyone in the group with Matt Wilson qualifies as relatively advanced for the college age group (although by no means seasoned experts – I am aware of how much I still have to learn). I've got no reason to think that I am an insane talent or be told that by anyone, but I deserve respect at the very least and this teacher has the audacity to ask if I know the changes to a god damn blues. When the sub leaves, everyone has witnessed the discomfort besides our tuned out drummer, leading to what was probably the hardest thing - not speaking up to verbally acknowledge what had happened, despite having felt it and witnessed it. Our drummer walks out of the room puffing his chest out like he knows he's the shit. I roll out my vibraphone silently and try hard not to get emotional on my walk home. Because even when we've worked hard to earn our place; playing in the best conglomerate high school jazz orchestra in the U.S, getting full scholarships to music programs and schools, playing with some of the most internationally renowned musicians...ultimately, these things just don't ever seem to let up in the face of sexism, and nobody wants to address it.

 

This situation well summarizes what it feels like to be a female instrumentalist in jazz. These preconceived notions happen all the time. Women have to speak up for ourselves and the rest of the female jazz community. This gets exhausting and frustrating when the male jazz community refuses responsibility for statements and actions that contribute to this debilitating bias towards their female peers. By stating “actually, I am enthralled by the intellectual capacity of women” as if to imply that it should come as a surprise to the world, you are contributing to this sexist culture in the jazz community. By Robert Glasper reducing a woman's experience with music to something exclusively primal, void of cerebral potential, and sexual, he is contributing to this sexist culture in the jazz community. The fact that both of you refused to take accountability for your contributions to sexism, regardless of initial intention, is the reason why you and many other men can still get away with these kinds of statements that go as far as to install this preconception of inferiority. If you have a heart (and a degree of your oh so unquestionable male intellectual capacity), maybe you can listen to what I have to say.

 

We can start off the general sexism discussion by observing the past and considering artists like Mary Lou Williams, Lil Hardin, and Joanne Brackeem, who despite their tremendous talents were never considered quite good enough to be Earl Hines or McCoy Tyner, Art Tatum or Herbie Hancock, whoever it might be that constitutes the “greats” of jazz. The issue with this is that when the “greats” were established, it was during a time period of rampant sexist culture. In music, there was the notion that women were not allowed to play “hot” jazz for it being too masculine, unattractive, impulsive, or dominant. Women didn't play that role in the field of entertainment. This is not to say the “greats” do not deserve to be the “greats”, as the “greats” were incredible game changers in the jazz field and earned their place as “greats”. But why weren't those women right beside them? They certainly had the skill level to earn the name of one of the most iconic greats, but they never did. Mary Lou Williams gets 3 pages to Art Tatum's 14 pages in nearly every jazz history textbook. Author Sherrie Tucker ruminates in her book Swing Shift about the very issue that we have all quietly ignored:

 

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 […] (this) 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 reasoning was that nobody dared question the meritocracy of the “greats” because that was just the way things have always been. There isn't a genuine reason to support this theory other than sexism, but because of this sacredness of maintaining what was first decided of jazz meritocracy, it has never been addressed. People may question the jazz meritocracy at the very least, but they will do nothing about how they might be contributing to it despite claiming to have always been a human rights advocate, hiding behind that label, and thus being absolved of doing the work. They expect that the problem will somehow resolve itself or magically go away by using an identity label like “liberal” to get a free pass on addressing these issues, only contributing to them further because they are being ignored and excuses are being made to distract from personal accountability. This is what you, Ethan, have exemplified to a t.

