Sophisticated Ladies

Sophisticated Ladies

From our beginnings on the Web more than three years ago, NewMusicBox has always made a conscious effort to include women’s voices along with men’s voices in every issue. Critics might claim this is some kind of quota system, but our balance is a pretty accurate reflection of the new music community in the country overall. Since the question of gender balance has been a hot topic on our interactive forums, we thought it would be exciting to explore the impact of gender in jazz, an area of the music world where there seem to be even more bridges left to cross than in many other areas. After her provocative investigative report for the Village Voice about the lack of women musicians involved with Jazz @ Lincoln Center which inspired a protest rally outside Lincoln Center, and her New York Times Arts & Leisure feature about Abbey Lincoln, Lara Pellegrinelli seemed a natural choice to serve as our guest editor; NewMusicBox regulars will remember her elaborate guided tour of great American jazz clubs. A Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology at Harvard University, Ms. Pellegrinelli combines her dissertation research on contemporary jazz vocalists with assignments for a variety of publications including Ms. magazine, Jazz Times, Jazziz, Down Beat, and the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz.


Lara Pellegrinelli
Guest Editor Lara Pellegrinelli
Photo by Melissa Richard

When Frank J. Oteri invited me to guest edit this month’s NewMusicBox, we were enjoying large plates of pierogies at Kiev in the East Village with mutual friends. He had asked me whom I was writing about these days and I made a bold statement of it: Abbey Lincoln, I told him, the most important woman in jazz. Period. Frank put down his fork and pricked up his ears.

Certainly, I am not the first to recognize Lincoln’s significance. Since her “comeback” in the early 1990s—in part a result of her signing with Verve—critics have hailed her as one of the finest vocalists in jazz. For the many who feel a rather morbid compulsion to assign the title of “greatest living jazz vocalist,” Lincoln has become that leading lady, a mantle passed down from deceased legends beginning with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan through Carmen McRae and Betty Carter.

Although she is a supremely gifted performer, Lincoln’s greatest accomplishment—to my mind and ears—lies in the arena of songwriting. As vocalist Cassandra Wilson so aptly put it: “[Lincoln’s] importance goes beyond technical achievements. She’s a culture bearer. She represents a metamorphosis from singer as ëaccessory’ to singer as creator.”

So, too, does Carter; she had written a portion of her own material and led her own bands for decades, an unusual feat for a vocalist and one that has posed challenges for women in jazz generally speaking. For Carter, the singer’s role would approximate that of the instrumental soloist. By contrast, Lincoln has reclaimed a distinctive tradition of song. She is a brilliant storyteller. Moreover, her lyrics counter the sexism and dated gender roles common throughout the popular songbook.

Frank and I determined that we would build an issue focusing on the “jazz” tradition (a label, it should be mentioned, that Lincoln rejects) and women as composers. Lincoln, clearly, would be our “In the First Person” protagonist. Linda Dahl, author of Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women and, most recently, Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams, enlisted as our “In The Third Person” HyperHERstorian; she provides us with snapshots of women as composers throughout jazz history.

For “Hymn and Fuguing Tune,” we tackled a seemingly obvious, but infrequently asked question: “Does gender have an influence on your compositions and, if so, how?” Jane Ira Bloom, Amina Claudine Myers, Nora York, Jamie Baum, Katharine Cartwright, and Ursel Schlict went to bat. We invite you to comment on how you feel gender affects composing, performing, and listening by posting to In the Second Person.

Our “In Print” section offers selections from William R. Bauer’s Open the Door: The Life and Music of Betty Carter, published earlier this spring. SoundTracks provides details and soundclips from 48 new recordings featuring new American music, 13 this month by women jazzers. News features and Hear&Now concert listings are updated daily, so stop by again soon!

I have one parting thought as a woman who writes about jazz: I generally find myself critical of the segregated “women’s issues” produced by various magazines, ones I fear may ghettoize women musicians. That is certainly not the intent here. In a tradition where women have suffered many stumbling blocks, ones that have often gone unspoken, I do feel that it is vital to both air and address them. But, with equal importance, we must get beyond prejudice and find ways that give voice to the different perspectives of women in music. Frank J. Oteri has actively encouraged diversity within the regular framework of NewMusicBox, proving that all are welcome. I hope that those of you who are new readers this month will visit again and take advantage of this unique resource.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.