Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies

Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies

by Nichole T. Rustin

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In jazz circles, players and listeners with “big ears” hear and engage complexity in the moment, as it unfolds. Taking gender as part of the intricate, unpredictable action in jazz culture, this interdisciplinary collection explores the terrain opened up by listening, with big ears, for gender in jazz. Essays range from a reflection on the female


In jazz circles, players and listeners with “big ears” hear and engage complexity in the moment, as it unfolds. Taking gender as part of the intricate, unpredictable action in jazz culture, this interdisciplinary collection explores the terrain opened up by listening, with big ears, for gender in jazz. Essays range from a reflection on the female boogie-woogie pianists who played at Café Society in New York during the 1930s and 1940s to interpretations of how the jazzman is represented in Dorothy Baker’s novel Young Man with a Horn (1938) and Michael Curtiz’s film adaptation (1950). Taken together, the essays enrich the field of jazz studies by showing how gender dynamics have shaped the production, reception, and criticism of jazz culture.

Scholars of music, ethnomusicology, American studies, literature, anthropology, and cultural studies approach the question of gender in jazz from multiple perspectives. One contributor scrutinizes the tendency of jazz historiography to treat singing as subordinate to the predominantly male domain of instrumental music, while another reflects on her doubly inappropriate position as a female trumpet player and a white jazz musician and scholar. Other essays explore the composer George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept as a critique of mid-twentieth-century discourses of embodiment, madness, and black masculinity; performances of “female hysteria” by Les Diaboliques, a feminist improvising trio; and the BBC radio broadcasts of Ivy Benson and Her Ladies’ Dance Orchestra during the Second World War. By incorporating gender analysis into jazz studies, Big Ears transforms ideas of who counts as a subject of study and even of what counts as jazz.

Contributors: Christina Baade, Jayna Brown, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Monica Hairston, Kristin McGee, Tracy McMullen, Ingrid Monson, Lara Pellegrinelli, Eric Porter, Nichole T. Rustin, Ursel Schlicht, Julie Dawn Smith, Jeffrey Taylor, Sherrie Tucker, João H. Costa Vargas

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Big Ears is a breath of fresh air in contemporary jazz studies. Whereas the field has exploded during the last several years, this is the first volume specifically devoted to new work on gender and jazz. The essays here are wide-ranging in form, content, and method. They pay admirable attention to jazz across media (in film, concerts, recordings) and in international, not just U.S., contexts.”—Gayle Wald, author of Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe

“Opening new vistas upon the study of jazz in the humanities, Nichole T. Rustin and Sherrie Tucker guide a vibrant and profound conversation at the nexus of performance studies, film and literary studies, gender studies, and many other fields. The unprecedented range and scope of this essential new collection affirm the centrality of improvisation to our understanding of culture.”—George E. Lewis, author of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music

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Duke University Press
Publication date:
Refiguring American Music
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Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8223-4336-3

Chapter One

Lara Pellegrinelli


In the context of studies that address issues of gender in jazz, singing presents its own unique challenges. Although the vast majority of women in jazz have been and continue to be vocalists, a role that can provide them with tremendous visibility and widespread recognition from audiences, surprisingly little has been done to investigate singing as a gendered domain. The scholarly literature on "women in jazz" has focused almost entirely on instrumentalists: compensatory histories have documented the work of neglected artists, challenged the hegemonic nature of jazz historiography, and raised a host of complex issues faced by women working in a male-dominated field. Indeed, the marginalization of singers by scholars of women in jazz may very well occur because the singers' mainstream popularity complicates or perhaps even eclipses altogether the "stories of devaluation and absence" with which such scholars have primarily been concerned.

Nonetheless, the exclusion of singers from musical canons, scholarship, and the serious press coverage that often provides a critical foundation for these other projects is as deeply entrenched as that of their female instrumental counterparts. For example, some histories, including the most popular textbook for undergraduate jazz courses, completely erase singers. Paul Berliner's landmark ethnography on improvisation, Thinking in Jazz, lists only three among his fifty-two interview subjects. Merely a handful of academic articles and biographical studies take singers as their subject, leaving their written documentation in disparate sources: brief encyclopedia articles, album liner notes, magazine and newspaper articles, and publicity materials generated by the music industry. Given the historiographic focus on vocal forms within African-American music broadly speaking-from spirituals and the blues to soul and hip-hop-jazz's almost exclusive emphasis on instrumental music is certainly distinctive, if not peculiar or anomalous.

