Jazz as masculine space

The number of women who study music and who make their mark on the Norwegian musical scene have increased the recent years. But the recruitment of women is lopsided. Women choose classical music, not jazz. In this article Trine Annfelt discusses jazz as a hegemonic masculine discourse and argues that this can contribute to explaining the distribution by gender and sexuality.
Trine Annfelt is a researcher at Centre for Feminist and Gender Studies, Trondheim.


In 1999 my project dealing with negotiations of gender and music received funding. The project was entitled The best musician gets the gig (in Norwegian: Den som spiller best får jobben), indicating a basic understanding of the recruitment criteria at work for musicians today: it is the talent that counts, and it makes no difference whether the body housing this talent is coloured or white, female or male, homosexual or heterosexual. The notice for the project came from an institution educating professional musicians, and was related to an interest in gender equality. The institution had observed a clear tendency that the number of women who studied music and made their mark on the Norwegian musical scene had increased significantly in recent years. It was equally clear that this new recruitment was lopsided 1. The new women could especially be found within classical music, while jazz was among the disciplines which did not witness corresponding changes.

As my work with the project progressed, it became clear that jazz recruits differently than classical disciplines with regards to both gender and sexual orientation. Jazz education appears to be subject to a particularly male and heterosexual domination at the same time as it has a traditional ‘division of labour’. There are few women in jazz, and almost all of them are singers 2. Hardly any men at all qualify as singers 3. There are very few – if any – (openly) homosexual and lesbian performers, and this extends far beyond the ranks of the education institution 4. At the same time, these are in many respects surprising findings. Jazz is associated with a kind of democratic and progressive attitude which in principle could facilitate more space for different shapings of sexuality and gender.

In this article I shall discuss jazz as a hegemonic masculine discourse and argue that this can contribute to explaining the distribution by gender and sexuality. A hegemonic masculine discourse can in contemporary Western culture not avoid being heterosexual (Connell 1987, 1995). Only heterosexuality qualifies for hegemony, although to signal this kind of sexual orientation is by itself insufficient. The other explanatory element originates from the fact that jazz as improvisatory music opens possibilities for, and requires, closeness and intimacy between men otherwise forbidden and denied in homophobic cultures. Hence jazz offers an emotional space which otherwise only to a limited extent is or has been available for heterosexual men.

The article opens with a reminder: music, the body and gender have always and everywhere been connected. Battles have been fought over what these connections should mean, depending on whether music structured representations of either masculinity or femininity (McClary 1991; Koskoff 1987). Unsurprisingly, such battles have also been fought on the arenas of jazz. In all likelihood, the most important aspect determining whether meanings of gender are conserved or changed is the discursive conditions posited for individuals about to create themselves into jazz musicians. Here one’s gender and sexual orientation premise the negotiations that can be led individually and collectively, and as previously mentioned, these premises appear to favour heterosexual men.

Music: arenas for battles of gender

The musicologist Susan McClary (1991) describes music as a form of art with strong associations to the body, movement and feeling. In turn such aspects associate with femininity. Performing and listening to music have therefore continually been in danger of being understood as typically female activities. For instance, Richard Leppert (1989) finds that the national discourse in England from the Renaissance onward was marked by strong associations between music and femininity. He argues that this must be taken into account when explaining why just England has produced fewer great composers than other comparable countries elsewhere in Europe.

The connotations to femininity have also been disclaimed. The objective, rational and technical aspects of composition and performance have been focused on and emphasised, and music has been promoted as the most ‘spiritual’, or incorporeal, of art forms. In the West the great music written by men has been termed ‘universal’ and ‘autonomous’, and historically, talented female musicians and composers have met opposition. One might argue that a battle over which gender is to ‘own’ the music has taken place, at the same time as what was associated with femininity tended to be understood as less distinguished (McClary 1996; McClary and Leppert 1996).

