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Clip: Don't Ask, Don't Tell

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  • Carl Zimring
    Some good mulling of sexual identity and gender in this NY Times clip. Carl Z. *** http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/01/arts/music/01DAVI.html In the Macho World
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 1, 2002
      Some good mulling of sexual identity and gender in this NY Times clip.

      Carl Z.



      In the Macho World of Jazz, Don't Ask, Don't Tell

      [I] have been asked what it's like being white in a field of music that's
      considered African-American," the vibraphonist Gary Burton says. "I think
      it would be equally valid to ask me what it's like being gay and playing a
      form of music that's seen as macho. It's interesting that the subject never
      seems to come up."

      Although white jazz fans in particular like to think of themselves as
      color-blind, it often seems that race is all they ever talk about when the
      subject is music. There is even a kind of reverse racial profiling that
      goes on in jazz: white players are pulled over and ticketed for reckless
      introspection. But whereas race is visible, even if it is becoming less so
      all the time, sexual orientation usually is not. Within jazz, race is
      considered a fit topic for public discourse, while a gay sexual orientation
      is regarded as private, a potential source of embarrassment for performer
      and audiences alike.

      It is practically gospel in jazz that a player taking an improvised solo is
      coming clean, baring his soul, telling us who he is in no uncertain terms.
      But what if the player is gay? Isn't that as much a clue to his identity as

      Mr. Burton's comments came during a panel discussion about homosexuality in
      jazz at the Village Vanguard in April, which I moderated. It was presented
      by the National Arts Journalism Program and Columbia University, and along
      with the writer Grover Sales, the other panelists were the pianist Fred
      Hersch, the saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase and the singer and pianist Andy
      Bey. There appears to be a growing acceptance of homosexuality among the
      general public. Yet the panel was the first public discussion that anyone
      could recall to address the topic of homosexuality in jazz.

      In jazz the rule remains "Don't ask, don't tell." This attitude is ironic
      because the jazz subculture has been notoriously free and easy, ahead of
      the beat on most social issues. Safety in numbers may have as much to do as
      sensibility with drawing gay men to certain professions, like hairdressing
      and floristry. In general, the performing arts are another area in which
      the news that someone is gay hardly comes as a shock. But there are ways in
      which jazz and all of popular music have more in common with baseball than
      with theater or dance. (Jazz even has its own body of statistics, in the
      form of discographies, recording dates and musical lineups.) Despite a
      growing number of female instrumentalists, the audience for jazz remains
      overwhelmingly male, which perhaps explains why jazz itself remains an
      enclave of machismo.

      There was a time when all jazz musicians were straight, as far as anyone
      knew. The composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn was a notable exception,
      but he was perfectly happy to spend his career in Duke Ellington's shadow,
      which was the same as being in the closet. It was only in 1996, with the
      publication of David Hajdu's Strayhorn biography, "Lush Life," that
      nonmusicians learned of Strayhorn's homosexuality. A common objection to
      Mr. Hajdu's book was that Strayhorn's sexual orientation had no bearing on
      his music.

      Mr. Burton has been "out" to his friends and associates since the late
      1980's, when he took a male date to a party at the Berklee School of Music
      in Boston, where he has taught since 1971 and is now an executive vice
      president. "My decision to come out resulted from the end of my second
      marriage," he said. "I was in my 40's and finally came to the conclusion
      that I was more gay than straight. The deciding factor was that I got a
      crush on someone who was very out, and in the course of dating him, I had
      to be out as well. It didn't last, but I was out by then."

      Even so, Mr. Burton didn't go public, as it were, until 1994, when he
      discussed being gay in an interview on National Public Radio. Whatever
      repercussions he feared, an apparent lack of notice on the part of the jazz
      press (and by extension, the jazz community) left him more puzzled than
      relieved. Given his standing in jazz (he has been a consistent Downbeat
      poll-winner on vibes since the late 60's), it was as if the guest of honor
      at a formal dinner had noisily slurped his soup or blurted out an off-color
      remark ? best to look the other way. Except for an article about Mr. Burton
      and other gay musicians in JazzTimes magazine last year, which elicited an
      angry letter that accused gay musicians of not swinging (long a white
      stereotype), the jazz press has continued to shy away from the subject,
      despite his willingness to speak frankly about being that supposedly rarest
      of creatures, a gay jazz musician.

