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.

Normal: A Review

By Rachel Jackman

normal [nawr­-muhl]

  1. conforming to the standard or the common type; usual
  2. serving to establish a standard
  3. Psychology:
 free from any mental disorder
  4. Biology/Medicine: free from any infection or other forms of disease or malfunction, or from experimental therapy, or manipulation
  5. of natural occurrence

The word “normal” has existed for centuries–originating first from Latin and then being incorporated into a myriad of cultures and languages. While a dictionary can contain a valid definition of the word, can anyone truly know what it means? After all, what is normal? A standard and natural occurrence can vary cross culturally, but also individually. Normalcy is never static and is incredibly personal. However, often the established standardization of normalcy overrides the individual complexity of it. It seems that in recent years, within the United States especially, gender binaries and heteronormativity have become increasingly relevant issues: in particular, our definitions of “normal” gender and sexual identities. While the vast majority of the population is cisgender, meaning that an individual’s experience of their own gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth, a minority of transgender individuals struggle to express themselves completely in our society that views gender in binary and immutable term. We have created a standard that gender expression is expected to match sex; anything other than that is abnormal and wrong. However, this expectation is unrealistic, due to the fact that normalcy is dynamic and greatly influenced by individual perspective and experience. The 2003 HBO film Normal pursues the question of what normalcy actually looks like not from a societal perspective necessarily, but rather an individual and familial level.

The film begins at a local church with the celebration of the twenty-fifth wedding anniversary of Roy and Irma Applewood. At this celebration, the pastor emphasizes the love this couple has for each other and that no one could have such love. Yet, suddenly during this speech, Roy passes out; in the next scene, the audience sees Roy coming out to his wife and pastor, announcing that he is transgender and stating his desire to become a woman named Ruth. Initially reluctant to accept Roy’s identity, Irma files for divorce in an attempt to separate herself completely from her husband. However, while attending a celebration for Roy’s father’s birthday, the father tells a story of Roy as a child getting caught wearing his sister’s clothing and being forced to strip down and sleep in the barn. Brought to tears, the adult Roy takes refuge in the barn and contemplates suicide when Irma finds him and realizes the agony he must be suffering. Eventually, Irma comes to a deeper understanding of her husband and helps Ruth through her transition. Their tomboyish daughter, Patty Ann, is fascinated by her father’s transition and even pleads with Irma to “let [Patty Ann] off the hook for being the woman in the family.” However, Ruth’s son does not accept her transition initially and reacts with hostility. Ultimately, despite finding general acceptance from her family, Ruth is ostracized by many of the men at her workplace as well as her entire church community.

As the title of the film suggests, established normalcy is likely not what normal actually looks like. The film begins in a church setting, suggesting that the standardization of heteronormativity began with religious influences and persists because of the Christian faith, in particular. This is still true today: most often, trans rights are opposed by religious organizations. For example, in a recent article in the Miami Herald, opponents of a ban on discrimination against trans people likened the South, if it accepts such a ban, to Sodom and Gomorrah. Unfortunately, in our society, religion is so closely linked to morality that, in many situations, it limits freedom of expression for minority groups. Normal precisely captures the isolation and damnation that Christianity places on the very people it is supposed to incorporate and love.

The opposition between religion and gender expression continues throughout the film, beginning when the pastor tries to fix the marriage between Roy and Irma based on Ephesians 5:28: “for no man hath hated his own flesh.” This passage suggests that men need to look to women to satisfy themselves, and thus need women for completion. According to the pastor’s perspective, Roy is being selfish in his attempt to fill the role of the wife as well as the husband. Yet, no one in his church community can truly understand. This disconnect is ever-present in the film, as in another scene where Ruth and Patty Ann are asked to leave a service and the congregation even refuses to accept the offertory from Ruth–as if the money she offers to the church is tainted because of her “abnormal” gender expression. As Ruth continues her transition, the pastor and the rest of the congregation begin to treat Irma as if she is a widow: is there anything she needs help with around the house? Maybe they should bring her meals? As far as the church is concerned, Roy is dead. Normalcy is established through shared practice, such as religion, but if it becomes tradition, it can also lead to oppression of those individuals for whom established normalcy is abnormal.

Even though Roy desires to embrace his true female identity and finally match his sex to his gender, thus feeling complete and normal, at the start of the film he admits that his gender identity is not in conjunction with the majority of people. He proclaims that he “prayed for years for [these feelings] to go away,” and even refers to himself as having a condition called gender dysphoria. The need to describe what he is feeling through the terminology of a disorder illustrates the societal imposition of gender and sexuality norms. If anyone strays from standard gender binary, the only explanation is that they must be diseased. This belief in established normalcy is so powerful that even those individuals whose personal definitions of normal differ from it believe themselves to be wrong or diseased even when that has never been, nor will ever be, the case.

Normal is incredibly successful in capturing the difficulty trans individuals face in our society here in the United States. Because religion has fettered heterosexuality and cisgenderism to established norms, anyone who exists outside of those norms is fated to oppression or condemnation from society even if they are able to find love, understanding, and happiness within their family as Roy was finally able to do with Irma. However, as the film illustrates, normalcy is dynamic and personal to every individual and his or her closest relationships.