Also ethnomusicologists call attention to battles of meaning in relation to music (Coldrake 1987; Jones 1987; Wood 1980). In most cultures there is a gendered division of roles in music. A main feature is that men play instruments while women sing and/or dance. In many cultures women’s music is tied to the private sphere and that of the men to the public domain. Women’s music is associated with feelings (grief) and the profane, to the corporeal and to nature, while men’s music is linked to the spiritual, the sacred, to culture and to activity (Koskoff 1987).

In corresponding ways battles have been fought over the division of roles and meanings in jazz. Even though there are many exceptions, there is good reason to call attention to the ranking of jazz song and jazz music. In spite of the great female stars of jazz, vocalists mainly were ‘the canaries’ (Dahl 1984). They were the bands’ eye catchers and exponents. Their task was to interpret and convey the lyrics, not to improvise musically. The musicians did the improvisations and since that is the hallmark of jazz, this established a ranking according to gender. Some of my informants describe the situation above as accompanying songbirds and relate that it is neither much fun nor awarded much status. But today’s jazz also has much focus on and experimentation with vocal improvisation. Many informants consequently think that the different ranks within the realm of jazz, as other differences based on gender, primarily have to do with a historical lag.

My question, however, is if this issue might not be more complex than that. Even though jazz undergoes change as a gendered discourse, the question of why the process is so slow remains. Why does jazz to a greater extent than classical music tend towards maintaining a gendered division of roles? In the traditional societies which constitute ethnomusicological fields of study, adhering to defined roles is regarded as ideal and expected behaviour. The post-traditional society that premises music today, on the other hand, offers and expects transgressions and breaches of traditional roles (Rudie 1984; Giddens 1991). Our culture’s explicit equality ideology points in the same direction (Stang Dahl 1984). In spite of this jazz changes less than classical disciplines. Summarised: where music previously all in all appeared to be a male bastion, there have been changes during the last twenty years within classical disciplines which so far cannot be found in jazz. The question in this context is what information jazz as a result can offer with regards to meanings of gender and sexuality in post-traditional society/our culture. Jazz clearly belongs among the sought-after arenas for creative, aesthetic expression. But why is it almost exclusively heterosexual men there?

Jazz as gendered discourse

Jazz first and foremost gets its meaning from particular discourses of masculinity, with an especially marked focus on improvisation. I shall give some examples. Gary Giddins (1998), one of America’s most famous jazz critics, describes in his book Visions of Jazz: The First Century jazz as opportunistic and freedom-loving. Jazz defies definition. Its distinguishing feature is vitality and innovation coupled with aversion to firm boundaries. Jazz has a tradition for being in transition. It may borrow from other musical genres, but kneads, integrates and develops what it borrows, ---yet ultimately riding alone (p. 9). Jazz does what it wants when it wants, and pays for this in the form of commercial marginality. Exactly this rebellious independence is, according to Giddins, what attracts jazz devotees. He therefore warns against the tendency he observes in America today of the tightening of the marketplace’s hold and the institutionalisation of jazz through formalised education. When academia is allowed to describe and analyse the music, it will create accepted truths of what is best. In this way the academic traditions might constitute a radical shift in jazz from the fundamental ideal of continuous innovation and improvisation.

The next example is taken from Frank Barrett (1998) who discusses jazz and organisational development at the turn of the millennium. Globalisation and information flow cause modern organisations today to be faced with an imperative of innovation and creativity among all employees. Here the jazz band’s interaction and the continuous musical innovation through improvisation can serve as a suitable model. Doing a good job in the organisations of the future will require the same passion for innovation and originality as that of jazz musicians.

Barrett has interviewed a number of musicians about what exactly they felt improvisation and playing jazz entails. The message is that even with experience and practice, the chance of failure in public is present at all times. Improvisation is risky business, and therefore suits musicians with particular qualities best. It is described as climbing out on a limb, as wanting to fight, as enjoying life on the edge. Barrett concludes: The metaphors of leaping into the unknown, hanging out on a limb, suggest the exhilarating and perilous nature of engaging in an activity in which the future is largely unknown, yet one in which one is expected to create something novel and coherent, often in the presence of an audience (p. 606).