It is important to note that also in this streamlined view of jazz history, there is not one woman mentioned on my instrument (the vibraphone) established as an important figure in jazz despite several having existed. Why has hardly anyone been vocal about what is wrong with the way we have presented the history of jazz and those who represent it? There were certainly female vibraphonists that existed, and if they did, it tells the same consistent story of dismissal. No one ever saw vibraphonist Terry Pollard beyond the shadow of Terry Gibbs, despite being arguably more talented then Gibbs himself. This also brings up an issue that remains at the forefront of modern day jazz patriarchy. It has been stated time and time again that she was “inexplicably overlooked”, and yet nobody had chosen to do anything to change the amount of recognition they claimed she deserved. They simply left her legacy at a missed opportunity. How is a young female vibraphonist not supposed to wonder if I too will fall into this pattern of being inexplicably overlooked? A lot of time has passed since then and now, but as far as I know, her biography has remained up until today as “inexplicably overlooked” and nobody has chosen to investigate why they might feel that way or what we can do about the way jazz percussion history is taught to give her the recognition she deserves. Is there any reason I should not wonder if I will end up with any sort of meaningful music legacy or independent, unaltered agency, if I am watching people with incredible talent consistently amount to a missed opportunity? Furthermore, how does it feel for young female musicians to begin studying a language and history that does not support them or represent them when it was completely plausible?. What is supposed to give me faith for today, for tomorrow, if people keep dismissing the sexism that is written into the core of our jazz education and discourse as if it will resolve itself?

This is evident and embedded in things beyond jazz history textbooks taught in institutions as “canonical” texts. Wikipedia lists only 24 female jazz musicians as relevant enough to have bio pages as of its most recent edit in 2013, and only includes categories for female saxophonists, pianists, vocalists, and guitarists. Countless productions like La la Land, Sex and the City, and commentary by self proclaimed feminist author and director Tina Fey (on the topic of internalization) normalize this idea that not only do women view jazz as intolerable and boring, but also imply that it is of a cerebral nature beyond what women can fathom. La La Land and Sex and The City were both written lacking racial awareness and accuracy as well as leading female characters who are appalled and bewildered by their male lover's interest or participation in jazz music. Whiplash, in addition to an wildly inaccurate depiction of music conservatories,, featured almost no women or people of color despite jazz being African American music that had many women present. If there are women, they play submissive or irrelevant roles. The girlfriend to the main character is viewed much like an accessory or a nuisance to the main character, secondary to their passions which they are apparently not capable of (or not important enough to mention in the light of male success). There are only two women in the whole conservatory, and none of them make the top combo. Real life mimics this same issue. My Facebook friends who talk about jazz competition make analogies and references to hip hop and jazz greats that have stereotypically depicted women as things of sexual desire that comes secondary being a viable contestant, hard worker, or holding any position of literal or figurative power and intelligence. My friends will make references to this competition and refer to all “competitors” as men without second thought. One of my Facebook friends talked about him and his bros taking over New York. So far, I've only seen him at the late night sessions or under the delusion of social media validation.

To further the conversation: how many big band concerts, productions and residencies put on by jazz clubs, etc. do you see with female jazz instrumentalists? The Brubeck Institute had their first female member only two years ago. Manhattan School of Music only had one female in their entire undergraduate jazz program for the 2016-2017 school year. With the exception of the vocalist competition, the Thelonious Monk Competition has had only two female instrumentalist winners in its 30 year onset. Melissa Aldana's 2013 win still initiated the trivial “she probably won because she was a girl” statements, and she's among one of today's most skilled saxophonists. You'll be lucky if you even get one female faculty member at a music institution. Jazz at Lincoln Center has never had a female member in their house band until 2017. I rarely go to Smalls, Smoke, Fat Cat, 55 Bar, or the Vanguard, and see instrumentalist women regularly that aren't some variation of the same twelve or so women, among them people like Linda Oh, Esperanza Spalding, Tia Fuller, Maria Schneider, or Ingrid Jensen. There seems to be a recurring theme of staggeringly small amounts of women in jazz in particular representing music endorsement companies relative to the total number of women in the industry. It's as if female jazz instrumentalists and representation (for reasons other than the historical value of visual appeal as a profit mechanism) is some sort of subconscious taboo thing, because lack of talent or attitude is clearly not the issue at hand.