Aside from the grudging nods afforded a few Swing Era "canaries," ones so prominent that they would be difficult to ignore, singing only factors into the majority of histories as a musical practice common to many forms that comprise jazz's nineteenth-century precursors. An exploration of the ways that historians have represented jazz's so-called birth reveals how gender is embedded in the narratives surrounding this mythical event, ones that contribute to normative concepts, politics, and subject formation in jazz overall. As Edward Said asserts, "beginnings carry weight because they function as sites for the conscious production of meaning, a result of their departure from pre-existing traditions of discourse." In jazz historiography, they effectively fix the marginalized status of women early in a tradition of representation as well as in the musical chronologies themselves. Despite its symbolic and practical importance in jazz's parentage, singing is dropped from historical narratives soon after the music's birth. Having waited for her to deliver her offspring, historians cut the umbilical cord, separating mother from child and enabling the yowling infant to toddle off on his own down the streets of New Orleans.

Most general histories of jazz begin by presenting a variety of precursors, a shadowy morass of genres that goes back to the nineteenth century: spirituals, ring shouts, work songs, field cries, and plantation songs; the European dance forms and operas performed by New Orleans creoles; minstrelsy, the blues, white marching band music, and ragtime. In Rudi Blesh's Shining Trumpets, jazz emerges as a fusion of all Negro musics. The jazz entry in Willi Apel's Harvard Dictionary of Music traces the music to spirituals, then ragtime and the blues. In Joachim Ernst Berendt's Das Jazzbuch, it emerges almost completely from the spiritual. Although Marshall Stearns's classic The Story of Jazz includes virtually nothing on jazz singers, vocal forms figure prominently in the book's early sections on the Great Awakening, spirituals, work songs, minstrelsy, and the blues, after which he covers ragtime. Following a chapter on early folk forms, Frank Tirro's popular text Jazz: A History divides jazz's precursors into blues and ragtime. In the Ken Burns PBS series Jazz, the blues and ragtime are discussed in a section titled "The Roux" as the two styles that reach New Orleans in the 1890s.

Although the sample presented above is neither systematic nor exhaustive, it readily offers a sense of the literature and the many ways that historians have presented jazz's parentage. While each author paints a slightly different picture, two strands emerge from these gatherings of jazz's ancestors, identifiable as they culminate in their endpoints as its most immediate precursors: the blues and ragtime. The strands are implicitly coded by "instrument" and gender.

The blues, which grows from and contains the African American vocal forms that precede it (with the possible exception of minstrelsy), is linked to emotion; it stands for the expressive side of African American music. Both the statements of early musicians and of historians ascribe a feeling to the blues imparted by race. In Frederic Ramsey Jr.'s and Charles Edward Smith's Jazzmen, E. Simms Campbell writes about the blues in similar language to that used by W. E. B. Du Bois in his descriptions of the spirituals. Campbell explains: "To me, they are filled with the deepest emotions of a race. They are songs of sorrow charged with satire, with that potent quality of ironic verse clothed in the raiment of the buffoon. They were more than releases, temporary releases, from servitude. The blues were the gateway to freedom for all American Negroes. In song, the Negro expressed his true feelings, his hopes, his aspirations and ideals, and illiterate though many of them were, there was always a spiritual and ennobling quality to all of the music."

Both men and women sang and played the blues, passed down informally through oral tradition. Many jazz histories, however, only include what are now referred to as the "classic blues," a more polished vocal genre of the teens and 1920s, informed by vaudeville and performed on theater circuits by such women as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters. The lyrics of the blues were filled with innuendo and double entendre, making them not only an outlet for expressions of emotion but also of sexuality.