Also Scandinavian musicians can keep clearly in view that improvisation can be tough stuff. One of my informants describes jazz as --- a very achievement-oriented type of music. The ones on stage who do the job sort of become the winners, the ideal. In a jam for instance things maybe centre a bit round thrusting yourself forward, being the strong one who drives through. In a band you allow the soloist to play of course. We take turns being the soloist. But the potentially strongest, he gets to play the most. When such mechanisms work. When that is what becomes important. But it isn’t always like that. In our band we’re quite equal, I’d say.

Several informants use battle metaphors to describe improvisation. Playing together may include a distribution of rank and power there and then, partly intentionally, partly through the common understanding of what gives the achievements a high ranking. An informant explains: You can often get into trouble in the course of a concert. One of the others can have new solutions that you aren’t able to hear. Then you’re ranked low in the group. You’re placed a bit further down on the communication plane. I’ve also experienced being completely sidelined. That another musician simply wants to test me. Well it hasn’t happened onstage, but it’s happened in studio.

But there are also other narratives about jazz. Above, Barrett pointed out experience and practice. One does not go on stage unprepared, and at least in the good old days, one learned the tricks of the trade and was accepted in the musical subcultures by being included in and integrated into the existing environments. Several of my older informants have mentioned the same – that jazz entailed being integrated into an environment which both included and acknowledged them; that is to say, an environment that offered security combined with challenges. The self-assurance to risk going out on the limb was gained, here as elsewhere, through trial and error in environments which in fundamental ways validated and acknowledged the individual as one of ‘us’. Hazel Carby (1998) conveys in her analysis of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue precisely that reciprocal trust and solidarity among the musicians. She describes their distribution of the role as soloist as democratic and egalitarian. In the relationship between Davis, Coltrane and Evans extraordinary empathy and trust in the ways in which they complemented each other’s solos were practised, she writes. The inclusive relationship between these three also extended to the other musicians in the band.

My point here is that jazz can be narrated in many ways, and that none of the narratives should be seen to be telling ‘the truth’ about jazz. Instead, they should be seen as discourses, as productions of meanings of jazz that fight against each other, attempt to persuade each other, or support each other in the quest for what is to appear as, and gain support as ‘the truth’ about jazz and jazz musicians (Foucault 1976). Language cannot testify to how things are in jazz, or what improvisation requires. Language is an activity which creates meaning. The discourses of jazz structure our understanding of what jazz is. And many, but as previously shown not all, narratives about jazz structure our understanding of what is important and less important in this tradition by means of a language with distinct connotations to heterosexual masculinity.

Robert Connell, sociologist and researcher in men’s studies (1987, 1995), has introduced the term hegemonic masculinity. The term deals with the shaping of masculinity which at any given time is best suited for supporting the prevailing version of the gender system. To some extent, then, hegemonic masculinity is a relative phenomenon (Hanke 1992). What at any time makes a man a real man has varied historically. The Norwegian anthropologist Merete Lie (1997, 1998), for example, demonstrates the significance of technological development. Where at one time big muscles and machines did the trick, mastering a computer’s brain can count more today. Lance Strate (1992) demonstrates that not just any old discourse is conjured up in order to make phenomena masculine – the myths about men are then set to work. The aspects that are activated revolve around taking chances, mastering challenges and risky tasks, around daring, fighting and winning. These are aspects used in a number of contexts to produce masculinity. An example I myself have investigated thoroughly is medicine (Annfelt 1999). Medicine in general and the most prestigious specialities in particular are described through concepts associated with speed and drama, with precision and reason, with fighting and winning – also over disease and death. Diseases that make you ‘bleed and die’5 and where you are saved by the surgeon are characterised by having high internal prestige and by drawing on images of hegemonic masculinity. We find something analogous to this in the narratives presented above, and it is the hallmark and chief characteristic of jazz – improvisation – which is represented in this way.

