‘Gay Jazz’ – Contradiction?
by Mark Rosenbaum
As I began to plan my playlist for a Stonewall edition of Jazz Sundae, I started a list of artists to include. The few entries came easily – the legends Sarah Vaughn, Bessie Smith, Billy Strayhorn, Billy Tipton. I added contemporary jazzmen and women – vibraphonist Gary Burton, pianist Fred Hersch, singer/pianist Andy Bey, and local legends Lisa Otey and Susan Artemis.
An hour passed. I hadn’t added a single name to my list. I began to wonder why I couldn’t remember any of the multitudes of talented, well known jazz players.
Later that day, I was having lunch with my friend Chris Tackett. As I related my ‘gay jazz short list’ story to him, he smiled and shook his head knowingly. “Good luck with that,” he essentially said. “Queer jazz people are basically an invisible subculture.” He went on to explain the roots of the invisibility of jazz artists in the post-prohibition period, especially the cultural influences.
After spending a few hours discussing the subject with Chris, followed by an afternoon of online research, it was clear why compiling a list of gay jazz artists is no easy task. Historically, the jazz scene wasn’t, (and to a certain extent still isn’t) a very welcoming place if you weren’t heterosexual and male (the exception – the ubiquitous female jazz vocalist). Without a doubt, the dominant jazz culture of the post-WWII era was steeped in a certain machoistic style, the tone of which was due in large part to the overwhelming influence of African-american male dominance. The cool macho arrogance of the bebop era and beyond (think Dizzy, Trane, and Miles) has served to keep the jazz closet intact and standing, even today.
Is it getting easier to be gay in the jazz world? Maybe, maybe not. While there seems to have been at least a marginal increase in the number of contemporary Out jazz artists, it’s clear that the stigma remains, save for the small, vocal, and courageous group of artists like Hersch, Burton, saxophonist Dave Koz, vocalist Patrick Arena, and a few others.
(Chris Tackett is a Tucson composer, arranger, and pianist and holds a masters degree in jazz studies; he is the music director at Saguaro Christian Church and Temple Emanu-El, and is the artistic director of Desert Voices)
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There are several good articles and sites discussing Gays in Jazz available on line:
‘In the Macho World of Jazz – Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Francis Davis, NY Times
‘Jazz: A History of America’s Music’, ‘Jazz: A Film’, & ‘Ken Burns’ Jazz: The Story of America’s Music’ – reviews by Andrew Velez, The Advocate
‘Jazz’, Jeffrey Escoffier