Today I spoke with Sarah Manning for the first time. She's a fine alto saxophonist, a young woman with the courage to play her own music her own way.
I enjoyed our conversation a lot. I dug that she doesn't have the same old take on the 'jazz world' as most other players: she's not averse to admitting that there's a lot of discrimination against women in jazz (she sees it as an almost unconscious 'passing over' of us by the rank and file) and she's not too excited about 'all- female' bands as a panacea. She feels (like myself) that our music is often swept into the corner when it's 'put in a box'; in this case the box is 'women's jazz'.
Since I'm playing at the Kennedy Center in DC for the 11th Annual Mary Lou Williams' Women in Jazz Festival in May 2006 (my second appearance at this festival) I suppose this would seem that I've come to prefer a box to a dustbin. (Actually, this festival is special for several reasons: it's very diverse, very much about the music, and it's dedicated to one of the greatest musicians that ever lived.) But I dig where she's at on this; I've been saying it for years. This is 'The Music of Freedom' and boxes have no place in the world of art, or, indeed, in the world, period.
In the visual arena, 'women's art' was pretty much a death- knell for painters and sculptors. Same for 'women's literature'. As long as it's made by us, it has to have a somehow feminine theme. Like Georgia and her incredible flowers. They supposedly have that 'labial' look. The critics tell us this, and the critics are invariably men. Agnes Martin, Louise Nevelson, and Helen Frankenthaler haven't received nearly as much acclaim. One might be inclined to surmise that their art is less suitably feminine for the critic's palate.
This is as good a time as any to look at a few quotes from Mary Lou Williams;
'I began building up a defense against prejudice and hatred... by taking my aching heart away from bad sounds and working hard at music.'
'Jazz is a spiritual music. It's the suffering that gives jazz its spiritual dimension. That's what our young jazzmen today have forgotten. Only through suffering is a true thing born.'
'You had to have a strong left hand in those days or they wouldn't pay attention to you.'
'If we are to make progress in modern music, or, if you prefer, jazz, we must be willing and able to open our minds to new ideas and developments.'
Towards the end of her life, she moved away from the jazz mainstream and focused on the sacred elements of her music. She took it entirely out of the clubs. She took it to the churches and the concert stage. Her life and her legacy informs my journey every bit as much as Coltrane. There is no division along gender or color lines, no antipathy between creators, no feminine or masculine in the work of the generational masters of this profound art form. It's all who we are and what we do.
It was wonderful and invigorating to talk with Sarah. She knows all this too.
She said something really important, too. She said that, because of all the 'bad press' that the jazz elite had given 'women in jazz', she expected to 1) find a very small number of women players, and 2) find that they weren't as seasoned as the guys.
She found just the opposite, as have I. She found women everywhere that were just fantastic musicians. And, lots of times, no one around them even knew they played. Daisy taught Oscar Peterson. He says she played him under the table daily. Trudy Pitts is so very deep! Abbey Lincoln is the angel come to spread the word. Terry Lynn Carrington is one serious contributor. Renee Rosnes is a great musician, as is Geri Allen. And Marian McPartland is in a class by herself.
There are so many that you and I may never know because of the way this business (and this culture) works. But we're changing it, little by little, and it's taking this music in positive directions again. The politics of exclusion never worked and never will. We are the musicians that make this music. We will live this music until we die, and then it will continue to work its magic.
The world is so much better for it.