Jazz tells us something both about masculinity and about something which both in our culture in general and in jazz culture is recognised as ‘attractive’, ‘necessary’, ‘best’, etc. For musical youth the narratives exist as offered understandings of who and how you ‘are’ and have to be in order to be successful in jazz. They are offered understandings which in principle are available for anyone who integrates into the environment. Also for female jazz musicians the ‘will to risk’ is available as an explanation for their own or others’ success, or, in an opposite situation, as an explanation for their handicap in relation to improvisation due to their ‘being’ security-seekers. Moreover, because the will to risk is discursively so closely connected to masculinity, this is an offered self-identification especially available to men. The connection with masculinity also makes the surroundings more likely to interpret the will to risk as characteristic of men, and this in turn constitutes a form of support in integrating it into their self-identification. But as previously mentioned, also women can be interpreted and represent themselves in this way. In other words, they can draw on masculine connotations and individually or collectively try to negotiate understandings of the will to risk as a typically female quality. However, individual negotiations constitute only a slight challenge to cultural understandings. The individual woman will through such negotiations necessarily appear untypical, and consequently better suited than other female musicians, but will hardly change cultural narratives about how women ‘are’. In addition, the more or less common consent with regards to the established content of the categories of jazz and jazz musician being ‘necessary’ and ‘best’ makes these categories resistant to change 6. Consequently it seems as though the distance between the conceptual content of the categories of ‘woman’ and ‘jazz musician’ will continue to be difficult to transgress.

Summarised I have stated here that jazz today to a great extent is produced as a hegemonic masculine project. At the same time, the connection between jazz and hegemonic masculinity is a discursive manoeuvre which marginalises participants to whom such attributes are not ascribed, namely women and homosexual men. Because the sociocultural categories, under which the categories of female or male jazz musician belong, are constructed, these participants can also negotiate and possibly change the category’s meanings. However, because the category also incorporates hegemonic masculinity, it is resistant to attack.

Jazz as heterosexual discourse

The philosopher Judith Butler (1990, 1993, 1997) argues that the tabooing of homosexuality in our culture from the minute the child is born has consequences for the production of the subject. She understands gender as what she calls an effect of melancholia. She builds on Freud’s inferences concerning how the lost desires live on as psychic identifications. Freud understood mourning as a process one has to work through to be able to let go of the losses one has suffered. Melancholia was related to an unfinished mourning process. Melancholia was the mode or form through which the lost, but unmourned objects were incorporated and phantasmatically preserved through, in and as the Ego.

Butler does what Freud himself did not (1990). She reads into his texts a division between loss of incestuous homosexual and heterosexual desire during the oedipal phase. The heterosexual incest taboo tends to force the boy to relinquish the mother, but not to deny the desire’s direction. Quite the contrary, this direction of the desire is culturally supported and glorified. No other story is told as often, in as many contexts and through as many channels as that of heterosexual desire. As pointed out by the Danish cultural psychologist Dorte Marie Søndergaard (1999), it would hence appear that maintaining heterosexuality as naturalised phenomenon and norm requires an intense and continuous effort and production of meaning in culture.

In contrast, the prohibition against homosexual incestuos desire tends to enforce the loss of both the direction and the object of desire (the boy is forced to relinquish both his father and the direction of the desire). There exists a cultural pressure to forget or not to acknowledge that this desire ever existed. What is lost in this shaping of a heterosexual subject is culturally forbidden and cannot be mourned. Butler therefore uses the term ‘foreclosed’. Homosexual desire is described as a pre-emptive loss. It is repressed before it is acknowledged and thus becomes a form of melancholia over unlived possibilities (1997, p. 139).

