Saturday, June 26, 2010

CAN JAZZ EVER ‘COME OUT?’

In honor of Stonewall Day and Pride Month, tune in to Jazz Sundae on Sunday, June 27 from noon to 2:00 PM as host Mark Rosenbaum explores the rich contributions which out and closeted artists have made in the world of Jazz. CAN JAZZ EVER ‘COME OUT?’ Mark Rosenbaum, host of JAZZ SUNDAE IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE THAT JAZZ - a genre of exploration, lyrical introspection, and a willingness to share the melancholy side of life; a music that celebrates improvisation and self-expression, and can trace its inception (and much of its success) to the unafraid, unashamed creative efforts of a population not unfamiliar with discrimination - It’s hard to believe that in the world of jazz, being gay and ‘out’ remains a rarity. Back in the 1930s and ‘40s, jazz was a mostly-segregated ‘boys club,’ segregated by both race and gender (save for the omnipresent girl singer up front – who, until late in the golden era, was used as much for ‘window dressing’ as vocal accompaniment.) The first tiny steps towards easing the color line came with the increased popularity of some early kings (and queens) of jazz such as Duke, Dizzy, and Louis. The ascension of a small group of female vocalists – song stylists, more importantly - such as Rosemary Clooney, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella, began to legitimize the status of women in the jazz world. There was a small group of jazz artists (mostly men) who were quietly known or rumored to be special. Among the earliest, singer/songwriter and piano player Tony Jackson (‘Pretty Baby’), a mentor to Jelly Roll Morton, and saxophone and piano player Billy Tipton - born Dorothy Tipton in 1914, and possibly the first known transgender jazz man. There were persistent rumors, some more widespread than others, about the bisexuality or homosexuality of Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ma Rainey, and Ethel Waters, as well as a struggling Billie Holiday. The personal life of brilliant but tortured composer/ accompanist Billy Strayhorn (‘Lush Life’) was less of a secret, though still not talked about openly. Although mostly closeted, these artists at least found a way to live their lives and still survive in an industry that didn’t embrace who they were personally. The rise of bebop in the ‘40s and 50s brought with it a certain masculine, macho attitude embraced from within much of the jazz community. Except for the ‘dedicated family man,’ cats who didn’t ‘cat around’ (an earlier, less remembered use of the moniker) and most all female instrumentalists, were viewed with suspicion or contempt, and sometimes reviled openly among the band. The bold, rough style and attitude of rising icons Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, and later Miles Davis served to validate the increasingly widespread view of jazz as a world for the outwardly male, macho, and straight. Ironically, Davis himself was the object of persistent speculation about his own bisexuality until his death in 1991 from pneumonia and heart failure (which were widely attributed to complications from AIDS.) In the modern jazz age, there have been some notable GLBT trailblazers. Probably the first was pianist Cecil Taylor, who came out at the age of 55 in a 1985 magazine interview . Vibraphonist Gary Burton, though married several times, was well known in jazz circles as gay, and continues to be one of the most accomplished mallet men in the business, working with everyone from Stan Getz to Pat Metheny, naming just a few, over the course of his highly successful career. In the 1990s, jazz composer/pianist Fred Hersch and vocalist/pianist Andy Bey revealed not only being gay, but being HIV+ as well. Bey, now in his late 60s, continues to amaze with his rich molasses-like baritone voice, and Hersch continues to write, as well as perform solo, as a side-man, with the his eponymous collaboration groups, the Fred Hersch Pocket Orchestra and the Fred Hersch Trio, who recently released Whirl. More recently, the jazz world has been enriched by both the music and openness of several gay jazz men and women. A short list includes well known jazz vocalist Michael Feinstein, up-and-coming singers Patrick Arena, Ian Shaw and Steven Kowalczyk, and Beat Kaestli, vocalist and comedian(!) Lea DeLaria, singer/pianist Patricia Barber, smooth jazz saxophonist Dave Koz, jazz composer Drew Paralic, and of course, fantastic local jazz celebrity Lisa Otey. Yet, in spite of these bright (or enlightened) spots, the jazz world continues to be a social dinosaur when it comes to breaking with tradition. Is the closet door ever likely to open wide in the kingdom of jazz? Maybe, but I’m not ready to stake a bet on when. I’ve got to believe that eventually, the jazz closet will become less pronounced, maybe empty… eventually. For me, for now, I’ll be content loving the musical richness of jazz, and admiring artists like Bey, Hersch, Barber, and Otey. And I’ll keep hoping that someday soon, we’ll all get to see the overdue retirement of outdated stigma from decades past.

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