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A year of reckoning and recognition

A year of reckoning  and recognition


NYT Syndicate

For 77 hours straight in mid-September, bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding broadcast live on Facebook as she wrote, rehearsed and recorded an entire album. The project, titled 'Exposure,' was meant as a challenge to herself, but it became a display of dauntless prowess and grand ambition. Viewers watched ” usually a few thousand at a time ” as Spalding demonstrated complex parts to her pianist, or decided whether to keep or ditch each take. 'Exposure' showed that it was possible to turn the technical, obsessive process of recording jazz into a public spectacle. This could have fascinating implications.
That recording studios are among the most male-dominated spaces in the music industry and Spalding was often the only woman in the room felt like an afterthought at best.
Maybe it bears mentioning, though, that 'Exposure' was one of many arresting statements made by female jazz instrumentalists this year. It has been a period of painful revelation and reckoning for women in the workplace across the country, and the same was true for jazz. But 2017 also felt like a moment of progress.
Possibly for the first time, festival presenters could no longer get away with booking one or two female musicians next to a heap of men."The awareness of it not being equitable for men and women in jazz has really come to a bit of a head," said Terri Lyne Carrington, 52, an esteemed drummer who has long spoken out about sexism in the music industry."As far as it is resulting in more female instrumentalists becoming recognised ” whether it's albums or festivals or gigs ” that's steadily getting better."
The year began with a reminder of how much work remains to be done. In March, pianist and blogger Ethan Iverson posted an interview with Robert Glasper, a prominent fusion pianist, in which Glasper said he understood what female listeners wanted out of jazz."They don't love a whole lot of soloing," he said."When you hit that one groove and stay there, it's like a musical hot spot. You're there, you stay on that groove, and the women's eyes close and they start to sway, going into a trance." He didn't seem to imagine that the simplest way to attract female listeners might be to put more women onstage.
The comments ” and Iverson's obstreperous initial defence of his decision to publish them on a blog that had never run an interview with a female musician ” drew a sharp backlash, partly because these days a quorum of women in jazz fully expect to be heard.
Perhaps the most startling debut albums in jazz this year were 'Fly or Die,' by the trumpeter Jaimie Branch, and 'Mannequins,' by the drummer Kate Gentile. Gentile plays original compositions that are at once grimy and resonant, tightly layered and charged with momentum. Branch uses extended technique and blustery abstraction to a dizzying effect.
A mentor to Branch, flutist Nicole Mitchell, 50, had a banner year herself. The highlight was 'Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds,' an album recorded with her Black Earth Ensemble, an eight-piece band playing percussion, strings and reeds from traditions across the globe.
Cellist Tomeka Reid, another acolyte of Mitchell's, spent her year playing high-profile gigs with her own projects as well as with luminaries like Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell. She released an album with saxophonist Nick Mazzarella and one with Hear in Now, a powerful trio of female string players.
"I really feel like I had a unique experience because I came up under Nicole and Dee Alexander," Reid said."When I was just getting into improvised music, I saw women leaders, women composers. I saw women putting projects together."
The most noteworthy piece of writing to come out of the Iverson-Glasper fiasco was a nearly 6,000-word blog post by vibraphonist Sasha Berliner, a 19-year-old jazz student at the New School. In it she tells of being overlooked or underestimated by teachers ” despite her formidable talent ” and reveals that she was harassed by a figure whom she relied upon for gigs in the small San Francisco scene.
"I've witnessed it happen to a lot of my female peers, who are very young, and that's discouraged them," Berliner said in an interview.
The issues she had raised found a disconcerting resonance in November, when The Boston Globe published a series of reports about accusations of sexual misconduct by faculty members at Berklee College of Music. The Globe reported allegations that trombonist Jeff Galindo ” a faculty member who had since left the school and was teaching elsewhere ” assaulted a student, and that other former professors had tried to pressure students into kissing. (Galindo did not respond to a request for comment.) At an emotionally charged town hall meeting, the school's president, Roger Brown, acknowledged that 11 faculty members had been quietly dismissed over sexual misconduct allegations in the past 13 years.
The school has laid out some action items in response to the uproar, but a group of professors is calling for Berklee to intentionally raise its female representation of faculty and students to 50 percent by 2025.
More and more, organisations are starting to clarify their goals of inclusion. Influential pianist Geri Allen, who died this year at 60, left behind a programme at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the All-Female Jazz Residency, which allows young women to learn directly from top jazz musicians. It's not the only one of its kind.
In Montclair, New Jersey, the nonprofit Jazz House Kids brings jazz education to a diverse grade school population. Its president and founder, Melissa Walker, has spent the past five years beefing up her female faculty and developing a residency for girls called Chica Power.
"The young girls would ask questions and talk about how they're in their high school jazz band and they're not invited to solo, or their teacher will say young girls in jazz don't play as well as boys," Walker said."These sessions began to really reveal that a little 'chica power' is needed."

(Cover: Bassist Linda Oh)

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