The concept of the heterosexual matrix is one of the ways in which Butler explains the stability of sexual orientations. This is the finely woven web through which bodies, desires and identities are continuously being produced and reproduced as nature and necessity. The matrix draws a compelling line between identity, bodily signs and desire directed towards the ‘opposite’ sex (Lindholm 1996). Women and men become comprehensible as social individuals by the construction of this connection 7. At the same time positions and rooms for action are allotted. The positioning of the human being as gender and sexuality is in other words not founded upon the origin of humankind, but is related to the power strategies which enforce and maintain gender. Here Butler builds on Foucault’s thesis of the regulatory ideals. Foucault plays on the various meanings of the English word subject, one of which being ‘to submit’. One is subjected to the meaning of concepts like ‘gender’, ‘sexuality’, ‘normality’, etc., and consequently ‘--- the diversity of the body and the exuberance of existence are fixed in stiffened positions’, to quote Søndergaard (1996a; my translation from Danish). The coercion into the categories is understood as necessary in order to gain an ‘I’, to become a recognisable and comprehensible subject for oneself and others. On the one hand the discourses produce us through repetitive coercion. On the other, this installation and fixation occur through repetitive practice. Here lies embedded a potential for change. Instabilities may emerge and consequently possibilities for de-constitution and change. Butler writes:

(And) this repetition is not performed by a subject; this repetition is what enables a subject and constitutes the temporal condition for the subject. This iterability implies that ‘performance’ is not a singular ‘act’ or event, but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production, but not, I will insist, determining it fully in advance (1993, p. 95)

The discursive, hegemonic power strategies in culture produce homosexuality as taboo and phobia. It is named as ‘the other’ – as forbidden and dangerous, incomprehensible and subordinate – in relation to heterosexuality. Firstly, the tabooing singles out homosexual desire as most likely to become the denied loss that cannot be mourned. Secondly, these power structures contribute through the heterosexual matrix to maintaining stable gender identities based on desire directed towards the ‘opposite’ sex. The little boy becomes a boy by being subjected to the prohibition which denies and represses the father as an object of desire, and which installs it in the ego-structure in form of a melancholic identification. The identification contains both prohibition and desire and thus inscribes the loss of homosexual desire that cannot be mourned in the body and the psyche. The homosexual desire thereby ‘survives’ in the heterosexual oriented body and identity - though neither determined nor constant.

According to Butler, gender, as articulated in our culture and time, becomes incomprehensible without considering the early repressions. It is the unconscious which is opaque and which sets the limits as to what and how the psyche finds expressions. What is expressed or performed can therefore only be understood through reference to what is behind closed doors: ‘ --- what is exteriorized or performed can only be understood through reference to what is barred from the signifier and from the domain of corporeal legibility’ (1993:234). And behind these closed doors, we find the rejected identifications, including the desire and the objects that are culturally forbidden, unacceptable and tucked away. Because gender is, Butler argues, ‘neither a purely psychic truth, conceived as ‘internal’ and ‘hidden’, nor is it reducible to a surface appearance; on the contrary; its undecidability is to be traced as the play between psyche and appearance (where the latter domain includes what appears in words). Further, this will be a ‘play’ regulated by heterosexist constraints though not, for that reason, fully reducible to them’ (same source and page). Gender, then, has to be traced in the play between the psyche and the performance of the psyche, that is to say, in what one can relate about oneself. ‘Doing’ gender – acting like e.g. a ‘man’ on the basis of the experience of being a ‘man’ – consequently also says something about the incorporated melancholic fantasy that is the lost object.

Butler (1993) interprets the phenomenon of ‘drag’ in the light of this. ‘Drag’ should primarily be understood as negotiations concerning crossover (gender) identities. At the same time drag can also be seen as an allegory over heterosexual masculinity, that is to say, over a masculinity which is enforced and maintained among other things by denying the possibility of loving men. Drag, then, can be read as the ‘acknowledgement’ of having to ‘be’ a woman to be allowed to love men, or for women as the corresponding ‘acknowledgement’ of having to ‘be’ a man to be allowed to love women. This means that drag can be described as an allegory, or as a melancholic representation, of a gendered identity which is enforced by means of cultural tabooing of homosexuality.

My question is if also improvisation can be interpreted as a type of allegory over heterosexual masculinity/femininity? If one of the manners in which masculinity is shaped is abstaining from mourning the masculine as a lost loved object, inherent in improvisation are possibilities for nevertheless being permitted to do so. Above I point to intimacy and closeness, identification and empathy as fundamental to great jazz. The musicologist Tor Dybo (1996) describes improvisation as in one concurrent gesture calling corporeal sensations and the conscious, reflected relation to the world into play.