 

Lets return to my personal experiences. In high school, I was the only girl in my entire jazz band. Note that this was in Oakland, one of the most “liberal” cities in the US. This was a program where my male instructors felt consistently threatened by my inquisitiveness and seriousness about my music to the point where they gave all the opportunities to the best men in the room. I had been literally told to shut up and listen to the teacher because he knows what he's talking about when I had simply asked a clarifying question. As a result, when well known jazz musicians came to visit, the teacher left my 15 year old self to go unnoticed, placing the men in the room on a podium while I stood invisible to my heroes. Everyone claims that the solution to sexism requires women to be more adamant about respect and putting themselves out there that much more, but when they do, they often get shut up or are asking for more than they deserve. The only time my teacher would give me credit was when I played a school gig and helped him look good in front of other schools and directors instead of turning down those school gigs to play at SF Jazz or Monterey Jazz Fest like I often did. The less women I saw represented as time went on, in the jazz school staff members and the testosterone fueled wank fest that is the late night session, the more my male friends and colleagues who witnessed me being a victim of sexism time and time again and did absolutely nothing to interfere, the harder it became to maintain strength.

 

In one situation, I was 16 and I showed up at Club Deluxe in San Francisco for the first time. A local musician on the scene had invited me to play. I wasn't sure if I could go in because the majority of the music clubs in the Bay Area that host sessions are 21+, but the musician managed to slide me in behind him. The first thing I get from a strange guy in the audience is “it's nice of you to carry your boyfriend's equipment”. I calmly told him it was my own instrument, set up on the stage, and then sat out the first couple of songs. Another male instrumentalist who was there asked me why I wasn't playing. I explained what it means to have a house band before others get to sit in. It has nothing to do with skill level, just who was called for the gig and specific instrumentation. The man then says, “oh don't worry, when it's your time, we'll play something easy for you. Is Bb rhythm changes easy enough?”. This was exactly like the incident with the New School sub I had described earlier. It had made me extremely angry, and I was not about to be infantilized at this jazz club that was new to me. So I go on stage, blow through Bb rhythm changes, and everyone abandons their infantilizing comments to say something along the lines of “I've never seen a girl play that instrument!” or, “I didn't know you could play so well”. I've also been at various sessions in places like New York and Atlanta and had guys crouch down on their knees condescendingly to ask me to pick what tunes I know as if I didn't know more than one or two. In both situations, I was never simply given the chance to speak for myself about what tunes I would want to play. I gave them no prior indication of my skill level. There was no reason for someone to sit down and decide what song was easiest for me like a child, or be surprised if I do in fact sound as good as the men in the room.

 

If that was not enough of a challenge, sessions often brought on inevitable sexualization and harassment. This did not make these spaces comfortable for young ladies like me to play in. The sexual harassment can start before a young woman is made aware of its frequency and normalization in the jazz community, as was the case with me. As I am leaving The Deluxe that night I met Vince, I thank one of the musicians who got me on the gig. I felt pleased because it seemed like he would become a new mentor figure for me as another person who noticed my playing and was genuinely excited about my musical future. He was 39 years old, around the same age as my other mentors. Despite him and his house band musicians expressing genuine positivity towards my playing, an adversity occurred as a result of showing up consistently over time and playing with them. This musician ended up sexually harassing me multiple times before I could wrap my head around the sickness of it. He took advantage of my presence and my place of growth and safety and manipulated it for his own deplorable, selfish desires. Now, if you ever experience discrimination and you are young, alone, and relatively ignorant, you will have no idea how to respond the moment that it happens or you will be in denial. This musician's actions made me uncomfortable, but I thought he was just a touchy person, and after all, he was the same age as my other music mentors. I couldn't fathom someone like him doing that to his hypothetical mentee. Ultimately, the problem became that I realized these were sexual advances, and if I didn't submit to them, I would lose some of my gigs I had planned that summer that he was also on. At that age, I wanted to be on the scene so bad, and the San Francisco scene happens to be fairly small. One is often finding the same musicians on the same gigs in the city. He had taken advantage of me for his own sexual desires, and it was at the expense of my education and potential career. This then yielded a particular issue that is applicable in multiple work fields for women under a male “boss” or superior. First impressions and the things people say about you go a long way into influencing your career success. If you turn away a male musician who is interested in you sexually and has been on the scene longer as to enhance credibility, then he can tell everyone (before they hear you for themselves) that he doesn't like your playing out of anger for you not being sexually compliant. No one will know the true incentive behind that and thus obtain a bias about you that's not necessarily based in reality as far as hearsay goes. Again, this sexual manipulation happens at the expense of a young woman's education. It was a double edged sword, a lose-lose situation. This was the issue I was caught in, the issue I watched my teachers who witnessed stand by and let happen. They didn't question the copious drinks at my table, the touching, the evident inappropriate actions, me losing my safe space to learn and do what I love. Me becoming conditioned to associate sessions with the disrespectful men who violate me, and the men that know what's wrong and choose to do nothing about it or normalize it. I didn't want to acknowledge that I was a victim because I was afraid of admitting to not standing up for myself when I should have, failing to be the strong independent woman that so many expected me to be. I had no idea that this would end up happening so regularly in my future, and that my women and I would be the only ones standing up for ourselves. You cannot possibly expect a young woman to not feel uncomfortable in these kinds of predatory environments, or furthermore grow and learn with happiness and confidence.

