BROTHERS, ARE YOU DROOLING WHILE YOU SEEM TO BE LISTENING?

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.

Cornelis Dusart (1660-1704), “Caricature Head of a Leering Man, A Recorder Tucked into his Hat.”

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!

15 responses to “BROTHERS, ARE YOU DROOLING WHILE YOU SEEM TO BE LISTENING?

  1. Barbara Rosene

    THANK YOU, Michael!

  2. Deanna Witkowski

    Thanks for writing this, Michael. It’s so helpful when men speak out about this subject. And what you’ve hit on is just the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t help when reporters/critics comment on a woman musician’s appearance or use adjectives (“lovely,” “talented”) that they’d never use to describe a male musician’s performance.

  3. Thanks for the very well stated comment – I think it is incredibly important that we look at everyone as people who are seeking to make a contribution, whether in music, other arts, or in a business at any level. I was brought up with the assumption that gender is not a factor in these things – which has been reinforced across the decades (I am 53) by the incredibly gifted engineers and scientists I have worked with across the full range of genders, race, religion, national origin, and more. I have been continually disheartened by how widespread objectification and harassment are to this day, and worse how many men dismiss the push to treat women as equals as ‘being a PC snowflake’ or some other garbage.

  4. I really appreciate what you have written here. Of course there are thousands of pages that have been written and should; I was intentionally trying to focus narrowly on what I have seen and experienced, and thus write honestly without too much generalizing.

  5. Sonny McGown

    Dear Michael,

    By nature, I haven’t been a model citizen myself at times but I am exceedingly amazed at the beauty of the music created by all of these incredibly talented ladies. Never before have we been blessed with so many accomplished female Jazz artists. Can you imagine how proud Marian McPartland, Mary Lou Williams, Dorothy Donegan and Hadda Brooks among others would be today?
    Our happiness has increased immensely. Thank you for this thought provoking and appropriate essay.

  6. Thank you for pointing out what has been painfully obvious to females in all lines of work (or just existing) for eons. Your comments seem especially pertinent to female vocalists, because they are de facto out front and expected to interact w/ the audience. If they’re not sexy enough, they’re not playing their expected role. If they’re too sexy, they’re not taken seriously by their fellow musicians. Doubly or triply true for female vocalists who book their own jobs as leader, which requires a couple extra doses of bravery, business sense and work ethic. But in general, I am encouraged; I think most musicians today judge each other on their musical talents.

  7. I am happy to read your words. The fans lag behind the musicians in awareness, alas. Keep being brave and clear!

  8. Doug Miller

    Slight twinge of guilt here—it can be more than a little distracting when attractive female musicians & singers present themselves more appealingly than might be absolutely necessary. (For example, one of my favorite cornetists wears very short skirts or shorts on a pretty regular basis). But I’m also assuming most women are aware of the response their appearance elicits, so just consider it part of the show, and enjoy with appreciation of the music as well.

  9. I am not writing this accusingly, but raising the question: who gets to decide what you, or I, or she wears?

  10. Barbara bengels

    Thank you. This is important.

  11. Michael, when I contributed an article about Ginger Smock to The Strad, November 2010, the editor, who was a woman, headed the piece in large type: “With her movie star looks and red-hot playing, . . .”. I hadn’t written that. I do hold my hands up to having written within the article: “By the early 1950s Smock, with her exceptional talent and good looks, was in demand in Los Angeles TV stations.” My excuse: It was shorthand for explaining how an African–American woman jazz violinist could become a fixture on early television, but I wish I hadn’t written it like that, not least because of the impetus it gave to the editor.

  12. Mr Barnett:

    In my view, it says something about the state of “music journalism” and the scene in general when a piece header such as you describe is akin to one culled from a tabloid.

    I am happy to see more women jazz musicians, it is a rare sign of cultural invigoration into the music.

    Some of these men just need to grow up, cause no self-respecting woman wants to deal with such crap. Just keep it to yourself or stay home.

  13. Thanks for writing this, Michael!

  14. And thanks for reading it. I would be indebted to you if you chose to pass it around — not out of my writerly vanity, but so that some could hear and see a man saying these things.

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