Clip: Don't Ask, Don't Tell
- Some good mulling of sexual identity and gender in this NY Times clip.
In the Macho World of Jazz, Don't Ask, Don't Tell
By FRANCIS DAVIS
[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
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."