Whiplash: A Queer Theory Investigation Of Jazz Music – Rhi Storer


Just an instrument? Or a performative prop? Louis Armstrong and his trumpet.

Rhi Storer is a politics graduate from the University of Birmingham, and an aspiring digital data journalist. Her academic interests include the intersection of cultural theory and data for a new radical journalism, musicology, and critical theory. She tweets @rhistorerwrites Outside of academia, she enjoys jazz, painting, poetry, and rock climbing. Don’t forget the gin.

Whiplash: A Queer Theory Investigation Of Jazz Music

”I have been asked what it’s like being white in a field of music that’s considered African-American. I think it would be equally valid to ask me what it’s like being gay and playing a form of music that’s seen as macho. It’s interesting that the subject never seems to come up.’’ – Gary Burton cited in New York Times (2002)

How many artists within jazz music actively self-identify through non-normative gender and sexualities? When did jazz go ‘straight’? And who ultimately decides that jazz is ‘straight’? This is not a question that should be definitively answered. Indeed, to answer these questions without examining the heteronormative concreteness of sexual identity categories would – as Jonathan Ned Katz points out – fail to: “name the ‘norm,’ the ‘normal’ and the social process of ‘normalisation”;(2014: 16). It is important, then, that this case study does not replicate queer theory’s pitfall of  tackling the normativity of sexual identities in “multiple social particularities, all the while remaining faithful to the centrality of sexuality to modern institutions, social systems, and discourses” (Argüello 2016: 5). Nor should this case study necessarily focus on just reclaiming ‘queer’ or ‘queerness’ by holding a light to accounts of ‘out’ gay (and to a lesser degree lesbian, trans, non-binary, and bisexual) musical figures within the jazz scene. This in itself excludes heterosexuals from assuming a queer position, and produces a homonormative discourse that ultimately “re-entrenches interlocking systems of normative sexuality and gender” (Vitulli 2010: 156) in the same narrative as heteronormativity.

To that end, this case study utilises queer theory as an overall framework, since, as Joshua Gamson notes: “Queer studies is largely a deconstructive enterprise, taking apart the view of a self defined by something at is core, be it sexual desire, race, gender, nation or class” (2000: 348). This is useful in two aspects. Firstly, queer theory is able to provide a much deeper questioning of the legitimacy of binary-dualisms of categories such as female and male; heterosexual, and homosexual; and is useful in problematising the production of knowledge and power which reinforces our understanding of ‘identity’ and the nature of gender sexuality.

The first section of this essay will outline why using queer theory within music more generally is a value in itself, by discussing the overall debate within the literature. The second section will outline how ‘queer theory’ and ‘music’ can relate through Judith Butler’s conception of ‘gender performativity’. The third section has two main themes which show why a ‘queered’ interpretation of jazz music is necessary the ascribing of gender identity within certain instruments; and the performance of masculinity in jazz. This essay will conclude that a queer framework is necessary because it can illuminate the experiences of those who has stigmatised by the overtly masculine practices found within jazz music, and allow for a much fuller and complete historiography of jazz music.

Section One: Demystifying Queer Theory

Queer theory was first introduced by Teresa de Lauretis in 1990 in order to unsettle the complacency of ‘lesbian and gay studies’ as a substantive perspective; to challenge the hegemony of empirical-led social scientists and their white, male, middle class-models of analysis; and to open a wider space within academia to question the heterosexist underpinnings of theory (Halperin 2003: 340). Queer theory is not just a critical response to the dominant and normative understandings of categories, it is, as Steven Seidman describes:

“a study of those knowledges and social practices that organise “society” as a whole by sexualizing—heterosexualizing or homosexualizing—bodies, desires, acts, identities, social relations, knowledges, culture, and social institutions.” (Seidman 1996: 13)

