Opinion | Tia Fuller: Jazz has a sexism problem. I'm using my saxophone (and Grammy nod) to fight back.
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Feb. 10, 2019, 4:27 AM EST / Updated Feb. 11, 2019, 10:26 AM EST
By Tia Fuller, saxophonist and Grammy nominee
Throughout the entertainment industry, we’re seeing a rising level of consciousness when it comes to gender discrimination and sexual harassment. In Hollywood, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have shone a spotlight on the way some men in power have acted as corrupt and abusive gatekeepers for decades. I am encouraged by the fact that that many of us are now speaking out about these issues. And thankfully, I feel that there has been more thought to the inclusion and recognition of women on the scene since I started playing. But we still have a long way to go in the music industry.
As a female jazz musician, and a woman of color, I’ve dealt with sexism throughout my career. Early on, when I would first meet other musicians who hadn’t heard me play, I felt that I wasn’t always taken seriously. People would stop me when I was traveling and ask me about my saxophone case. "Oh wow! Do you actually play that?" Usually, I'd respond in a nice way. But what I really wanted to say was: “No, I’m just carrying it.” This is why it's important that we reshape the narrative around jazz and redefine, literally, what a jazz player is assumed to look like.
I remember once a man came up to me and said, “Why aren’t you smiling? Maybe you should smile a little more on stage.”
I grew up in Denver, Colorado and began performing my senior year of high school. At age 18, I started sitting in at a local jazz club, the El Chapultepec Lounge. I remember once a man came up to me and said, “Why aren’t you smiling? Maybe you should smile a little more on stage.” At the time, I didn’t have the confidence to respond assertively, but it made me think. He didn’t say anything to anybody else on stage about smiling, and of course, everybody else on stage with me was a man.
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The historic underrepresentation of women in jazz means the very landscape of jazz has been shaped by his-story. For the most part, it is men who have told the story of jazz music, and men who have decided which players represent the genre publicly.
Here's another example: When I first moved to New York in 2001, I remember going to a jam session where a long line of musicians was waiting to get up on stage. When it was my turn, a male horn player behind me almost immediately cut me off. I looked around and noticed that once again, I was the only woman in the room. That was the last time I let a man play over me like that ever again.
Unfortunately, women of color have been marginalized in so many industries for so long that it has become to feel almost normal. This in turn colors the expectations of audiences, who are too often surprised to see a woman playing. We are judged differently, either because we are viewed as exceptions or because we are assumed to be token hires and thus not as skilled. Then there’s the issue of looks. It’s not enough for women to play well — sometimes our musicianship is diminished simply because of how we may appear on stage. Men are never as heavily scrutinized, and especially not when it comes to their appearance.
These stereotypes are so pervasive, they’ve even influenced my own thinking. I’ve had to check myself regarding my own socialization and reckon with instances when I've subconsciously been sexist toward other women — even making assumptions about a female artist's abilities before hearing her play. Unfortunately, women have seen and felt discrimination so often that the oppressed too easily becomes the oppressor.
Just like with sexism in other industries, a lot of this oppression has to do with gatekeepers.
Just like with sexism in other industries, a lot of this oppression has to do with gatekeepers. Club owners are often men, a tradition that dates back to founding of some of the oldest American clubs in the 20th century. Especially earlier in my career, I'd pitch my band for gigs and feel like these male club owners were treating me differently because of my gender. I was there for a professional meeting, but the conversation too often shifted to flirtation. I was not taken seriously as a musician, but I was taken seriously as someone to potentially ask out on a date.
I have a transparent and vulnerable demeanor — something that stems from my childhood in the laid-backed Denver area — so I’ve had to adjust the way I present myself and overemphasize that I’m about business. There’s a subtle strength in that, the balance of communicating in a nice, but clear and precise way. I am careful now never to leave any wiggle room for misunderstandings. But this balancing act shouldn't be a requirement of my profession.
Don’t get me wrong, I've had many male mentors who have advised and looked out for me in my career: Master drummer Ralph Peterson Jr., whose band I played in for a long time; Cecil Brooks III, former owner of Cecil’s Jazz Club in West Orange, New Jersey, where I would sit in; saxophonist Bruce Williams, who played with Frank Foster and the late Roy Hargrove; and Denver natives and saxophonists Javon Jackson and Brad Leali. Systemic sexism doesn’t mean all men in the jazz business are sexist, obviously.
And I am very thankful for the female mentors I have met in the last six years or so, women like drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who produced my Grammy-nominated album “Diamond Cut,” multiple-Grammy-winning vocalist Dianne Reeves and the late pianist Geri Allen. But the fact that I only recently have been able to really connect with women in my field is just one more example of the way the industry tilts towards men.
And just like the way male club owners can discourage or undermine female players, the stories we tell about the history of jazz have erased the contributions of women for years. Musicians and fans alike have been deprived of the genre's many female's heroes. In fact, women have long played pivotal roles in the business, even if they weren't properly recognized for those roles.
For example, plenty of Americans have heard of the great players Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk — but fewer people know about Mary Lou Williams, who played with and influenced them. Her Harlem apartment became a gathering place for some of the most important musicians of the 1940s.
Similarly, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louis Armstrong’s wife, was an accomplished player in her own right who promoted her husband's career and also wrote arrangements for his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. Where’s her Hollywood biopic? in the 1940s, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm — an African-American, all-female band — was the biggest-selling and most popular all-female band of the era, breaking racial and gender barriers as they toured across the country.
We also need to be talking more about trombonist Melba Liston, who played and wrote many arrangements for Gerald Wilson, and tenor saxophonist Vi Burnside, whose peers were Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins, and Vi Redd, the alto saxophonist who played and sang with the Count Basie Orchestra. These women were foundational to the genre but their stories have since been mostly forgotten.
Fortunately, it feels like people are now starting to speak up and take ownership. Organizations like the We Have Voice collective — which I am a part of — are speaking out about equity in the performing arts.
The young men of this new generation are also becoming more sensitive and aware of these issues. I’ve seen it with my students at the Berklee College of Music. This is a problem women cannot change on our own. We need male allies to stand with us; to rebuke the male club owners, to correct their male peers in their bands. And I have personally taken it upon myself to address this issue with my male peers and students; to hold them accountable for inadvertent sexist remarks that they may make about women, even online.
The solution begins with the next generation. We have to move beyond teaching traditional gender roles and activities. Young girls can fly a rocket ship, throw a football and solo on the saxophone — but it is always harder to be what you cannot see. I hope being a woman of color in the music industry will help show other women and girls what they can be, too. We have to be proactive in deconstructing sexist and racist mindsets.
Saxophonist Tia Fuller is a first-time Grammy nominee whose album, “Diamond Cut,” is nominated for Best Instrumental Jazz Album at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards. Fuller has worked with a who’s who of jazz and popular music including Beyoncé, Esperanza Spalding, Dianne Reeves, Terri Lyne Carrington, and the late Nancy Wilson and Geri Allen. She is also a full-time professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston.