Jazz has historically been dominated by men and at times has been a rather macho affair. I’ve already gone into the issue of women in jazz and clearly the past has some significant women in jazz and the present has many. It is similar for homosexual Jazz musicians. Partly in honor of Gay Pride Week in NYC (officially running from Saturday June 21st until Sunday June 29th) and partly as an excuse to talk about some very interesting jazz musicians, I want to bring our attention to both the issue of homosexuality--and bisexuality--in Jazz and to honor some great musicians who happen to be gay.
As you might expect, we can find more out gay jazz musicians in the 21st century than we can from 1938. But of course this doesn’t mean that said folks didn’t exist in 1938. The simple law of averages would confirm this. Even in the 21st century, not everyone is out and not everyone who is out with their friends and family is necessarily out to the public. I am absolutely aware of musicians who are gay, but cannot find any verification of this online (beyond a comment or three in forums “X is gay!”) and I am not about to irresponsibly out someone for whom I have no idea if they are publically out or not. I cannot confirm any prominent lesbian jazz musicians, but they certainly exist. I do know some lesbian Jazz musicians, but they are unknowns.
However, this diary is long enough. If Billy Strayhorn, Gary Burton, and Fred Hersch aren’t enough music, we’ve got some Cecil Taylor too. And let’s not forget the importance of Broadway to Jazz. Oh…and I’m going to include a non-musician today too. He’s at the end of the diary…and I’ve been thinking for several weeks that he deserves mention in a series of blogs about jazz; especially blogs that dip into the late 1950s so much.
Onward through the orange squiggle
First and foremost, let’s acknowledge that one of the greatest composer in Jazz was a gay man: Billy Strayhorn, November 29, 1915 – May 31, 1967. I’ve diaried about Strayhorn before when I wrote about Duke Ellington.
Among his most well known compositions is Lush Life, which Duke never recorded. I was rather impressed with Queen Latifa on this version
That’s a much more “pop” version than I might be inclined to post. We want Jazz! Heheh.
Strayhorn wrote “Take The A Train”
He is the co-composer of “Satin Doll”
I really don’t know the whole Strayhorn story. I am assuming his sexuality was known to some, but not to most. It’s hard to imagine that things could have been easy for a black gay man in the 1940s and 50s.
Here is the Tommy Flanigan Trio, with Rufus Reid and Al Foster, playing a medley of Strayhorn’s Chealsa Bridge and Bloodcount from 1981
And here is Strayhorn himself playing in 1961
Did I mention that Lush Life is one of my favorite tunes?
Composers can act behind the scenes. A gay man in Jazz in the 40s and 50s would probably have more opportunities behind the scenes than up front and as the center of attention. This is exactly what happened to women like Melba Liston as well, her most high profile work was as an arranger and composer and not as a player.
But when it comes to the composers, jazz has oh so very often taken its repertoire from the great Broadway shows. Aside from the fact that Broadway and the theater does attract gay men into its ranks--I’m not making a statement that says gay men like musicals. I’m saying that in the production of musicals, there are often gay men involved—some of the greatest Broadway composers have been gay. A good chunk of what we call “The Great American Songbook” has been written by gay men.
Cole Porter, June 9, 1891 – October 15, 1964, was gay. He was married for a while too.
Artie Shaw is not gay. But that recording was a huge huge hit. It’s still played on the radio sometimes and rehearsal big bands play that arrangement frequently.
Cole Porter wrote many many songs. Melodies everyone reading this diary would recognize. Next time you hear someone from Bill O’Riely’s audience complain about “today’s music,” remember that Cole Porter was gay and then chuckle.
Steven Sondheim too
That’s from 94 and that’s Sondheim playing the piano.
I’m not going to dwell on Broadway. Reminding folks that gay men are involved with Broadway is as earth shattering as reminding people that Neil DeGrass Tyson is involved with science. I just wanted to stress how much music that we all have heard a hundred or a thousand times over has been written by supremely talented people who happened to be gay.
In the 21st Century, there are more out men than in the past. One man vocal about his sexual identity is perhaps more smooth jazz than my tastes would care for and I probably would never have mentioned him. But he is successful. He is well known. And his music isn’t THAT bland. Dave Koz.