As Eva Sedgwick notes ‘queer’ and ‘queerness’ can be understood as opening a: “mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (1993: 8). Sedgwick’s choice of word ‘monolithically’ arguably implies queer theory constructs itself, rather than be something that presents itself as whole and static: that is to say, queer theory is committed to not just the deconstruction of relations between sexuality and gender, but to actually shed light on the insecure nature of these relations in the first place. Thus, I would go further than Alexander Doty’s vision of queer theory as just a framework to problematise identity, and propose instead that we should read queer theory as a positionality – and take Halperin’s (1995) view that queer theory is inclusive to all who wish to subvert hegemonic heteronormativity. From this reasoning, there is a considerable theoretical link between queer theory and music. For example, John Shepherd (1991) and Suzanne Cusick (1999), explore gender difference through vocal style by analysing popular music. And, in reading the singing voice as a queer phenomenon, Joke Dame argues that: “even in our time the need to categorise a voice according to gender, to assign a sex to the voice, has not ceased” (1994: 139). In other words, the construction of gender difference in music solely relies on its performativity. That is, to quote from a pioneer of queer theory – Judith Butler – gender needs to be considered “as a corporeal style, an ‘act,’ as it were, which is both intentional and performative, where ‘performative’ suggests a dramatic and contingent construction of meaning” (1999: 177). In this understanding, queer theory and music compliment each other for they both propose that gender and sexuality are implicit in performance – whether that be performance in an ontological sense for queer theory, or in the performance itself for music. As Barbara Bradby and Dave Laing recall “where else have gender and sexual identities been so explicitly and exhaustingly performed as on the pop stage and dance floors of the twentieth, now twenty-first century?” (2001: 296, emphasis in original). Therefore, Brady and Laing’s suggestion implies that music provides a context for the performative nature of gender and sexual identity. It is the hope of this essay, then, to demonstrate the importance of the gendered relations found within music, but to expand this further into jazz music – an area that has a considerable lack of real academic literature, and thus silences the experiences of women and LGBT persons within jazz music.

Section Two: Gender Performativity And Its Relation To Music

It is important within jazz music scholarship to recognise that there are gendered elements within the performance of said musicians, and that the structures found within jazz music necessarily enable these arbitrary gender relations. Thus, to use the concept of ‘gender performativity’ is useful as not only does it provide analysis of the different experiences of musicians within the jazz scene, but it can also unpack the structures and cultures that facilitate the proliferation of these gender and sexuality norms found in jazz music.

Judith Butler’s concept of ‘gender performativity’ is a fundamental segment found within queer theory. Found within her 1990 publication ‘Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity’, Butler argues that gender is in no way a natural or stable category, but suggests instead that gender must be understood: “as a corporeal style, an “act,” as it were, which is both intentional and performative, where “performative” suggests a dramatic and contingent construction of meaning” (1990:190). Taking lessons from the post-structuralist school of thought, Butler suggests that gender is produced by the social world around us and its own internalised understanding of gender. The reality of gender discourse, the ways in which describe what is masculine or what is feminine, are but an illusion. That: “such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means” (1990: 185). Butler, like many third-wave feminists, argues that the gendered body has no ontology – a rejection of the ‘masculine’ ontology found within Cartesian dualisms and foundationalism (Bordo 1986). The body should instead be seen in terms of ‘embodiment’ and positioned within cultural specific – and competing – discourses of meaning, authority, and control (Stanley and Wise 1993: 194). For Butler: “To choose a gender is to interpret received gender norms in a way that organises them anew. Rather than a radical act of creation, gender is a tact project to renew one’s cultural history in one’s own terms.” (1988: 40) If gender is not ascribed to the body, we are therefore able to perform our gender in a multitude of ways that challenge the cartesian dualities of the sex/gender paradigm. This is the essence of Butler’s ‘gender trouble’, or as Susan Hekman (2000) notes, it is “created by not ‘doing’ gender as it is suppose to be done” (2000: 292). At the same time, however, a person cannot ‘do’ gender, for there is no truth to be found within gender in the first place: “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results” (1990: 33). Butler’s theory of gender performativity is useful in its ability to open up the possibility that we are not bound by our sex and gender roles, and consequently, that there is no natural or biological phenomena that builds our identity. If Butler describes identity as “performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results,” (1990: 25) then there is no overarching gender identity that binds our actions; our identities, and the performance of those identities, are all that exist in relation to gender and sexuality.