Objectification and disrespect of female musicians is apparent not just to us younger women in school, but to women who are incredibly successful professional musicians. At almost every jazz show I attend with a female player, one of my male colleagues has to comment on the woman's appearance, talking over the performance, instead of take the time to use the music to listen to what she is saying through the instrument. She does not get the same respect and attention and seriousness as the men. For example, I saw a show at The Jazz Standard where saxophonist Grace Kelly was playing, and my male friends spent all comments regarding her presence about her butt and how she was dressed like one of the sluts they saw at their high school. Nothing like that should ever get more attention than someone's musical talents. But somehow, a woman's talents alone are not worth enough attention for serious competition or merit. Instead, she gets harassed for the personal choices she makes with her own body that have nothing to do with her music.

 

If these music environments are not predatory, they are incredibly cutthroat. After one of my earlier performances at Deluxe, Vince Lateano, long time drummer for Cal Tjader, asks me to play with him the next day and why he hadn't seen me on the scene for very long. I told him that I was just a junior in high school. I couldn't tell him the real reason, which was that it takes a lot of confidence for a teenage girl to take her vibes into a session alone, get up in front of a bunch of men who have been on the scene twice as long as a girl like me has been alive, and be expected to prove myself by blowing them away every single time. It is not only wildly nerve wracking, but it is unrealistic because nobody can be that perfect of a musician. This is especially true regarding improvised music which is bound to initiate risks and require a huge degree of vulnerability. Yet, women are still subjected to it because they are expected to prove it 100% of the time without fault. If they don't, they are fulfilling their stereotype. Its trivial existence in the first place is never questioned, and this provides no room to allow women to make mistakes and learn from them like anyone else improving their craft. One thing the movie Whiplash actually gets right is the idea that if a woman is not a perfect, wildly successful musician, then she is fulfilling the stereotype of women not being cerebrally fluent enough to hang and play jazz. In one scene of the movie, there is a first chair alto saxophonist in the conservatory's big band who happens to be the only female musician in the band. As the teacher, Fletcher, walks over to her, he says, “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.” The fact that this is seen, in contrast to the main character Andrew's spotlighted insults and plight, as mild and a brief moment in the movie, only normalizes these kinds of discouraging insults further. It is also inherently flawed to equate imperfection or a lack of idealistic instrumental virtuosity to the stereotype of women being the inferior gender in jazz with no scientific basis. While Whiplash had many hyperbolic and inaccurate portrayals of jazz institutions, this was not one of them, and I can attest to this. At my so-called progressive college, I was called cute for referencing a relatively rare Bill Evans record with Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette that my teacher didn't believe was ever a real record because “they never really played together” as a rhythm section. (The record is called Some Other Time: The Lost Session From the Black Forest). This encompasses an impossible learning environment: women are subconsciously viewed with lower expectations and scrutinized more for mistakes. This is all to say that everybody should be held to the same work ethic standards, and the fact that women are often held to lower standards by default is not only discouraging, but does not help women actually learn more. The psychological concept of the self fulfilling prophecy proves that students perform better when they are in environments where teachers expect the most out of every student and set high standards for everyone, regardless of skill level, influencing how they feel about their progress and thus the actual progress they make. Every student should deserve that anyway from their teachers if a teacher's goal is to get a student to extend their boundaries and challenge themselves.