The musicologist Ingrid Monson (1996) discusses the concept of grooving and ties it to the body. Jazz musicians describe grooving as a rhythmic relation or feeling existing between the members of the band. Grooving is described as a euphoria that comes from playing good time with somebody or as a type of personal and musical chemistry. The use of the term feeling as a synonym for groove underscores the emotional and interpersonal charachter of groove, Monson writes.The instrument takes over and you almost have an out-of-body experience. In turn such musical experiences bring an almost physical pleasure. It is like ‘soaking in the bathtub and feeling, ‘Oh that’s what I needed’’, or it can be like ‘feeling like time itself is pleasurable’ (p. 68). Obviously creating great music together can be such strong experiences that one needs a language associated with bodily experiences to convey them.

This is what one of my informants says:

Playing together, being in a band together, it’s very intimate. And when you play together, that communication, it’s simply quite unique, and it’s beyond a conversation, if you know what I mean. It is something bodily, because you sort of stand there and do something. You get so very involved in a common sound that everybody contributes something to. I’ve often thought that it kind of borders on something sexual. Even though there isn’t the faintest tinge of sex in it at all, you don’t get an erection by playing a jazz concert, for instance. But it is something intimate and something very ... And also the business of being in a band, it can be one of the most difficult things there are. Because it’s so intimate. And leaving a band is like breaking up in a way.

All in all, the narratives convey an intensity tied to the experience of creating music and of the bonds to fellow musicians. The good musical conversations, then, are about strong feelings and a clear recognition that (also) the body has to speak if good jazz is to come into being. Jazz improvisation is described with notions of empathy, devotion, submission, euphoria. It is described as ‘--- profane ecstasy, (---) a shiver, a quivering moment’ (Oversand 1987:75). Or thus:

You give yourself up, surrender without ulterior motives. Selfishness, possessiveness and competitiveness give way to generosity, intimacy and belonging. You develop a presence that borders on telepathic intuition. (---) By glimpsing behind the closed eyes of your fellow musicians, and sensing the nerve impulses and muscle movements in their bodies, you attain certainty in relation to what will happen. In such moments improvisation resembles the language which is developed spontaneously between two lovers, and which usually is called eroticism. Everything feels simple. But it is a simplicity that contains the consciousness of how you got there. Not simplicity as a spontaneity fetish, but as a result of technical limitations being overcome and of personal integrity. (Oversand 1987:74; my translation from Norwegian).

Improvisation consequently can be understood as to pave the way for what is culturally forbidden, namely to experience and share intense intimacy with someone like yourself. Historically, this opportunity has been available to men to an even lesser extent than to women. Anthony Easthope (1990) argues that mainly war creates such opportunities for men. War therefore in a sense becomes the price men have to pay for homosexual desire. Only when the horrors of war are narrated can men’s care for each other and love for each other be related. Only then can men love each other, comfort each other and mourn each other:

In the dominant version of men at war, men are permitted to behave towards each other in ways that would not be allowed elsewhere, caressing and holding each other, comforting and weeping together, admitting their love. The pain of war is the price paid for the way it expresses the male bond. War’s suffering is a kind of punishment for the release of homosexual desire and male femininity that only war allows. (1990:66)

Also Mark Simpson (1994) discusses this issue: War films are perhaps the richest of all texts about masculinity. They represent manhood’s bloody rite of passage and the triumph of masculinity celebrated by the fathers and rewarded with the bride. In war films of what he labels ‘the buddy type’ the death of the enemy is not in focus. The enemy has no face, and is not made of flesh and blood. The deaths of the buddies are in focus. The classic sequence in such films is where one lies dead or dying on the battlefield and the other finds him and hurls himself at him/takes him in his arms beside himself with despair and grief. And, Simpson writes, --- the deadliness is attached not so much to war as to the queer romance of it all. An intimate relationship between death and the expression of homo-desire is set up in the war film (1994:214). The subtext of such films is in other words that breaking the prohibition against homosexuality can be punished by death. The cultural premise for the hero’s reward is abstaining from homosexual desire. The narrative can thereby be read as an example of Butler’s suggestion that ‘--- homosexual desire panics gender’ (1997:136). In addition, the popularity of these films among a wide audience is an example of how cultural expectations are reproduced and supported through the lives of the participants. To the extent that these films on an unaltered basis remain popular, they also remain a discursive production that reiterates or cites the prohibition against homosexuality and formulates the melancholia over the loss.