The other, shorter strand of jazz's precursors ends in ragtime and represents a largely new, technical side of instrumental practice borrowed heavily from European sources. Although ragtime was popular in instrumental arrangements and as ragtime songs-some trace the genre to minstrelsy and performers who attempted to transfer banjo styles to the piano-jazz histories focus almost exclusively on the virtuosic piano form of the 1890s and the technical prowess of its male performers. These histories give the impression that once African American men gain access to instruments, they abandon the voice in favor of tools that do a more efficient job of achieving musical sophistication, the basis for their musical evolution and potential legitimization in the white world. Unlike the blues, which serves a function akin to the spiritual, the literature on ragtime places an emphasis on secular contexts rather than transcendent musical experience.

The parentage of jazz, therefore, can be read as symbolically gendered: the blues is feminine, a natural product of the untrained voice associated with the body and the sexuality of its performers, whereas ragtime is masculine, associated with instruments as tools and technical skill. Although the specifics of jazz's conception tend to remain as cloaked in mystery as the deliveries of the elusive stork, once jazz is "born," authors drop vocal forms from their histories. Singing either gives birth to the music or perhaps midwifes it, but it does not continue to move forward as part of typical progress-oriented narratives. Although ragtime piano evolves into stride and the instrument is absorbed by early jazz ensembles, the classic blues is almost uniformly constructed as a related yet separate phenomenon, worthy of study as much for the jazz instrumentalists who accompanied these singers as for their own contributions. If we believe our histories, at this early point in the music's development, there were no "jazz singers," only the occasional instrumentalist like Louis Armstrong, whose singing drew directly on his playing and which many dismissed as mere entertainment. Historiography (i.e., instrumental historiography) either confines singers to an inferior social space or simply erases singing from cultural memory from that point forward in its chronology: singing is contained by and at the origins of jazz.

Few scholars have commented specifically on this fracture between the nineteenth century and early jazz. None appears to have acknowledged the division it creates between vocal and instrumental forms-also a division between folk or popular genres and an emerging art tradition-and its significant impact on the erasure of women.

In a review of the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz focused on James Lincoln Collier's "Jazz" entry, Eileen Southern criticizes his failure to trace jazz to nineteenth-century instrumental forms, which she puts forth as its real origins. According to Collier, "Of the several streams of black folk music that flowed into twentieth century jazz, the largest comprised vocal forms-spirituals, work songs, field hollers, street cries and other urban forms, and, later, the blues." Southern finds his presentation typical, as I do; it went virtually unaltered in the Grove's second edition published in 2002.

If, as Southern suggests, we need to consider this history as all of one piece, then a variety of primary sources on nineteenth-century instrumental music need to be reexamined and incorporated into our narratives. At the turn of the century, Southern writes, substantive articles about plantation music appeared in the Musical Gazette (New York), Music Review (Chicago), Musical Record (Boston), Musical Visitor (Cincinnati), the Etude, Journal of American Folklore, and Hampton Institute's Southern Workman. Descriptions also appeared in the longer works of a few historians: Louis C. Elson's The History of American Music (1904); W. L. Hubbard's History of American Music (1908); and Frank Kidson's "Negro Music in the United States" in the Grove Dictionary of Music (1907). Southern points out how closely the documentation of some nineteenth-century instrumental music resembles jazz. For example, the journalist George Foster describes a fiddle, trumpet, and drum trio performing in a New York club named for Charles Dickens in honor of his visit to America: "With these instruments you may not imagine that the music at Dickens's place is of no ordinary kind. You cannot, however, begin to imagine what it is. You cannot see the red-hot knitting-needles spurted out by that red-faced trumpeter, who looks precisely as if he were blowing glass.... Nor can you perceive the frightful mechanical contortions of the bass-drummer as he sweats and deals his blows on every side, in all violation of the law of rhythm, like a man beating a baulky mule." Furthermore, in addition to primary sources, greater efforts could be made to utilize the painstaking research of scholars such as Dena Epstein, Lawrence Levine, Lynne Emery, and Lawrence Gushee.