      In avoiding questioning Mr. Burton about his sexual orientation, jazz
      journalists may be guilty of nothing more than trying to guard his privacy,
      or they might feel it's a nonissue. But this reticence seems disingenuous
      in light of the role that Miles Davis's reputed prowess with the opposite
      sex played in defining his appeal to many of his male fans. (Never mind the
      persistent rumors that Davis was bisexual.)

      And discretion can be an unintended form of homophobia, said Mr. Hersch.
      "There are several phases to coming out, and I think most of us went
      through one when we first told another human being that we were gay," Mr.
      Hersch said. "We were nervous and looking for the perfect way to put it.
      Then, over time, we get to where we assume everyone knows and nobody really
      cares. But the third phase is that in the same way that somebody else might
      talk about his wife or girlfriend, you want to be able to talk about your
      boyfriend or lack thereof."

      Jazz and gay culture may be antithetical. Although the musicians on the
      panel didn't feel that they had been ostracized since coming out, only Mr.
      Bey has attracted a sizable gay following since declaring his sexuality.
      "Once you've found out who you are, you can express your feminine side,
      your masculine side, you're not afraid to let it all out, and I think a lot
      of gay people want to hear that," Mr. Bey said.

      But he is a singer, and there have always been jazz singers like Billie
      Holiday and Carmen McRae with a gay appeal, regardless of their own sexual

      Mr. Burton's experience seems more typical of those on the panel. "One of
      the surprises for me in coming out was that nobody had ever heard of me and
      nobody had ever heard of the vibraphone," Mr. Burton said. "I had finally
      connected with `my people,' and they didn't care. The kinds of music that
      are popular in gay culture have a high degree of glamour, and jazz is the

      In a 1984 article for the magazine The Jazzletter, Mr. Sales noted the
      scarcity of gay jazz musicians relative to the overall gay population and
      speculated that the reason for this might be traced to jazz's earliest
      days, when it gave black men an outlet for expressing an assertive
      masculinity that they were otherwise forbidden to give voice to. Mr. Sales
      said jazz offered a similar outlet for the first white jazz musicians, who
      were likewise discouraged from expressing their masculinity as offspring of
      a genteel society in which music and the arts in general had become
      overrefined and, in Mr. Sales's word, "feminized."

      This is a reasonable enough theory, but it hardly explains why the jazz
      world ? liberal on most issues ? finds itself at this late date so far
      behind the rest of the population on issues relating to gender and
      sexuality. Except for a crack that if Mr. Hersch wanted to be asked about
      his love life, he should call a tune on his next album "something like,
      `For My Lover, Irving,' " there were no hostile comments from the floor
      during the question-and-answer period that followed the panel. But the
      Vanguard audience of 100 or so seemed far more comfortable participating in
      the two discussions that followed, which addressed the economic hardships
      of playing jazz and the proper roles of critics and scholars ? the usual
      shop talk at jazz get-togethers.

      My lack of success in putting together a more racially balanced panel (Mr.
      Bey was the only black participant) raised for me the troubling question of
      whether gay black musicians face more difficulty in coming out than their
      white counterparts as a result of greater homophobia in black culture.
      (Some black denominations have a spotty record on gay issues, and hip-hop's
      preoccupation with thuggery has set an impossibly high standard of
      masculinity for young black men.) Despite my best efforts, there were no
      lesbians on the panel, but women may have a greater disincentive in coming
      out, because they already have so much going against them as female
      intruders in a music ruled by men. (To some men, a female drummer or horn
      player is automatically butch, even if she happens to be straight.)

      "I know certain gay musicians who are not out who I feel overcompensate by
      trying to be even more macho than straight musicians," Mr. Hersch said.
      "And unfortunately, certain women players have also been pressured into
      higher and louder and faster, with more chops."

      Whether being gay makes a difference in playing jazz was a question left
      hanging by Mr. Hersch and the other panelists, and none of the gay
      musicians I've spoken to in the months since have quite been able to answer
      it, either. But this doesn't mean that the question is irrelevant, just
      that gay musicians are still trying to figure it out for themselves.

      "I usually leave the interviewing up to the interviewer," Mr. Burton said,
      explaining that journalists typically ask him about his latest recording,
      his equipment and the trials of balancing teaching and performing. "But
      this undiscussed area of being a gay man, being part of the gay community ?
      has that affected me creatively? That would be a very interesting thing to
      explore. But interviewers, maybe because they're not sure how to write
      about it, stay away from it."

      Like the others on the panel, Mr. Bey feels the issue warrants discussion.
      "You have to deal with the issue of who you are, and it can be a difficult
      issue if you're living a so-called abnormal life," he said. "It needs to be
      talked about in order to liberate yourself."
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