Certain essays I write have been simmering in my consciousness for years, and when the moment comes, they demand to be written. This post comes from my years of experience as a member of the jazz audience. It is about an uncomfortable subject.
My motivation for this piece comes from a private conversation I had yesterday morning with a male jazz fan of my generation who had enthusiastically posted on Facebook that a lovely young woman instrumentalist had “a movie-star profile.” Although his comment was meant as praise, it jarred me, and I privately asked him to consider why he had written it. To his immense credit, he replied graciously, was self-aware, and removed the comment: acts that I admire. But I felt a need to explore this phenomenon.
What follows is an expanded and edited version of my comment to him, names redacted. I ask only that those who respond to this post pause before leaping in. Comments including the words “Not all men” will be deleted.
This post is the result of a long conversation, one I’ve had with male and female musicians I respect. I am 66, and although I am in a wonderful relationship, I am also sensitive to female beauty. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, sexualized creatures, and that is not a bad thing. But how we express our erotic impulses is worth considering.
In my experience of the past fifteen years, much of the jazz audience is made up of men of my generation. Amiable, enthusiastic people. But many apparently don’t seem to be getting a great deal of sexual fulfillment. And without thinking about it, they publicly drool over and objectify any attractive young woman performer. It seems some can’t decide if they want to caress her or take her out for an ice cream soda or both. They crowd around. They ogle. They stare at her body as if she were a particularly appealing entree. They follow her when she makes it clear she has to leave.
This leering response extends into their writing. Look at the “admiring” comments on, say, a woman performer’s Facebook page. “Wow, she’s so Hot!” is one example. When an alluring woman musician is ooooohed over in print, it’s often evident that the man praising her is in part hearing her music but is more powerfully in the grip of his own sexual attraction.
In person, this kind of sexualizing is sometimes cloaked in fake-benevolent paternalism: “Oh, A is so cute. I love the way she dances around the stand.” Did anyone say of Rod Cless, “He’s so cute?” If they did, it hasn’t been recorded. More likely, they said, “What a beautiful tone he gets on the clarinet,” which is a critical expression with no murky subtext.
Once, at a table near me, a male jazz fan made lecherous yearning remarks about the woman musician on the stand, that he’d “like to get her away for a weekend,” while his wife sat next to him, looking elsewhere, drinking her beer. Another man pointed out to him that the object of his affection had a partner, but he grinned and said that this did not matter. This wasn’t an aberration; it happens often.
I am on a crusade to get people to listen to the music and assess it deeply. To me, this is better than fetishizing the body of the artist. That prurient response is not art criticism; it is not appropriate humane behavior. And listening to music is done with the ears, not the eyes.
I know that this reproach goes against decades of having men tell men, “It’s OK to be like that: that’s what a man does.” We were trained to think of women as gorgeous objects, collections of delightful parts, and implicitly told that we had the right to assess them solely on their physical attributes. “I voted for Miss December.” Our popular culture continues, with exceptions, to tell men that lasciviousness is a commendable mark of manhood. I don’t think we are wicked when we are sexual: this is a delightful part of being alive. Saying to our partner, “You look so sexy in those jeans!” is not a criminal act. Behaving lecherously to strangers who have not signed on for it is another matter.
Thus I strongly suggest that we make distinctions between the music a woman makes and her physical appeal. We may, of course, admire both, but they are not the same thing, and our admiration requires a certain self-scrutiny, at least if we do it in public. We all vibrate to certain powerful attractions, but to act on them in ways that cause others discomfort is not right.
This mixture of badly-concealed lust, casual expressions of power, implied ownership, and plain bad manners takes other forms. A demure young woman musician I know says that male fans always try to touch her when they speak to her, how she must back away from them.
I do not set myself up as a model here. I have not always behaved well, but at least I think about what I do. But I am distressed when these attitudes and actions I have described here debase the music I love and the people who spend their lives perfecting their art.
To all the JAZZ LIVES audience: thank you for reading my long meditation on this delicate subject. I hope you always have beautiful music to hear, music that makes you feel it is a great thing to be alive. And I hope we all can treat our fellow denizens of this planet with kindness and awareness.
May your happiness increase!