Can Jazz Be Homophobic?

By Jay Carlson

The word jazz has long been a stand-in for individuality and personal expression. Rooted in African rhythms brought to America on slave ships, jazz became one of the most important cultural developments of the 20th century. Jazz gave a voice to Black Americans and, as its popularity increased alongside the Harlem Renaissance in the early quarter of the century, its players were thrown into positions of cultural influence that they scarcely could have imagined beforehand. The Beat poets of the 50s, who lived simply and wildly and who traveled the country living like beggars, dug jazz. Everyone who was anyone dug jazz. But jazz didn’t dig nobody except itself. Jazz especially didn’t dig gay jazzers.

How is it that an art form so thoroughly enmeshed in the belief that each person had something to say, was an individual, deserved rights, has been so unwelcoming to a group of people looking for an outlet in jazz?

Jazz and masculinity have a long and intertwined history, and nowhere is this more evident than in the advent of bebop in the 1940s. Bebop was badder, faster, louder, more complicated, more sophisticated, more masculine than its predecessor, swing jazz, had been. Bebop took off in isolated areas and with an isolated group of musicians taking center stage, largely a result of the frustrations of virtuosic jazzers at the number of less-than-virtuosic hacks (who were able to handle swing music) on the scene. As tempos increased and musicians became more nimble, ensembles were broken down to bare-bones combos to lose the dead weight of mediocre musicianship.

This exclusivist attitude was a product of patriarchal interpretations of masculinity; the desire and ability to assert superiority over others has long been a trait associated with successful men. Jazz musicians of my generation are passed down story after story from our teachers about the sex- and drug-fueled lives that our idols led. It was not uncommon for band members to scramble to find a horn for their leader after he sold his for drug money. It was not uncommon for jazzers to pimp out their girlfriends for drug money. And yet we uphold their legacy because they were dominant, and indeed many of the same terms that describe the doers of heroic or athletic feats are also used to identify premiere jazz musicians. But when womanizing was the post-gig talk of the night, a not insignificant number of players got left out. What of gay jazz musicians? Where were they?

As it turns out, there were quite a few gay musicians in jazz, and some were among the most lauded and innovative of the last hundred years. But as a direct result of the mentality that jazz was, first and foremost, a fuck you display of domineering intellectuality, virtuosity, and masculinity, most gay jazz artists remained closeted almost until the turn of the century, and even today many remain closeted to protect themselves from discrimination by other jazz musicians.

James Gavin’s 2001 piece “Homophobia in Jazz” looked into several influential jazz artists’ accounts of what it was like to be a gay jazz musician. Among those were pianist Fred Hersch and vibraphonist Gary Burton. Both musicians came out to the public in the early 90s and have received relatively little backlash for their sexual orientation since then (no doubt a result of their fame and influence in the jazz community).

In a landmark gathering of gay jazz musicians and friends at the Village Vanguard in New York, Fred Hersch and Gary Burton participated in a panel to publicly address the issue of homophobia in jazz for the first time. Writer Francis Davis had a question for them that they were unable to answer: How does being gay affect their jazz?

While Davis suggests that their inability to answer that question is a product of them still working out the details themselves, I would like to turn the question back on itself.

How does being homophobic affect jazz?

And so I repeat my first question: How is it that jazz–freedom, individuality, self-sufficiency–was so unwelcoming to the gay community?

Maybe what we’re listening to isn’t jazz.