In its application to music, both gender performativity and music are connected by the body, and that musical performance is a site for construction and contestation of gender identity (Herndon: 1990). As Leppert suggests: ““whatever else music is ‘about,’ it’s inevitably about the body; music’s aural and visual presence constitutes both a relation to and a representation of the body” (1993: xx, emphasis in original). As Thomas Csordas points out: “the body is not an object to be studied in relation to culture, but is to be considered as the subject of culture, or in other words as the existential ground of culture.” (1990: 5) Therefore, both music and the body are interrelated in that they both reaffirm the construction and maintenance of what is to be expected or to be broken within gender and sexuality. As McClary observes, “the mind/body split that has plagued Western culture for centuries shows up most paradoxically in attitudes toward music: the most cerebral, nonmaterial of media is at the same time the medium most capable of engaging the body” (1991: 151). Thus, it is in the interest of feminist musical scholars to adapt Butler’s theory of gender performativity within music, for music is “sensually powerful, socially constructed, and socially constructing” (Cusick 1999: 484). For the purpose of understanding the links between conceptions of gender and music, it is important to consider how this is applicable in the scholarly literature. Firstly, the 1978 article “Rock and Sexuality” by Simon Frith and Angela McRobbie, which suggested that music was a means of sexual expression and a mode of sexual control (Frith & McRobbie: 1990) – “cock rock” to be found within the masculine sphere and the of ‘teenybop’ music in the feminine sphere. In response, there is Sara Cohen’s (1997) article ‘Men Making A Scene: Rock Music and the Production of Gender’, in which she dismisses the idea that rock is naturally male, but instead “presents a spectacle of male power and offers a musical means through which men can demonstrate their manhood” (Cohen 1997: 29). This is problematised further by Norma Coates, who offers rock music to withhold “a particular form of masculinity … very much in play discursively and psychically, is one in which any trace of the feminine is expunge, incorporated or appropriated” (1997: 52). This gender binary is exposed by women who perform rock music by granting flux to, and exposing, the artificial gender binary, which results in rock music reasserting its masculine dominance through tropes of ‘femininity’ to keep women in their place (1997: 53).

If we take Norma Coates’ suggestion that rock music offers a ‘particular form of masculinity’ – could we say the same for jazz music? Does jazz music have structures and social elements that affirm traditional gender and sexuality roles? To that I would argue yes for the following reason: it is undeniable that both race and gender intersect within jazz music. Although they are very different categories, contemporary scholars are: “more likely to race as a historical category and field of power rather than a genetic category and guarantor of aptitude, scholars are more likely to see gender (and perhaps even sex) as socially constructed – even performative” (Tucker 2002: 383). This view is informed by Stuart Hall’s work upon ‘cultural identity’ found within his article “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation”. Hall suggests two ways of looking upon cultural identity – the first position notes cultural identities to: “reflect the common historical experiences and shared cultural codes which provide us, as ‘one people,’ with stable, unchanging and continuous frames of reference and meaning” (1989: 69). This may reflect the cultural history of ‘blackness’ found within jazz music. More importantly, Hall also notes that cultural identity retains “critical points of deep and significant difference which constitute ‘what we really are’” (1989: 70). The choice of phrase ‘what we really are’ by Hall, and the notion of cultural identity as an active process -‘becoming’ – thus denotes that race and gender can intersect in performativity. This may be found, overall, in Krin Gabbard’s ‘Jammin at the Margins in which he argues that jazz artists have learned a particular set of masculine codes and perform them in various ways (1996). Gabbard, using the example of Louis Armstrong’s gargantuan use of the jazz trumpet, points out the “hyper masculine” and how “the phallicism of the jazz trumpet resides in pitch, speed of execution, and emotional intensity, all of which Armstrong greatly expanded in the 1920s.” (1995: 108). Other examples include Ingrid Monson’s exploration of gender and racial stereotypes in her article The Problem with White Hipness, in which she argues the instrumental sound, delivery styles, clothing, and those audiences who engage in jazz music create an image  “nourished by a conflation of the music with a style of black masculinity that held, and continues to hold, great appeal for white audiences and musicians” (1995: 402). Similarly, Patrick Burke holds the view that white masculinity paradoxically constructed stereotypically black masculinity as “natural, spontaneous black musicianship” and “anticommercial values and an enviable, supposedly unfettered masculinity” (2006: 322).

Gender performativity and race as a ‘performance’, then, interlink through the use of the body as materialised through the relationship between the normative and the ‘constitutive outside’ – or, for Butler, the process of identifications that form the “repudiation which produces a domain and abjection, a repudiation without which the subject cannot emerge” (1993: 3). Thus, there is a binary of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ or ‘black’ and ‘white’ that is performed with the confides of  jazz music. As Ingrid Monson – herself a white, lesbian, trumpeter notes – “the symbolic intersection of masculinity, music, and race perhaps explains the persistence of jazz as a fraternity of male musicians” (1995: 405). In the final section of this essay, I will now develop my case study and look into why there is a particular form of masculinity within jazz music, through two avenues. Firstly, I will look into how identity has been ascribed onto musical instruments and the consequences of this. This will link into the second case study discussing gender norms within jazz musicians themselves – mainly that there is a clear distinction between what is to be ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ within the world of jazz music.

Section Three: Case Study: Jazz and the performance of masculinity

In 1978 Abeles and Porter undertook a critically-acclaimed study into musical instruments and their gender associations found within children, and ranked accordingly their findings behind eight commonly played instruments. They found that the drums, trumpets, and trombones were often associated with masculinity in comparison to the flute or violin which were typically associated with ‘femininity’ (1978: 68). This was reaffirmed in a similar study by Abeles and Porter in (2009) that suggested while musical gender association among college students had decreased, children still adhered to musical stereotypes. Johnson (2010) notes that as all musical performance features a performance of the body, the physiological aspects of trumpet-playing (i.e, a higher lung capacity) has generated: “different and demonstrations of technical prowess including the playing of high notes advertises a type of physicality that has come to be associated with masculinity” (2010: 7). This may explain why, Louis Armstrong, as pointed out by Krin Gabbard regularly: “used his trumpet to express phallic masculinity along with a great deal of the sexual innuendo that was already an essential element of jazz performance” (1992: 44) and, in more depth: “on the most obvious level, the phallicism of the jazz trumpet resides in pitch, speed of execution, and emotional intensity, all of which Armstrong greatly expanded in the 1920s” (1992: 45). From this perspective, we can argue that the performance of the trumpet and masculinity is in itself a performativity and sexual act. When Susan Cusick argued: “what if music IS sex?” (1994: 78 emphasis in original) she proposed: “For some of us, it might be that the most intense and important way we express or enact identity through the circulation of physical pleasure is in musical activity, and that our ‘sexual identity’ might be ‘musician’ more than it is ‘lesbian,’ ‘gay,’ or ‘straight’” (1994: 70). Thus, Cusick is suggesting that our sexual (and possible gender) identity is but a performance found within the musical performance. In jazz music, this can be seen by Bebop’s musical styles represented by Charlie Parker’s fast saxophone style (in songs such as ‘Donna Lee’) with fast changing chords, or Dizzy Gillespie with his virtuosic trumpeting in songs such as ‘Bebop’.

This reaffirms, in my mind, Linda Dahl’s comments upon jazz music:

“Clearly, the qualities needed to get ahead in the jazz world were held to be ‘masculine’ prerogatives: aggressive self-confidence on the bandstand, displaying one’s ‘chops’ or sheer blowing power; a single-minded attention to career moves, including frequent absences from home and family” (1984: x).

While Dahl’s comments illustrate a particular form of masculinity that appears within jazz music, it is important to realise that ‘masculinity’ is not a fixed category, but is rather in a constant state of flux, similar to Butler’s notion of gender performativity. This is in a similar vein to how jazz music has developed over the years into various different styles, and all with variations of what is to be seen as the definitive ‘masculine’.  To that end, I turn to the next part of the case study and compare the ‘masculinity’ between jazz musicians.

