The conversation around women in jazz has rarely felt timelier or more pressing than it does at this moment.
Last Saturday, PBS NewsHour ran a report on the issue, largely based on a panel discussion at the 2018 NYC Winter Jazzfest. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, but also separate and apart from it, female musicians have been speaking out in greater numbers, with an acute sense of purpose. Journalists and scholars have amplified their message, at times diving into the fray.
In mid-January, the Jazz Journalists Association held a day-long series of panels, among them an illuminating discussion about “Women in Jazz Journalism,” moderated by my colleague Michelle Mercer. One of the questions from the audience came from an accomplished musician, saxophonist Roxy Coss, who has been an advocate for change.
Coss is about to release an album called The Future is Female, named after a slogan that originated in the 1970s but gained new traction during the last presidential campaign. The album is as topically charged as that title would imply: one of its 10 original compositions bears the title “#MeToo,” and another goes by “Nasty Women Grab Back.” The lead single, “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” refers to a phrase leveled at Elizabeth Warren last year by her fellow United States Senator, Mitch McConnell. (It instantly became a meme and a feminist rallying cry.)
For Coss, the phrase is a reminder of the need “to recommit to the music every day,” regardless of opposition. “It’s so built in for me,” she says, “that expectation that anytime I speak — anytime I play, even — it’s going against those gendered expectations and admonishments, and things I’ve been hearing my whole life.”
Coss is the founder of Women in Jazz Organization (WIJO), which was formed last summer with the aim of empowerment, solidarity and advocacy. Though it’s still gaining momentum, the group reflects a growing awareness within the jazz community on the subjects of sexism and gender equality.
Tonight, in celebration of International Women’s Day, the organization will present its first concert. Held at the United Nations International School, it will feature a collective with Nadje Noordhuis on trumpet, Carmen Staaf on piano, Noriko Ueda on bass and Allison Miller on drums.
This week I spoke by phone with Coss, who lives in Harlem. We talked about WIJO as well as The Future Is Female, which Posi-Tone will release on March 30. Below, find a lightly edited version of our conversation.
The Women in Jazz Organization started last July. What specifically led to its formation?
It’s something I had been thinking about for a couple of years. Lasy year I did a gig with the members of DIVA Jazz Orchestra, for Maurice Hines Tappin’ Thru Life. We were in Delaware for a month, and it was the first time I really had a chance to be with female musicians in that deep way, where we were hanging every night. As we shared our experiences, it became very clear that all of us had felt isolated and alone, thinking “Oh, it’s just me.” That starts to make you feel a little crazy, over time. To share those experiences, it’s like “Wow, I’m not alone.” So that was in my mind. I was also reading a few books, like Lean In and The Feminist Fight Club. Both of them really inspired me to start a group. So we had a meeting in July at the Musicians Union. Twelve people came. And I was like, “OK, I need to do this every month, build from there.” Really that first meeting was about asking people: “What do you need? What do we want this to be?” I’m glad that we started back then, because then in the fall all these stories of sexual misconduct were in the news, and people started to reach out to me. Realizing that I had this organization, everything kind of spiraled from there.
None of these issues are new, but because of what’s happened in the culture in recent months, the conversation is front and center now. Do you see that mainly in terms of an opportunity, or is there also a sense of “Why weren’t you paying attention to this before?”
I feel both, but I feel the first one stronger. My friends are coming to me and saying, “Wow, you were really ahead of the curve in talking about this.” Well, for me, it’s just my life, and it’s been like this since I picked up a horn. My personality happens to be one where I can’t help but be honest all the time. That bluntness has gotten me in trouble a lot. But those who are close to me know how I felt about this stuff for years. I think what’s happening now is, the fact that this is being talked about in the media, it provides a little bit of a safety net for us to talk about it. It’s not a big safety net, but at least now, if we say things, our peers will believe us more than they would have before. There is more of a foundation to believe the person talking about this experience, which gives us more desire to talk, if we think we’re going to be heard.
And if more people speak out now, rather than perpetuating a silence, then the culture will actually see some change.
I still think it’s very difficult to talk about it. That change isn’t complete. So we still face not being believed. Anybody in jazz speaking out about this, especially women who have been harassed or abused — there’s still a huge risk involved. There’s no support system in place to hold anyone accountable. So I think there’s more risk in our community than in other communities, and that hasn’t really changed. Then the other part of it is, any change is good, any attention to this stuff is good. Anytime something is published or we make progress, that’s a positive thing. Now, having this organization, my idea is to connect with those people. So when I saw WeHaveVoice, I contacted people from that organization, some of whom are members of WIJO as well, asking how do we magnify these efforts.
At the same time, I do get a little frustrated with this continuing perception that there isn’t anything happening in jazz. Because there is so much happening; people are speaking out more than ever. I’ve read at least two articles publicly stating that women in jazz aren’t speaking out. Well, yes, we are. In fact, we’ve created an organization, we’ve done all this work, and many of us individually have over the years tried to have professors fired, for instance. So just because you don’t know about it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. That sentiment is pretty frustrating.
