Gender and Identity in Jazz: Darmstäder Studies in Jazz Research

Edited by Wolfram Knauer
Jazz Institute Darmstadt

By Ken Waxman

Only during the past 20 years has serious scholarship turned to examining the effect of gender inequality and sexual preference on jazz. With different identities the subject of 2015’s Darmstäde Jazzforum, the 17 essays collected here offer a thoughtful and informed overview of the subjects. Written mostly in English, with summaries provided for German entries, the most valuable pieces are based on primary research. An important distinction is also made between two concepts. While the idea of woman playing jazz has accepted –although downgraded as not being as profound as so-called real jazz from males – the idea that homosexuals and lesbians were involved in the music seems to have been a non-starter for many practitioners.

Jenna Bailey’s piece on Ivy Benson’s British All-Girl band which lasted from 1940-1981 is instructive. While Benson’s groups provided musical training and exposure to show business for hundreds of woman instrumentalist, she was fixated on her musicians’ looks. As illuminating are the conclusions of Yoko Suziki, after discussion with other female reed players, about how perceived timidity in their playing is a legitimate way of utilizing the horn. Probably the most noteworthy thesis is Ilona Haberkamp’s examination of the career of pianist Jutta Hipp. It encompassed fame and recordings with the best (male) players in Germany and New York from 1946-1960, and her complete abandonment of music after that. Besides natural shyness and an alcohol problem, Hipp’s alienation was due to the combination of being a white, foreign female player when jazz was dominated by American men. Her initial exoticism also worked against her. In the US, her playing was strongly influenced by hard bop. This caused her early champions to charge that she had abandoned her initial cool-inflected style to sound like every other pianist.

Homosexuality is another matter. Despite Christian Broecking’s sympathetic review of the career of Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer, a self-proclaimed “authentic” lesbian, overall European attitudes towards unabashed homosexual identification of jazz musicians has been more accepting than it has been in the US. Meanwhile Christopher Dennison’s piece on homophobia is more detailed if inconclusive. Citing well-known jazzers who identify as gay he’s content to let their achievements refute those who insist gay people can’t play “true” jazz without analyzing individual achievements. This book opens the vistas for further discussion, making it a valuable and provocative read.

—For The New York City Jazz Record January 2017