Janet Lawson | Jazz Vocalist
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"Blowing on the Changes"

By Janet Lawson

I'm not sure which came first - the feminism or the jazz - but what exists now is the spirit of a 38-year-old feminist jazz musician.

My mother was a singer, a lyricist, and a composer - a woman who struggled with the ambivalence of wifing, mothering, and speaking through her own voice. She was deemed "emotional" for living in touch with her art and her feelings. Dad played the drums, guitar, piano, composing and painting portraits of movie idols from the marquees downtown. He didn't know how to express his feelings directly so he put it all into work. This was the atmosphere in which I grew up, and in this environment my self-expression as a musician took form.

When I was three years old, I sang on the radio from a stage show presentation Saturday mornings at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore. At five I studied piano, My earliest awareness of a feminine consciousness was when I was ten years old, lying in bed one night, struggling with the tugs of wanting to be a singer and wanting to be married and wondering why I had to choose.

At my first dance, instead of mellow-eyeing my date on the dance floor, my fourteen-year-old self was drawn to the magnetism of the band sounds, and thanks to my mother's encouragement, I took the initiative and started gigging at fifteen. When I asked her how I could get to sing with the band, she said, "Ask to sit in and some will say 'yes' and some will say 'no'" Since that time I have traveled halfway around the world with my music - Bangkok the farthest - and some of the deepest experiences of my life (like singing with the Duke at the Maryland State Penn) have come from the music.

The women's movement has brought to the surface vital questions regarding women's individual expressions. In understanding our expressions, we need to examine a unique connection with the musical expression of women in jazz. The struggle for a woman to be in the jazz world is the same struggle for equal pay for equal work. Clitoral orgasms, equal relationships, the sharing of child-rearing, and the shattering of role playing.

Yet I find myself somewhat overwhelmed by the ambiguity and contradictions I encounter in questioning and exploring "accepted behavior" in a field in which I've spent most of my life. This Pandora's box with all its glitter can't be ransacked in one article. What I hope to do is stimulate some thinking on the subject so that women in jazz can rid themselves of the weight of judgment, self-fulfilling prophecies, male emulation, and all that we've brought and carted around too long as "proof" of our Karma, our destiny.

Every woman's biography and autobiography I've read has put me more closely in touch with the mystery of evolving. From Bette Davis's refusal to play simpy roles and taking that conviction to the courts, to Jane Fonda's Barbarella transformation - their process was a map I referred to and a model for my own metamorphosis. But just as we women have had to mentally substitute the pronoun she for he, I've bemoaned the extra work of translating the chronicled experiences of just about everybody else into those of my ancestor sisters in jazz. Where is our history (herstory)? Why did Lucille Dixon choose the bass to play in 1943 with Earl Hines? How did Vi Redd tap her affinity with Bird's music? Why hasn't the influence of vocalists like Mamie Smith, Betty Carter, and Annie Ross been examined? How does this not knowing our history affect us? It's been said that those who don't examine the past are doomed to repeat it. If we can't observe who we are and how we have existed, we may continue to be invisible, to ourselves as well as the rest of the world.

There are several ways to approach this "lack of presence." In Dorothy Dinnerstein's "The Mermaid and the Minotaur, I found a searing view of why women's access to the public domain is still so restricted and our formally recognized creative contributions still so much slimmer than men's. Dinnerstein states that "our species' painful misgivings about enterprise - about free rein for the spirit of mastery and inventiveness that led us to create ourselves in the first place - have not yet been felt through" And that the prevailing male-female sexual arrangement creates individualized expressions of the omnipresent condition of being mother- reared. The child's bodily tie to the mother is the vehicle through which the most fundamental feelings of a highly complex creature are formed and expressed. In this symbiosis, men are free to be more expressive of their resentment of that tie; society sanctions some rebellious behavior in men, and they confront the "struggle" - freeing them to be active and sometimes creative. The mother-reared boy senses that the original, most primitive source of life will always lie outside himself; to be sure of reliable access to it, he demands exclusive access to a woman.

Women's expression of the symbiosis reinforces men's power indirectly; women become the purveyors of male possessiveness and ownership" of that power. In our collective unconscious, we have not expressed the rage associated with that primal tie. Nor have we worked our well- defined ways to balance identification with and feelings for the opposite sex with a sense of our own human identity. With rare exceptions, women have been less free than men to set our own terms in love or in any arena of creative expression. We have accepted traditional forms of behavior.

Both women and men cling to the "forms" of our sexuality - we seldom question our behavior. At best, women and men imitate each other in an attempt at real integration. Consequently, we must re-examine the forms in directing our attention to women's "ability" to contribute in the jazz idiom. Virginia Woolf articulated the idea of a female sensibility in literature, she thought that the initial step in forging such a sensibility would be "the remaking of the sentence."

Are jazz forms traditionally male, in that they were worked out by men to give themselves access to a line of creativity growing out of their rage and struggle for freedom? For example, within a tune, to create tension, climax, and release, the horn section "riffs" during a solo, contrasting the staidness of solo after solo. This riff concept working with the rhythm section's weaving together to support the soloist - carries the pulse to another level and then lets go. The trust and strength of that ability come from a particular development and ego sense. The question is not: Can we successfully imitate that form? There's no doubt that we can and have, given the experiential development that results from playing together with male musicians. But is this the only way we want to speak? By playing with more women musicians and therefore creating more trust among women musicians, we'll create a form for what we need to say in the music. But then, will these new forms be acknowledged as viable, as potent in the fabric of the music?

Before the sexual revolution, women were dependent on the magical power in the traditional male forms to "make us come." We were not responsible for our own climax and used the male form to find our own tension and release. The climax we tried to produce started out as "penis envy" if we wanted it, and "nymphomania" if we got it and wanted more, and "frigidity" if we wanted it any other way.

The liberation of discovering our multi-orgasmic nature engendered space for women to express ourselves authentically and, consequently, more powerfully. Our strength in knowing our own bodies and acknowledging what feels good created new forms of sexual expression. We've started to change the world; you know we're going to change the music. Judy Chicago writes: "To be heard and heard as women without denying what that means to us may mean changing the culture to include that space." And in the process, we can have an effect on traditional modes of male behavior within the music.

Never before has the time been so propitious for the creation of what may be a new art form intimately concerned with content rather than a form opposing content - for a real integration of the anima and animus in jazz. What essentially and in the forefront has been male is the music and we as females, with our own unique experiences, connecting with that form, can transform the idiom and advance its evolution. If the " known feminine qualities" of etherealness and romanticism and acknowledged "abilities" of endurance and cohesiveness mesh with the "male" characteristics of fire and inventiveness and discipline, there could truly be a richness to the music as yet unheard, and more people might relate to that fullness and the music might have a greater impact on its audience. It is not that women and men don't both have these qualities, interchangeably, but by following the cliches or stereotypes, we have reinforced them. We still have the opportunity to make ourselves and the music whole. ( Some male musicians have already integrated these "feminine" aspects of themselves and their music reflects that. Miles, Coltrane and Keith Jarret are known for the construction of their solos, taking turns and producing peaks and valleys - multi-orgasmic climaxes. One wonders if their sex life reflects this same heightened state. During a conversation with my father on this subject of vulnerability to the feminine experience, he told me of his ability to experience multi-orgasms and therefore transcend the traditional conduct expected in "male" sexuality.)

The way women first broke the codes in music was by marrying into the secret society of musicians or by being blessed with a teacher who knew the power of bringing new, unique energy into the fold. But, for the most part, men remained out in front - intimating that their music was THE music. Jazz has been no exception. Lil Hardin (who various historians now admit was an important contributor to Louis Armstrong's development and to the life of jazz) and Leora Meoux Henderson ( described mostly as Fletcher Henderson's wife) are not thought of as major forces in their own right. Leora Meoux played trumpet and was a member of Lil Armstrong's band. Lil was a pianist, composer, and band leader in the early '20's and '30's. She is probably one of the top five women in jazz history.

Yet, generally, women jazz artists were isolated - they lacked contact with other female musicians and were on the fringes of men's music. The absence of a network or support system of women musicians perpetuated the myth of special dispensation when it came to women playing jazz. Compounded with the notion that stamina was a requirement women couldn't meet and that the sexual freedom, and thus magnetism, emanated from a male player on the stand, a woman's role was clearly defined - she was to be a nourisher of and voyeur to the main event.

For women who would not or could not "marry into jazz," the scene was pretty dismal. Women were allowed into the important scenes of productivity only as sex objects. Restricted to that realm, the female vocalists, be they "virginal" and "unattainable" or "sexual animals," were meant to hold women's more general entry at bay. Standing still while men fantasized their sexual pursuits, we posed no threat. But moving around - improvising or fingering an instrument in our hand - we were too threatening to the male stronghold. So we acquired the images of virgin queen and drug-addicted victim, and these were paraded through the band and bop era as our models. An understanding of the great art and complexity of Billie Holiday is intertwined with a recognition of the limited options available to her in society. I often wonder if the tragedies in conflict with her genius could have been overcome if our models and images for such potency had been acknowledged and known. And yet, even with the exploitation, she and other artists, like Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O'Day, Betty Carter, and Annie Ross, transcended those negative images and carved a niche in the male bastion through their improvisation of compositions and their use of the voice as an instrument.

