While women have managed to make significant gains in the world of jazz music, it remains a male-dominated genre with major hurdles for female artists, according to a noted music scholar.
Dr. Benjamin Piekut, music professor at the University of Southampton in England, who specializes in modern jazz and race and gender studies, presented “Gender and the New Thing: The Case of the Jazz Composers Guild” Thursday morning in a guest lecture on campus.
The lecture focused, using the short-lived Jazz Composers Guild as an example, on how jazz artists were advocates for equality through experimentalism, though often reinforced traditional gender and race biases.
The Jazz Composers Guild was founded by trumpeter Bill Dixon in 1964 as a cooperative organization that meant to organize events and promote New York’s avant-garde jazz musicians. That demographic, Piekut argued, was itself split along race — and later gender — lines and disintegrated after only six months.
Piekut discussed how the Guild succumbed to rivalries among black and white musicians who each sought to use the Guild for different purposes. According to him, many of the black artists wanted to use it as a platform for Black Nationalism and experimentalism, while whites artists aw it as a simple concert-producing body.
In researching the topic, Piekut interviewed various members of the Guild, including Dixon himself, something said he said was rewarding.
“It was a great experience,” Piekut said after the lecture. “He is an important (figure) — a fundamental one.”
While Piekut said race was a factor in the Guild’s downfall, he explained that its inclusion of pianist Carla Bley also proved extremely problematic and highlighted the bias against women among jazz musicians, a problem he said still exists today.
“I think one would have to be completely blind to not realize significant, incremental change,” Piekut said. “There are a lot of women in jazz. However, a lot of these kinds of stories continue, and there are plenty of people a lot smarter than me writing and commenting about it… It’s still incredibly difficult for women.”
Piekut explained during his presentation how the fundamentals of jazz are centered in masculine concepts, such as the power and control of the jam session. Often — especially in the 1960s — women artists have not been taken seriously by their male counterparts.
“What’s incredibly interesting is that for plenty of women composers and performers of jazz often don’t want to talk about being women in jazz,” Piekut said. “There’s a double-bind there, where women have to become the representatives of the gender conversation. That’s why, for a lot of this talk, it’s important for me to concentrate on masculinity, not on femininity.”
Bley was a pioneering figure for women in jazz music, according to Piekut. He argued that before her, while there were numerous popular female jazz vocalists such as Patty Waters, Jeanne Lee and Abbey Lincoln, there were few female jazz composers and instrumentalists.
Piekut focused his presentation on 1960s New York, where divisions among race and gender were highlighted by the cooperative nature of the jazz scene.
“This is a period when categories of music, race, gender, nation, sexuality, are all being thrown into question and jumbled up with each other,” he said. “And I find that to be immensely productive as a scholar.”
The lecture was co-sponsored by the Cal Poly Ethnic Studies department, the Women’s & Gender Studies department, the Music department, the Multicultural Center and the College of Liberal Arts.
Ethnic Studies and Women’s & Gender Studies Assistant Professor Jane Lehr, who coordinated the lecture, said Piekut’s topic of jazz offered an excellent example to issues discussed in her courses.
“In the case of African American music in the 1960s, you have music and musicians extending the civil rights struggle into the world of music production,” Lehr said. “On the other hand, some of these same musicians reproduce gender norms in the context of their interactions with each other.”
“In my classes such as ES 112: Race, Culture and Politics in the U.S. and WGS 301: Introduction to Women’s Studies, we focus extensively on the role of popular culture in both reproducing and challenge norms related to race, gender, class, sexuality and so forth, she added. I am very excited for the opportunity for our students to see a popular culture scholar in action.”