Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby

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The Male Gaze

Having only produced two books, I am still getting used to dealing with formal criticism. This month’s Jazzwise (October) features a review of Convergences, Divergences & Affinities by Garth Cartwright, which, to be fair to him, is a pretty positive one, and I thank him for this.  However, there is one point that I would take up - his comment to the effect that I “overlook how (the music) overwhelmingly appeals to males”. Now, the reason that this slightly riles me is because I have taken considerable effort, in both my books, to acknowledge the factor of male domination, but it is something that is a slippery phenomena, and somewhat difficult to explain (apart from the overwhelmingly obvious sexist narrative).

No less an improviser than Thurston Moore pointed out that I had reflected on the lack of female improvising presence, in my first book. In my second , the section entitled ‘cock-improv’ (pp. 123-130)  further explores this, so I do wonder whether Mr. Cartwright actually read the whole book. I was also at pains to point out the forgotten influence of Derek Bailey’s early partner, Janice Christianson, for example, which a couple of veteran reviewers picked up on, and also the undoubted importance of the Female Improvisers Group.Janice has become a forgotten figure, for reasons that are not difficult to explain, once the circumstances are known. The role of female musicians in punk music is discussed in the book, as well as some theorising as to whether there is such a thing as ‘female’ or ‘male’ music in general, so I do feel that the phallocentric aspect of free improv is given more than slight attention in the pages of my books.

I am, of course, a tad defensive here. The whole issue of critical response to a work is fraught with dangers for the writer’s ego. I intend to blog shortly, for example, on Gary Giddins, an exemplary master of his craft, who has given me pause to think about several jazz-related issues. But ‘women in free improv’? Hmm. This is a tricky subject, but something we can all agree on is that there is a gross gender imbalance of performers in the field. There are certainly more female improvisers out there than there were in the time period of Convergences…, of that I am sure. And also a corresponding amount of female listeners, from what I can observe (and not just partners dragged along reluctantly by their bearded beaus).

But to get to the heart of the matter - is this intrinsically male music, and, if so, why? If one listens to a piece of improvisation cold, can one tell whether it is played by a female group, or even a mixed-gender group? Are there ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ qualities (aside from a Brotzmann versus Leandre level of debate). Furthermore, are there ‘feminine’ instruments: the cello, (which ‘forces the legs apart’, according to one eagle-eyed and rather dodgy commentator); the piano; the violin, all products of the music school - female string players often seem to be products of a polite  ‘private classical education’, horn players much less so. This is a subject that can be endlessly analysed, from a Freudian- and post-Freudian perspective,

I have previously opined often that this is a subject deserving of longitudinal study, but I do feel that Cartwright’s comment, intentional or not,  implied that I was ignorant of its implications. Or maybe I’m just over-sensitive  ( no ‘maybe’ about it!). Bring on more studies of these issues.

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