But a brilliant pianist and out gay man (who is noted for pointing out that the list of gay jazz musicians is much longer than people think, but not everyone is out) is Fred Hersch, born October 21, 1955.
from 1994, Milestones
Solo Piano 2010, In Walk Bud
His playing is reminiscent of Keith Jarret. He is also a very good human being. I think he lives in Jersey City these days, which is where I live. I really should take some lessons from him. One of my dad’s friends knows him and tells a funny story where Fred was hired to play someone’s wedding maybe 20 years ago. He had no idea how to play any of the pop tunes.
Enfant w Charlie Hayden and Joey Baron
Fred Hersch is the favorite contemporary jazz pianist to several people. I may be joining those ranks myself.
Duo w/Bill Frisell, Wave
Solo Piano 2013 The Song is You
Mr Hersch has AIDs. He is also a strong activist for AIDs research. You can read about him and his health issues inthis NYTimes article.
There are some other interesting things on the interwebs.
There is this article from Jazz Times in 2007: Homophobia in Jazz
From the beginning of the article:
This was one of my first interviews for a now-finished biography of his former employer, Chet Baker [out in April 2002 from Knopf]. As the recorder ran, my host—known for his fierce intelligence and for the refinement of his playing—kept referring to “that f----t” who had produced a somewhat homoerotic documentary of the once-beautiful trumpeter and singer. After gorging himself, grunting and burping, on Chinese food, he listened with me to a vocal recording that Baker had made in 1955, when his singing suggested a shy little fawn. The pianist spat out in disgust: “He sounds like a girl!”I’ve been to Jazz college. I went to a rather serious jazz college. I am not going to pretend that 50-60 highly competitive 18-21 year old guys didn’t call someone a f----t when they got pissed at them. 18-21 year old guys tend to be rather stupid about some things and many of those same guys today, now in their 40s, would say what Jonah Hill said in his apology a couple of weeks ago, if they—we—could be so eloquent. I’ve known some homophobic musicians, some of whom have said some very vile things. But I’ld say with great confidence that the majority of the Jazz musicians I have played with over the last 20 years or so would not care at all about someone’s sexuality at all. And then again, maybe I’ld be surprised.
The jazz world is one of the last cultural frontiers of old-fashioned macho, and in it, homophobia runs rampant. Since interviewing that pianist, I’ve met a multitude of jazz figures who pride themselves on soulfulness and sensitivity, yet are as sensitive as rednecks on the subject of homosexuality—especially its presence in jazz, which is not inconsiderable. Many of the same musicians who would flatten anyone who called them or a friend of theirs a “n----r” haven’t hesitated to tag somebody a “f----t,” if that person threatened their standards of masculinity.
One piece I particularly liked was this one by Sherrie Tuker from 2008: “When Did Jazz Go Straight? A Queer Question for Jazz Studies”
The article raises the question of how we define sexuality socially and in an historical context and how the history of Jazz coincides with historical process of how Americans have defined sexuality.
And that notion raises another point that is might be difficult for some people: Bisexuality. People will define their sexuality in complicated ways and things are not so simple as male vs female with homosexuality being a bridge between the two.
There are rumors. Old rumors. Was Miles Davis bisexual? Did he die of AIDs? First, if Miles did die of AIDs, it is quite possible it was from a dirty needle. Miles quit Heroin fully by 1954, but he was doing morphine in the 70s to mitigate the pain he was suffering from issues with his hip (which caused him to ignore the hip problems because the pain stopped). And were other jazz musicians, macho jazz musicians, in the 1950s bisexual? There are rumors and we will likely never quite know. But it is also important to understand that what constitutes homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality is often a social construct; a socio-cultural decision. And while this may not jive with a population so quick to define what things are and corner them off from one another, simply having sex with other men may not make a man gay for some people’s construction of sexuality. It is not uncommon to find sexuality being more defined by who is perpetrator and who is penetrated than by the genders of the people involved. To some, a man penetrated is homosexual, the man penetrating is not. I understand if that sounds like hypocrisy to you—a man having sex with another man certainly does seem like definition of homosexuality—but cultural and individual conceptions of sexuality are just not that simple.
So maybe Miles Davis did have sex with other men occasionally. This does not necessarily mean he would define himself as bisexual.
