Telling Performances: Jazz History Remembered and Remade by the Women in the Band

Article excerpt

Scholars and writers in the burgeoning field of jazz studies are critically reevaluating some of the timeworn patterns of how mainstream jazz histories have been written. According to writers, such as those anthologized in Jazz Among the Discourses (1995), jazz scholarship is too "devoted to exalting favored artists"; too invested in "campaigns for superiority of genres"; jazz history is too neatly constructed into a misleading "coherent whole" of "styles or periods, each with a conveniently distinctive label and time period"; and, finally, the jazz historical record is too reliant on the very small portion of music which gets made into jazz records.(1)

As someone who does research on all-woman bands, I am heartened by these critiques. The conventional standards for what counts as jazz history make it very difficult to construct historical narratives which include all-woman bands. I would also like to suggest that scholars seeking more complex historical frameworks should take a listen to oral histories of women jazz musicians. The kind of listening I am advocating would not be limited to merely skimming jazzwomen's stories for data to add to the existing historical record, nor would it be geared solely to create separate women-in-jazz histories. Rather, I believe that through serious study of jazzwomen's oral histories, scholars might learn new narrative strategies for imagining and telling jazz histories in which women and men are both present. Because women who played instruments other than piano were seldom the "favored artists" of the "superior genres," and because they were hardly ever recorded, they have had little access to the deceptive "coherence" of mainstream histories. Therefore, they are uniquely positioned to suggest new frameworks for telling and interpreting jazz history.

Listening to narratives of women instrumentalists might also help jazz scholars to engage more rigorous gender analysis than has been customary. Women musicians do not tend to construct separate "women's jazz" histories when they talk about their careers, nor do they simply "add themselves in" to dominant historical frameworks. Yet historians aiming to include women seem to be stuck at the crossroads of these two narrative options. Instead, women musicians tend to construct narratives in which they dramatize themselves, at various stages of their careers, negotiating gendered identities (often in creative ways) as jazz musicians. Indeed, these "telling performances"--the narrations themselves--may prove a rich site for learning about the function of oral history-telling in female artists' construction and maintenance of identities as jazz musicians in a discourse which has historically denied them a place.

Engaged listening to oral histories of women jazz musicians might help historians to re-frame jazz history so that it is possible to see "gender," not only as a mode of social organization, but in Joan Scott's terms, as a "field on which power is articulated."(2) This would involve not only looking at what women did and what men did, but looking at what kinds of masculinities and femininities were performed in specific historical contexts and how they were valued; asking, for instance, which masculinities and femininities were deemed marketable on a national scale and which were relegated to local scenes only. Jazz scholars would do well to critically examine the kinds of gender constructions which have dominated jazz journalism, recording, marketing, and historiography and to ask questions such as: Who is served by the popular construction of the modernist jazz hero as personifying a kind of black masculinity defined (usually by white male writers) as isolated, self-destructive, and childlike?(3) Or by the quintessential jazzwoman as "girl singer," so often constructed as a bubble-head, rather than a knowledgeable professional? Or by the figure of the jazz/blues singer as the embodiment of stereotypes about black femininity, over-sexed and under-loved, the musician who is assumed to have no musical knowledge, but is thought to express, naturally, through her pain, an extra-earthy feminine wisdom which may do the singer no good, but which nurtures and entertains listeners? …