The Darmstadt Jazzforum Jazz, Gender, Identity

A lot of discussion during the breaks at the 14th Darmstadt Jazzforum
A lot of discussion during the breaks at the 14th Darmstadt Jazzforum | Photo (detail): Wilfried Heckmann / Jazzinstitut Darmstadt

Every two years the Jazz Institute in Darmstadt invites the professionals of the branch to take part in intense discussions. Recently buzz words such as “gender” and “identity” were on the agenda. An overview.

The agenda-setting was enigmatic and ambiguous. If previously a concise “Jazz and ...” often would prepare you for the conference level, in the fall of 2015 the subject was “Gender_Identity”. The graphic for the event banner also grouped “XX” and “XY” around the core concepts as references to pairs of chromosomes; then the word “jazz”, making you wonder whether it was about women in jazz. Or about men? About masculinity and femininity as aesthetic qualities of jazz? Jazz and gender identity? The three-day symposium gave no clear answers; rather, it assembled approaches and response strategies of various kinds and made of the expounded theme an event rich in perspectives and aspects. Its yield resulted rather from its stimulating thematic openness and its participants’ joy in discussion than from the clarity of the staked claims.

Identity and stereotypes

Wolfram Knauer, director of the organizing Darmstadt Jazz Institute, was the only speaker who really talked about the proposed subject “Identity in the Context of Jazz”. He defined identity as a fabric consisting of a musician’s skills and qualities, which are both produced and expressed in the medium of music. On this view identity would be a kind of stop halfway between cultural codes and individuality. And any attempt here to fix gender-specific constructs of a gender identity must confront critically the clichés that lurk in the respective cultural system of valuation, said Knaur.

Several times the symposium addressed the situation of women in jazz in the broadest sense. The consensus was that the origins and social location of jazz are male dominated and that, accordingly, a large part of what jazz musicians and their audience value in the music and the interactions that take place around it follows masculine patterns of behavior. At the same time, there seems to be a consensus in the scene to find gender question as such not particularly important.

On this point jazz appears to have been largely decoupled from processes of general social reflection and change, which is why antiquated concepts of male roles sometimes seem to have remained amazingly untouched. In Pop music, for example, there long have been models of flexible gender roles, as also in classical music, even if this is not necessarily a result of emancipatory processes but instead often owing to the market, which prompts changes in behavior patterns.

Saxophone and reaction

The symposium also reflected several times on the saxophone. The saxophone is probably the jazz instrument with the highest symbolic and emblematic charge. We still have the image of the virile expressive saxophonist, even if most young musicians have gone a long way to dissolving such prejudices. Nevertheless the past still often reaches deep into the present. The speaker Jenna Bailey, for instance, talked about the British bandleader Ivy Benson, who in the 1940s founded a popular, internationally successful jazz-associated women’s orchestra named “Ivy Benson and her All Girl Band”. Ivy Benson remained active into the 1980s – a kind of British counterpart to James Last. Her iron principle was, that woman musicians must play and look like male musicians.

Over the decades hundreds of musicians emerged from this band, and yet who remembers Ivy Benson? Only a few specialists at the symposium had ever heard the name, proof of the invisibility of women in jazz. The perplexing career of the pianist Jutta Hipp, which seems like an artistic and biographical a game of confusion, can be read as a desperate struggle against lack of perception on the part of the music world, as the saxophonist Ilona Haberkamp retraced in her impressive talk.
Stefanie Wagner's “Playground” at Jazzinstitut Darmstadt, source: Esther Bächlin Ester / Youtube

Jazz and homosexuality

If jazz is a male connoted and dominated music, then we might assume that in the scene homosexuality is probably as explosive a subject as in football. That jazz here has a surprisingly spacious blind spot on the map of its self-reflection was shown by music sociologist Martin Niederauer in his talk on male hegemony in jazz, by Jazz historian Christopher Dennison in his analysis of problematic codes and clichés, and by music  journalist John Murph in a talk about the “gay overtones” in the fantastic intergalactic artistic cosmos of the bandleader Sun Ra.

In a reflective account of the avowed lesbian pianist Irène Schweizer, Christian Broecking made clear the nonchalant ambivalence towards gender identity that prevails in jazz. Neither has Schweizer made a secret of her erotic preference nor has she ever emphasized it. She finds the subject simply incidental to her music. And that is probably the most elegant fashion for jazz to treat gender identity.
In summer 2016 the keynotes, essays and panels will be available as a book “Gender Identity”, published at Wolke Verlag Hofheim.