Thursday, 17 April 2014

Jazz It Up

I would have thought that jazz music embraced homosexual performers as much as it does with black or female performers. After all, some of the greatest jazz performers from the golden age were lgbt – and black and/or female. And the whole point in jazz it to express yourself musically in a free form. What could be more ideal for an lgbt performer, living in a time when homosexuality was illegal or frowned upon, than to express his/her feelings and desires than by jazz?

Unfortunately, things aren’t quite that simple. Even well into the present century there’s still resistance to openly lgbt performers in the jazz world. Even the great Dizzie Gillespie once said, “I don’t even know a gay musician who’s a homosexual – not a real jazz musician”, as if to imply (just as in some sports) that “gay men can’t …” do jazz. With attitudes like that does jazz deserve our attention?

Fortunately, there are enough lgbt people and jazz performers who thinks it does, and they are, or have, helped to open many doors to other openly lgbt jazz performers in recent years. As with hip hop the road to acceptance is slow but clearly discernable.

To look at the lgbt heritage of jazz I’ll look at several lgbt performers who had a long-lasting influence and legacy. I should point out that I will concentrate on the Harlem Renaissance and it’s place in that heritage in more detail in October. So don’t be offended if I leave it out here.

Jazz developed out of the bars and brothels of New Orleans in the first decades of the 20th century. Many black American musicians were playing ragtime and blues, and among those was Tony Jackson (1882-1921). He exhibited an early talent for playing any tune of any musical genre from the age of 12. This talent made him a popular entertainer and soon he began to augment his playing with singing and composing, and dancing while he played.

Tony’s most famous song, “Pretty Baby”, composed before he left New Orleans for Chicago in 1912, was originally written about his then boyfriend. One of the greatest early jazz musicians of all, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, was one of the musicians who admired and watched Tony’s piano playing closely. Morton and several others have acknowledged Tony as an influence on their own style.

During the Great Era of jazz in the 1920s and 1930s another openly gay man was to influence the genre. Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967) spent his entire career in the shadow of the great jazz performer Duke Ellington. As a composer Billy came up with some of the most famous tunes of his day, some of which are still familiar to us, and if you listen to recordings of Duke Ellington and his band you’re hearing an equal contribution from Duke and Billy. Billy was openly gay, something Duke always knew. In fact, Duke’s son Mercer Ellington has even suggested that the 2 musicians may even have “experimented” sexually together. Today, with more acceptance of homosexuality, and with Duke’s open acknowledgement of both Billy’s contribution and sexuality, perhaps they would have been given equal billing – the Ellington-Strayhorn Band? The video below shows Duke and Billy perform their most famous song.
Jazz, often considered to be music of a specific time and place, has evolved and developed. Early jazz became mainstream, and with the advent of rock’n’roll (a term inspired by one of Tony Jackson’s songs) lost much of it’s popularity. Bebop jazz developed following World War II. It seems to me that this was the point where jazz and homosexuality seemed to separate. Bebop was a more vigorous, robust and, if I can say it, macho style of music. It was certainly not the type of music the stereotype of a gay man of that era was thought to be capable of playing – the “sissy”, as he was often referred to. But play it they did, and they weren’t sissies.

Modern jazz has developed more styles. In this post-bebop era free jazz and avant-garde jazz has developed. Among the lgbt performers (of which there is also an increasing number of female musicians) is Cecil Taylor. Cecil is also one of a growing number of performers who admits that his sexuality is as much an influence on his music as his race, something which the first generation of jazz performers a century ago would recognise. Although Cecil is not widely known outside jazz circles he is considered to be among the top 5 most important jazz pianists of the post World War II era, ranking with more famous straight performers as Earl Hines and Thelonius Monk.

Although still seen largely as a 20th century musical form there are many jazz performers today. Many more are coming out as lgbt, but some say that a few in the jazz community still display some form of homophobia. As I said at the beginning of this article, for a musical genre known for its freedom and expressiveness, there seems to be some reluctance by the few to extend this to homosexuality.

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