Gary Burton, born January 23, 1943, is one of the greatest Vibraphonist in Jazz ever. I do somewhat feel like I should write about Milt Jackson before doing Gary Burton or Bobby Hutcherson, but as a Gay man in Jazz Gary Burton is very important.
His first big gig was with George Shearing in 1963 and then he joined Stan Getz’s band in 1964. staying until 1966
With Stan Getz, 1966. Also with Steve Swallow and Roy Haines
He was the youngest person to ever receive the “Jazzman of the Year” award from Downbeat magazine in 1968.
He was involved with some early fusion recordings and on some early outings with Keith Jarrett. 1970’s Como En Vietnam
1974 with Ralph Towner
Burton brought a young Pat Metheney to the music industry's awareness. This is from 1977, The Whopper
Here they are duo, tiempos felice. I think that’s in the latter 80s.
Burton has also a musical relationship with Chick Corea since the 1970s
La fiesta, 1978
This next tune is another personal fave and perhaps the reason why I got into Gary Burton nearly 30 years ago. When I was in High School, my friends and I tried to play a fusion-esque version of this tune, but I didn’t have the chops at the time. In jazz school, it became a goal for me to able to play it and I had a good friend who played vibraphone. Eventually we had a duo version of the tune down. Eventually we performed it at my senior recital. If I want to sit down at a piano and show off, I might play this next tune, Captain senior mouse
Here is a more recent performance of Chick and Gary
Burton was married twice, once briefly in his early 20s and then from 1975-1984. Burton worked at Berkeley College of music for quite some time. He ran the program for a while and is currently the college’s vice president. In the 80s, he went to a Boston club with his boyfriend and was seen by other members of faculty. So he outed himself rather than hide and in 1994 came out in interviews.
Here he is playing something from The Hotel Hello Suite (most musicians know Hotel Hello from being 6-8 pages in the real book—a fake book many musicians are familiar with—that no one ever plays)
I saw Burton perform 4 or 5 times in the 80s. I think every time he was with the great Japanese pianist, Makoto Ozone. I had a hard time finding 1980s clips of them, so here they are in 2002
Burton is still very active. Here he is in 2011
And here is his latest quartet
Burton married his long time partner in 2013.
In 1982, jazz critic Stanley Crouch outed Taylor as being gay, prompting an angry response. However, Taylor never denied it. In 1991, Taylor told a New York Times reporter "[s]omeone once asked me if I was gay. I said, 'Do you think a three-letter word defines the complexity of my humanity?' I avoid the trap of easy definition."Cecil Taylor, born March 15 1929. There are other sources to confirm Cecil’s homosexuality.
Bemsha Swing, 1956
1961’s The World Of Cecil Taylor. Here’s the whole darn album.
A little Cecil Taylor goes a long way. Not everyone is going to care for his music. Needless to say, he is one of the most iconic figures in free jazz and the avant guard. He is also the 2013 winner of the Kyoto Prize Laureate in Arts and Philosophy
I’ll do another diary in the future examining Cecil’s discography better. It’s time to wrap things up.
Though before I do, we must also remember that music is just a piece of culture. There are other forms of what we might call “expressive culture” that operate with music and within the creative field along with music. Music often reflects the culture of the time in which it is created. And in the great period of Jazz of the late 1950s, Jazz did not exist in an artistic vacuum. I should probably give a nod here to James Baldwin, but I don’t have a convenient Youtube clip of him reading “Another Country.”
The person who many would call “The Greatest American born Poet” was a very out and proud gay man. And I think he would be very proud to be included with a list of great jazz musicians who were gay.
Allen Ginsberg, June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997. One of these days I’ll do a diary on the beat writers.
And yes, maybe Amira Baraka is the greatest American poet. Maybe it’s Walt Whitman. And maybe that’s like arguing whether Sonny Rollins is better than Trane.
Gay men have always been involved with Jazz. Gay men have contributed much to American Culture. And just because one is straight does not mean you cannot have empathy for the struggles of LBGT community nor does it mean that you cannot support them. When one of us is oppressed, we are all oppressed. A person’s sexuality, just like their race, should be as relevant as their eye color or height. Equality seems to come, but much more slowly than we would prefer. And not without struggle and not without effort and not without vigilance.
Thanks for listening everyone! And thanks for your support! I’ll be back next week with more music. Please support your local Jazz musicians and all local live music. And poets too!