Besides the unacknowledged continuum of instrumental music, evidence raises serious questions as to whether the separation of the blues and other vocal forms from early instrumental jazz was endemic to the musical culture at the time or imposed by critics and scholars well after the fact. Arguably, some musical separation between singers and instrumentalists was necessitated by the texture and instrumentation of New Orleans-style music; the voice would have difficulty performing the wildly improvised lines considered its central feature-typically rendered by violin or clarinet, cornet, and trombone-and being heard within such a dense polyphonic texture.

Nevertheless, vocal and instrumental repertory did overlap during the period when jazz emerges, indicating far greater fluidity between vocal and instrumental domains than is usually conveyed. "Blues singers" sang popular songs from minstrel traditions, vaudeville, and burlesque; folk ballads; and traditional blues. The emerging New Orleans dance bands played everything: the blues (for dancing the slow drag), concert pieces, quadrilles, polkas, rags, marches, hymns, popular songs, and old favorites (such as "Home Sweet Home" and "Listen to the Mockingbird"). Some of the new jazz repertory developed from folk songs and work songs.

Moreover, performing contexts and their participants overlapped, a fact that has long been ignored: vocal music was an integral part of the New Orleans jazz scene. Although anecdotal in character, some jazz autobiographies, interviews with musicians, and early histories provide evidence of New Orleans vocal traditions. In his autobiography Treat It Gentle, Sidney Bechet gives the following description of the types of music one might hear in the famed brothels and saloons, places that sometimes featured singers: "People have got an idea that the music started in whorehouses. Well, there was a district there, you know, and the houses in it, they'd all have someone playing a guitar or a mandolin, or a piano ... someone singing maybe; but they didn't have orchestras, and the musicianers never played regular there. There was Tom Anderson; he had one of those cabaret-like places-saloons. He had practically everything there, card rooms, bar, a hop room-and he had music. Sometimes you'd hear accordion, guitar, mandolin, sometimes bass, maybe a violin; other times you'd hear someone singing there."

Ramsey's and Smith's Jazzmen mentions that the cornetist Buddy Bolden-credited by many as the father of jazz and by all accounts a marvelous showman-would sing with his band. The lyrics were humorous and bawdy, including one for guitarist Brock Mumford titled "The Old Cow Died and Old Brock Cried." Bolden had his own well-known theme song: "I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say, 'Funky Butt, Funky Butt, take it away.'" Describing the main after-hours club in Storyville, Clarence Williams relates, "Well, at Pete Lala's, everybody would gather every night and there'd be singin' and playin' all night long." Of the honky-tonks and barrelhouses, Ramsey and Smith write: "In these dives they dragged out the blues with a slow beat and fierce intensity. Apparently there were hundreds of Negroes who could sit down and play and sing the low-down blues. They made up the words to fit their mood and the occasion."

Numerous women who worked as prostitutes in Storyville's brothels sang and danced. Jelly Roll Morton describes the "chippies in their little-girl dresses ... standing in the crib doors singing the blues." Spencer Williams recalls that Tony Jackson used to work at a house run by Miss Antonia Gonzales, who sang and played cornet. Ann Cook, one of the very first "blues singers," worked for Countess Willie Piazza; a New Orleans Blue Book advertisement states that Piazza "has, without a doubt, the most handsome and intelligent octoroons in the United States. You should see them; they are all entertainers. If there is anything new in the singing and dancing line that you would like to see while in Storyville, Piazza's is the place to visit." The cornetist Bunk Johnson remembered performing with one of these blues women in particular: "I knew Mamie Desdoumes real well. Played many a concert with her singing those same blues. She was pretty good-looking, quite fair, with a nice head of hair. She was a hustlin' woman. A blues-singing poor gal. Used to play pretty passable piano around them dance halls on Perdido Street. When Hattie Rogers or Lulu White would put it out that Mamie was going to be singing in their place, the white men would turn out in bunches and them whores would clean up."

Of the fanciest and most expensive houses, Clarence Williams stated, "Those houses hired nothing but the best, but only piano players, and maybe a girl to sing. And there was no loud playin' either. It was sweet, just like a hotel."


Excerpted from BIG EARS Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Nichole T. Rustin is completing a book titled Jazz Men: Race, Masculine Difference, and the Emotions in 1950s America.

Sherrie Tucker is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas. She is the author of Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s, also published by Duke University Press.

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