Is it partly that an organization like this isn’t being signal-boosted the way that it should be — from a jazz media that’s still overwhelmingly male, and not looking out for these stories?
I didn’t come public with this organization for months, because I knew we weren’t ready. I knew as soon as we started to tell people about it, it was going to be, like, “Well, what are you? What are you doing? What have you done?” So now it’s great to be able to put something out there and point people to a place online. But then for us, and for me, it had existed since July. My moment of realization was: we have this insular jazz community, but we have an even more insular community of the musicians, the performers. The performers assume that they are the only part of the jazz community, and we’re not. There’s this huge ecosystem, with the press and the radio and the fans and the bookers. So we do want to make sure that our entire community is aware of the steps that we’re taking. It can be frustrating to feel that that larger community doesn’t understand all the intricacies of what it means to be a performer sometimes.
As we talk about issues of sexual harassment and blatant predatory behavior, there’s another layer that has more to do with gender disparity, or with ingrained attitudes that you have to overcome. What is your process for balancing the various registers of this discussion?
It’s something that we address as one big thing. And also we have discussions that are more specific. So as an organization, for instance, in our monthly meetings we have a timeline that we try to use every month, where we have different segments. One of those is education. We’ve done a lot of work with language, just trying to get on the same page. For instance, we’ve talked about this concept of “benevolent sexism,” and how something like “Ladies first” contributes to rape culture. Understanding the term “chick,” the term “woman” vs. “female.” As an organization, our first and foremost concern is educating our members, but we also want to educate our community. For me personally: I have dealt with so many varying degrees of these things, from the criminal to the more everyday annoyances. It becomes one. After you’ve experienced trauma repeatedly, a very small micro-aggression can trigger everything. It’s easy for somebody on the outside of these experiences to say “This isn’t such a big deal,” or “I don’t understand why that’s offensive.” I think it’s important to start to create a culture where there’s education, there’s understanding, there’s respect.
Which is both an entirely sensible goal and something quite ambitious.
One major thing people say, sort of in retort to these types of discussions, is: “Jazz is a sensual thing; you don’t want to cleanse that.” That’s not our goal. Our goal is not to remove people’s freedoms. It’s just to create an understanding and a respect in the community that allows everybody to participate safely — which is just not happening.
In a way, that leads me to The Future is Female. The positioning of the album is positive. There’s certainly acknowledgement of the struggle, but the basic premise is strength and solidarity. It’s a hopeful vision.
Good, I’m glad. [laughs] Because honestly this is the first feedback I’ve gotten, externally. You have a vision but you never know how effectively it comes through, so that’s good to hear.
When did you know the album was going to come together in this way?
Sometime last May I was talking with the label, discussing some different concepts for the next album. And that phrase had really stuck with me, from the Women’s March. I had a sign at the march that said “The Future is Female.” I sort of had this vision, I don’t know why, of the Army pants — like, “I am a soldier.” I was feeling that way in those months, like I was really on the frontline, fighting for something. I was starting to write some compositions for the album, thinking about my peers. I was like, “OK, we can go a few directions with this.” We discussed whether it should be an all-female band, and I was like, “Well, I’ve been building my band for so long. I really want to use my band.” I was questioning those sorts of decisions.
It’s fascinating that the album’s cover image led the concept. Often, that’s one of the last things that happens.
It was a challenge, because there are so many moments in the process when you have an opportunity to change course. I do feel positive. Although I feel like a warrior, and I feel injured in certain ways and combative in certain ways, I also feel like it has to be positive. In the organization, I’ve come across this challenge over and over, where members come from a direction where it could easily go negative, or attacking, or tearing down. And I’m saying “No, no, let’s build. Let’s be positive. Let’s come together in solidarity. That’s the only way we’re going to create real change.” Because we’ve been taught to be negative and to fight each other. That doesn’t get us anywhere.
To that end, the decision to use your band feels meaningful. It does seem important in this moment to cultivate allies. This should not be something that women are fighting for alone.
So the idea that you have your peer group, which includes men as well as women, and you can be unified under this theme — that strikes me as important.
I agree, and I think hopefully our goal as a community is that there is a balance. That there’s equal representation, which I’m still struggling with in my own band, racially. But to have a start to that. To say “This is natural for me, I’m not forcing this.” I have two women in my band now, and we’re working in that direction. To further go down the road of “Let’s continue to be separate” doesn’t help the overall goal. And I think one big point is that these small steps are important. Not getting caught up in perfectionism: Oh, if I can’t have a perfect outcome right now, I shouldn’t even attempt it. No. Here’s where we are, this is an honest representation of the small steps I’m trying to make, the daily steps. We will get there soon, as long as we keep taking those steps.
For more information about Women in Jazz Organization, visit wearewijo.org.