As Krin Gabbard notes: “Part of what has made jazz so intriguing is the number of alternatives it has offered to convetional notion of masculinity and male sexuality.”   This can be denoted in David Ake’s (1998) article “Re-Masculating Jazz: Ornette Coleman, ‘Lonely Woman,’ and the New York Jazz Scene in the Late 1950’s” in which he focuses on how established codes of masculinity were examined and reformed within jazz music thorough Ornette Coleman. Ake argues that bebop jazz was challenged by Ornette Coleman in his 1959 album ‘Shape of Jazz To Come’, by negating chord progressions and basing improvisation more on melody, rhythm, and interaction among musicians – in contrast to the competitive nature of jazz music at the time: “It simply makes no sense to stage ‘cutting contests’ over a tune with a fluid form … There are no chord changes to run, nothing here to ‘conquer’” (1998: 33). Ake offers that Coleman’s music represent an alternative form of masculinity because of a new improvisational style, and confirms to me Robert Walser’s discussion of musical meaning within heavy metal: “musical meanings are contingent but never arbitrary” (1993: 29). As McClary (1991) points out, musical gestures and sounds can communicate a ‘gendered’ message. McClary, in reference to European classical music, writes: “the common semiotic codes of European classical music: the gestures that stereotypically signify ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’” (1991: 8) and that these codes change over time since “the meaning of femininity was not the same in the eighteenth century as in the late nineteenth, and musical characterizations differ accordingly” (1991: 8). Comparatively, this may be seen in Hazel Carby’s analysis of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album, in which many of the musicians featured subverted: “the very circularity and refusal to resolve the tension through any single climax in the album that poses a significant challenge to musical phallocentricity” . Therefore, musical meanings and masculinity are a performance in themselves, and always subject to challenge and change. Echoing Trine Annfelt’s (2003) sentiments, jazz music should not be seen as a narrative seeking to open a light upon its own culture, but should be seen as “discourses, as production of meanings … that fight against each other, attempt to persuade each other … for what is to appear as, and gain support as ‘the truth’ about jazz and jazz musicians” (2003: emphasis in original). Queer theory, then, is useful in order to show the performative and ideological potential of jazz. Furthermore, the use of queer theory illuminates not only the heteronormative structures prevalent within jazz music, i.e the hetero-masculinity of jazz performance and black masculinity, but necessary in investigating the origin and cause of identities which are, in effect, reflective of institutions, practices and discourses operating within the wider society (McLelland 2005: 5). On the other hand, it is key to note that discussing different types of masculinities, may reinforce the male-female binary at the same time.

Gender performativity can also be found within the performance of masculinity located within the female jazz artists too. As discussed earlier, jazz performances attains a masculine element, which has been emphasised by musicians in various versions of masculinities, and further compounded by jazz history – that many innovators or pioneers of the genre have often been men. In reference to jazz, Bobby Hutcherson says: “It portrays more masculine emotion than feminine. It can be a masculine sweet and beautiful. Female jazz musicians tend to be more masculine than feminine.” (cited in Piekut 2010: 36) This points to a generalisation within jazz music, that, if jazz is a masculine genre, women who play jazz music are stereotyped as playing, or performing in a masculine manner. These assumptions of a performers race, gender, or sexuality evoke stereotypes in jazz. This may be why I am surprised when I hear a woman play an instrument well when I assume it to be a black heterosexual man. If the construction of performance can be found within music and the body, the performance of masculinity by female jazz artists – such as Esperanza Spalding who plays both a double bass and a electric bass – is one that disturbs gender norms that have been interwoven within jazz music – to show that gender is not universal or timeless. To deconstruct, or to subvert, gender norms signifies the power relationship that is associated with masculinity and femininity. Referring back to Butler, “Gender is the mechanism by which notions of masculine and feminine are produced … but gender might very well be the apparatus by which such terms are deconstructed and denaturalised.” Butler 2004: 42). Some female jazz artists, then, demonstrate that meanings of femininity and masculinity are not universal, whether that be by playing a perceived masculine instrument (i.e the trumpet, or saxophone) or subverting jazz music’s obsession with masculine sexuality by simply playing, and disrupting the normative assumptions in jazz music – that a jazz instrumentalist must be a heterosexual male, while a jazz singer must be a woman.

In conclusion, this case study has highlight why a queer theory framework is useful in showing how music performance is a process where musicians constitute their gender identity, or facilitate gender norms, by using Judith Butler’s conception of ‘gender performativity’ in analysing masculinity within jazz. This work has outlined how gender performativity can be found within music through the expression of the body and sound. Thus, jazz music is an effect of societal structures that perpetuate norms associated with “masculinity”, both in terms of music and the performance itself. While this case study has used ‘gender performativity’ as its main theoretical basis, it would also be useful for a longer case study to include elements of ‘intersectionality’; and perhaps commentary upon political economy (which outsets the societal structures and the labour division of men and women within jazz). It is my hope that this case study has shown how a person does not have a universal or fixed identity, but instead it is what a person does that makes up their identity. That, the performance of masculinity in its various forms can either reinforce or interrupt particular societal norms. My argument is that the use of gender performativity within music is important for a wider discussion of gender performativity in general. That, considering a person’s identity not as an essential or cultural construction but a performance-based construction allows one to go beyond the norms of what is to be expected of ‘identity’ categories.

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