Big Ears : Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies

By Simons, Andy | IAJRC Journal, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Big Ears : Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies


Simons, Andy, IAJRC Journal


Big Ears : Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies by Nichole T. Rustin and Sherrie Tucker, eds. Duke University Press, 460pp, 2008

I once heard Harry James say, "There's only two types of music: good and bad." While no one can truthfully claim to have originated that quip, it over-simplifies music in general and jazz in particular. Being a complex art, jazz lends itself to all sorts of analysis and this can often be more than whether we like the playing or not. If you've ever swapped gossip about a player then you must agree with me here. So this is a book for you, whether you think so or not.

Despite the nowhere title, this collection of writings has much to offer. A compendium, as with all various artist CDs, will not consistently delight. But if Stanley Dance and Helen Oakley were to produce another book today, it might be something like Big Ears, although they'd certainly call it something more appealing.

The writers pull back the curtains to reveal sexism in the jazz marketplace. This in itself isn't news but many of the details will be.

Jeffrey Taylor's research into Lovie Austin and Lillian Hardin Armstrong started naturally enough, because "they seemed so ubiquitous in the Chicago jazz scene," so popular were they in the 1920s. Both artists benefited from their acquaintances with Jell Roll Morton and their styles are assessed as well as their career opportunities. Lil's piano was often obscured by Johnny St. Cyr's banjo, but she was "an entire band unto herself." Meanwhile, Lovie's best sides are deemed the ones recorded with Ida Cox, although we don't get much opportunity to enjoy her because, unlike the male piano stars, neither Austin nor Hardin Armstrong were signed for solo waxings not even on piano rolls. This barrier perhaps made the rhythm piano niche (see Alex Hassam's article in this issue) a more viable option for female players.

Monica Hairston writes a chapter on the intersection of jazz, race and politics, with the particular address being Barney Josephson's Café Society club. Being a committed communist wasn't a requirement for a gig but one had to support the Popular Front's interracialism. Hazel Scott and Mary Lou Williams had reasons to be Leftists, but give 'em a break - they were human beings too. Part of the bargain of accepting John Hammond's promotion was having to play benefit gigs for the cause. …

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