Even the environments that claim to be unbiased are still contributing to the issue or not acting enough to counter it. Organizations like this obtain the notion that there is room for only an exclusive few extremely talented women at the top of jazz, and any more than that is too much. I have auditioned for a counselor teaching position at a jazz camp where they didn't accept me because despite having all the credentials, they only needed to accept one woman to represent their program. We will never see the jazz world will allow for two Esperanza Spaldings because women aren't stereotypically supposed to have that much power at the forefront of success. You'll never see more than one woman headlining a jazz festival, and it is not because there are not enough skilled female musicians. This adversely leads to women being skeptical of other women and their talents because of that elite exclusivity and hyper competitiveness that is imposed on them. This is counterintuitive to the necessity for women to create a community to lift each other up. You can imagine then how hard it is for women in jazz to strive for the utmost excellence in their work – because external forces rarely allow it to go that far or that many at once. Even those few women who have been deemed some of the utmost skilled musicians in the jazz community have endured this sexism. Terri Lynne Carrington would not have published something to Washington Post about jazz sexism and receiving it from her colleagues in her early education if she did not believe it were real to her and other female instrumentalists. Recently in a December 2016 interview at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, she recalls on a tour in which she was never asked to go to the “post gig hang” because her band mates didn't feel like they could be themselves around her, have their guy's night out to hit on girls, and make mildly misogynistic jokes, as if it should be normal in any sense or form whether or not women were present. Rachel Z Hakim has talked to me personally about her sexist experiences, and that approval from male audiences was an issue that always followed her. These are musicians who have lead their own wildly successful groups, in addition to having played with musicians like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock on numerous occasions.

 

One can try to think of sexism and bias as a good thing because it can mean your hard work can pay off that much more in spite of the forces of discrimination wanting to hold you back. Or, in a strange way, it's a blessing to be pushed harder than everyone else because only certain people are capable of enduring that. In some senses, that is true and I believe it has made me a more resilient person overall. It's also impossible to complain about every little disadvantage you endure because it's inefficient to make every act of discrimination an opportunity for a social justice warrior speech. If I worried about every little thing somebody said about me, I would drive myself crazy. I don't always wish to disclose instances of sexual harassment because they are so personal and upsetting to tell. All things considered, ignoring these things on a regular basis and pretending like they do not affect you is easier said than done. It gets exhausting when nobody wants to call people out on it or bring awareness to it on any occasion whatsoever, simply remaining as a bystander. Now back to you, Ethan. This is why your self proclaimed liberal defensiveness and dismissal of these sexist issues has bothered so many. Why did so many musicians like you try to defend Robert Glasper instead of admitting that he said something that can be damaging to young girls participating in the jazz community, especially in the context of the elitist and discriminatory Trump era that you claim to despise? Why weren't there more people calling out musical peers in the name of justice for all musicians? This is about creating awareness, not attacking. If you hurt someone as a result of doing what is right for another's justice, then that is their problem and not yours.

 

I'm only 19 years old. I know the worst of this kind of thing is yet to come. College is also the perfect time to be slapped in the face with a heaping chunk of reality and hardship. In terms of awareness and activism and creating safe spaces for marginalized groups in general, we all have more work to do including myself. I will not lie when I say that I genuinely hope I get to learn and play with both you and Robert Glasper some day because you have both done incredibly admirable things in your fields, and I believe I could benefit from learning about it. But we need more respect for women in jazz, especially for the young girls who are starting out and deserve the highest expectations and hopes. It breaks my heart to see my female peers, at least five of which I've witnessed in the past year alone, become so let down by their jazz institutions and environments that they decide to drop out altogether. Something like this should not find its way between us and our rights to education and our careers. We are missing out on the opportunity for new, amazing voices to be heard. Mobilizing that change is going to take more than watching it happen in front of you and claiming defense, or even worse - silence.