The voice is primary in the development of jazz, beginning in West Africa with the drum and voice in call-and-response, down to the instrumentation in bands that reflect vocal timbres and sonorities. The sounds of jazz can be directly related to earliest African singing. The improvisational flavor of using the voice in rituals, announcements, delights of nature, and imitating those joys in a wide range of tones and textures extended to African instruments, like ivory horns, marimbas, thumb pianos, flutes, and multivoiced drum ensembles. Women committing themselves to that vocal tradition, carrying the cross of improvisation and warding off the vampires of commercialism, sometimes were able to break through the mold of woman's image. By creating their own compositions improvisationally, these women first took on the responsibility of doing their own thinking, creating their own structure, presenting their full musicianship instead of being tools to the imaginations of the male hierarchy.

Paradoxically, in the past, women, especially singers, were given special approval from male musicians for "playing by ear"- intuitive as opposed to learned, "professional" skill. As long as we accepted that "specialness," we were denied various methods of study and we remained outside the arena of healthy competition within the mainstream of music, keeping us from reaching a real sense of ourselves and our jazz. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. We could not be "real" jazz musicians since our music was only intuitive and we had not learned how to speak the language. Every movement and minority has its own language. Yet by accepting enslavement without using our own words to free ourselves, we allowed the dependency of "specialness" to keep us from experiencing a real sense of ourselves and our jazz. There is a power intrinsic to the claiming of a language and its instrument.

Women's strength as jazz musicians will come when we allow ourselves to play as women. Ashley Montague calls us the superior sex - scientific findings assure us we are stronger than men when it comes to endurance. I wonder if that would apply to how many choruses we could take on a solo. Playing " hard time," "swinging" in a rhythm section might feel to some women like inescapable bondage with male energy. But being "locked in the time" and "smokin'" have less to do with physical strength and more to do with the lack of fear. Our associating these concepts with being locked into roles may scare us away from the soaring aspects of being specific, and floating in time. It's a powerful experience - making music with other musicians, feeling the energy created by each person's sense of the time and combining it in a way that makes it one pulse. Musicians have got to trust each other to make that happen and maybe that's one of the reasons why women playing together haven't created that sensation of orbiting into another dimension by the energy of swinging. We've relied on the men to supply that force and our trust in each other hasn't developed to create it among ourselves. As we play together more often and in varied situations what will emerge is the discovery of how to make that happen. Then if there is such a thing as women's jazz, it will emerge free from any stereotyped suppositions of what it should sound like.

Playing music together, like any relationship, requires a lot of risk-taking - chancing that what we'll play may not be what the bass players before us played, chancing that we may not get the "male" sound many of us have been taught to feel comfortable with. But that step has to be taken if we are to know all there is to know about each other and what we rally sound like. Right now all we have is what we sound like with Big Strong Daddy at the helm of the rhythm sections or what we sound like in the shadow of our husbands. If we're not as "serious" our mistakes shouldn't be taken as seriously either. But, then, what about our successes? We have to risk that failure in order to grow as musicians.

Women have only recently engaged in consciousness raising dialogue with each other. That same experience in music is what can allow more of us to create in that medium; we'll have each other to talk with, to draw out our uniqueness. Until now, our conversations have usually been in competition for the attention of the male ear. Why don't we explore what harmonious rapping contributes? Playing together means everyone finding a spot for herself - in the time especially - not playing anybody's else's time, your own time but compatible with the others. As we discover more facets of our selves as women, we'll be able to connect with various combinations. The person, woman, musician, as individual entities, need to be there, each individually, before the whole makes a statement...unless we want to imitate "male" behavior.

Feminism in jazz means consciousness of ourselves as women, focusing the lens to clarify or magnify our presence. Some women who made it before there was a support system, or a women's network, feel women musicians today are accepted as musicians just because they are women - compensatorily. But the lens of awareness focused on women means not letting the level of excellence slide. The whole idea of differential treatment - special because we're women - is inimical to the women's movement. Ever since we decried the "respect" of having a door opened for us or having our cigarette lit, our trajectory has been toward real equality in not being singled out. It's one of the paradoxes of life, this focus on our presence so we can be viewed more naturally as part of the whole.

The range of musicianship in the community of jazz is broad enough to sustain healthy competition. Development in the last three years, starting with the Woman's Jazz Festival in Kansas to the Universal Jazz Festival in New York, have revealed our presence as pervasive. Sometimes we play with each other, sometimes with the male musicians, and sometimes that's better and sometimes it's not. But the mere fact of our participation changes the color and tone of the experience both of the people making the music and of the ones who are listening. We're here playing jazz, freely expressing our journey from elitist exclusion to stereotyped "bit parts" to making our own entrance.

What is happening in jazz is what's been happening in our society. Women have more options to explore - more combinations to participate in and discover our potential through. And ultimately we will give back a statement of our collective experience and individual contribution to that whole. The women's movement is giving all of us the opportunity to sensitize ourselves to the experience of birth. Whether we're in it or witnessing it, there is emerging a new presence in the jazz world. And even through our unknown history is replete with women musicians who broke the ground and made the music we've yet to hear - it's today's music that is truly energized by the awakening of women's power. That awakening is the renaissance in jazz; without women there is no renaissance.