In the Jazz Tradition, Monday, Dec. 3–Monday, Dec. 10, various times, various prices, The Fruit, Durham, www.dukeperformances.duke.edu
In 2017, Ethan Iverson, former pianist of the popular jazz trio The Bad Plus, posted an interview he did with jazz pianist Robert Glasper. Though it started harmlessly enough, the interview took a decidedly controversial turn as the two discussed their audiences and why they got into the style.
“I’ve seen what that does to the audience, playing that groove. I love making the audience feel that way. Getting back to women: Women love that,” said Glasper. “They don’t love a whole lot of soloing. When you hit that one groove and stay there, it’s like musical clitoris. You’re there, you stay on that groove, and the women’s eyes close and they start to sway, going into a trance.”
The comment infuriated women jazz musicians and listeners all over the country, and rightfully so: It portrays women as erotic containers for male expression, as NPR critic Michelle Mercer noted. Even after the contributions from Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Diana Krall, Norah Jones, and so many more, Iverson’s exchange with Glasper showed that the hypermasculine jazz narrative is still alive and well.
It’s this context that makes In the Jazz Tradition, a December run of shows by Duke Performances at The Fruit, so powerful. The event will highlight how the contributions of contemporary women jazz vocalists such as Nellie McKay, Nnenna Freelon, Jazzmeia Horn, Cecil McLorin Salvant, Lucinda Williams, and Durham’s own Kate McGarry challenge that old-world narrative and push the jazz tradition forward.
Last October, Duke Performances presented a large celebration for Thelonious Monk’s one-hundreth birthday, showcasing some of the nation’s best jazz talent at the Fruit. In the Jazz Tradition will extend that thread in a new direction.
“This is sort of mirroring that [event] but just going with women in jazz and focusing on vocals,” says McGarry. “[Aaron Greenwald, director of Duke Performances] has this great ability to create an event that is relevant and exciting and draws in people with talent from all over the country. His programming is always fascinating from an artist’s perspective, and he has incredible vision with a really gusty approach to his curating. He’s setting up new traditions in a way.”
McGarry, a soulful jazz singer with a thirty-five-year career, a Grammy nomination, and a recently released album, The Subject Tonight is Love, under her belt, plays the event on December 9. She says she’s honored to represent Durham, where she’s lived for ten years.
“I’m fifty-five, and I’ve been doing it since I was about eighteen. In all those years, one of the most important things, and a big focus for me, has been developing a community of singers, instead of feeling like that dog-eat-dog kind of thing,” McGarry says. “And, in the past year or two, the #MeToo movement hit jazz, and it hit it hard. What I noticed was on Facebook, and everywhere where I was having discussions, men were taking their heads out of the sand and saying, ‘I didn’t realize what you were experiencing. I’m so sorry, let’s see if we can fix this.’”
McGarry says men have begun to do the work to include women. But women haven’t exactly been waiting on the sidelines—they’ve been kicking the doors down. It all makes for an improved environment from when McGarry was first starting out in the eighties.
“I feel like the feminine aspect, it encourages a horizontal plain instead of a vertical plain—vertical is all about trying to get up the food chain, and that’s more of a masculine outlook,” McGarry says. “So I feel there’s a real benefit to being a woman in jazz in that we’ve been helping each other develop that feeling of safety and of community. That’s where people can flourish and where their voices can flourish because they feel safe.”
Nellie McKay is another example of the sort of artist who can thrive when the definition of jazz expands. A songwriter who embraces traditional jazz harmony and melodies and melds them with her own whimsical, satirical diversions, McKay plays two sets on December 5.
McKay’s songs often collage contemporary commentary with mid-century cultural aesthetic. For instance, the first line of “Mother of Pearl,” an upbeat swing-style ukulele tune that she performed during her 2008 TED Talk, is “Feminists don’t have a sense of humor.” As the song progresses, McKay makes it clear she’s not sympathetic to this view, in spite of the flower tucked behind her ear. Rather, she’s ridiculing this dismissive, sexist notion. Many of her other songs operate in this cleverly subversive manner, and come from her own political awareness.
Social programs that could help women—such as single parent health care, universal child care, or universal basic income—are “all possible,” McKay says.
“If we just took some of the money we used for blowing up women in other countries,and used it to help people here, it’s really quite simple,” she adds.
That being said, McKay, who is thirty-six, says she’s experienced very few disadvantages as a woman jazz musician and has reveled in living on the fringes. Still, McKay’s experience seems a testament to the improved inclusion of voices in jazz who don’t necessarily exist within a scene’s hierarchy.
In the same way, In the Jazz Tradition makes space for country songwriting legend Lucinda Williams to be considered in a new light. On the final night of the event, Memphis-born Charles Lloyd and his band, which includes jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, will join forces with Williams. Together, they’ll blend their love of jazz music with the soul and rock of the Deep South.
All this redefinition of tradition is heartening, but there is more work to be done. While women vocalists have finally been able to reclaim some spotlight, many women instrumentalists still struggle in the shadows with few female role models. And on top of that, McGarry notes, the experience for women of color is wholly different from that of white women in the genre.
“There’s still so much work to do—even among women artists. African-American women artists have a whole different experience than white women artists that we need to listen to,” she says.
Still, it’s trailblazing events like In the Jazz Tradition that offer space for the discussion of complicated contemporary themes from within the jazz sphere. The event also rewrites history, creating curiosity about women in jazz who may have never gotten their due, and doing the work necessary for a more equitable jazz future.