I have pointed out that gender can be understood in light of the relation between how it is articulated and experienced/‘is’, and what gender can be seen to express. The heterosexual man and woman, be they represented in film or playing jazz, are not to be understood as ‘really’ homosexual, as a form of closet queers. Instead, it is an invitation to explore other understandings of what gender is. As previously mentioned, Butler writes about how the forbidden desire in our type of culture cannot be acknowledged, how it is rejected, locked away and denied, but how it nonetheless permeates body and soul and has an effect on reason and emotion, desire and identity. One might say that the loss is an inarticulate want, something which cannot be articulated because it does not exist. What I suggest is that jazz – in the same way as drag – points to some ways in which one can live with the loss. Where the queens of drag can be understood as a rebellion against the prohibition against homosexuality, jazz can be understood as a ‘solution’ to the incorporated prohibition. Improvisation offers the possibility for both closeness and intimacy and dialogue, at the same time as jazz is a form in which the unknown loss can be expressed.

War punishes the intimacy men can draw from one another with the threat of death. Perhaps also the intimacy improvisation can offer is punished? The myths about jazz can be interpreted to that effect. The jazz musician has been romanticised as the outsider with a life in debauch and an insatiable appetite for women (Monson 1995). At the same time homosexual men have been represented as lacking the ability to understand, let alone play, jazz. (Gill 1995). And this might be where the punishment lies, namely the threat of ‘losing’ one’s talent, that is to say, ‘become’ like homosexual men if one breaks the cultural taboo and desires men. To put it differently, the myths produce narratives about homosexuality which in turn can contribute to maintaining the hegemony of heterosexual men in the arenas of jazz.

Let me finally open the door to other interpretations than those presented here. I have taken for granted that when the jazz environments I have investigated appear to be more or less devoid of men who understand themselves homosexually, I could infer that this actually is the case. But there are other possibilities as well. For one thing, it is conceivable that the opportunity to realise intimacy with other men which I argue that jazz offers, can make it felt to be less necessary to both acknowledge and leave the closet. In reference to this, a single informant talks about a musician he thinks is homosexual. ‘But maybe he doesn’t know it himself yet’. Despite much interest from the opposite sex, this man keeps his distance through a set of home-made rules. Both these rules and jazz as a discourse of some corporealised experiences can make the self-identification as, or the desire to be, heterosexual easier to maintain. Because even if homosexuality to an increasing extent is a hot topic in public discourse, ‘queer’ is most likely still produced as second-rate and consequently as quite an intimidating identity category, in society in general and also in jazz environments.


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1. In 1999 almost 60% of students admitted to classical studies in Norway were women. In rhythmical studies including jazz approximately 18% were women. Source: ‘From Cradle to Podium. Report on the professional organisation of music education’. Report commissioned by the Ministry of Education, Research and Church Affairs, 1998.

2. Jazz: The Rough Guide. The Essential Companion to Artists and Albums (1995) supports the image of jazz as dominated by men, and with a clear ‘division of labour’ based on gender. The guide mentions no less than 1600 jazz musicians, of whom 110 are women (close to 7%). Eighty of these are vocalists. Some of them also play the piano or other instruments. (I am grateful to Eldar Hasund for giving me this information.)

3. The education institution that served as a starting point for this project estimates that it has educated one male jazz singer in the last 10 years.

4. It is of course not possible to find statistical evidence of this. My impression is based on the collection of data for the project. I have interviewed and/or spoken with a total of 35 musicians/singers. Some of these I have come in contact with through an international jazz chat room. A very small portion of my informants have said that they are aware of homosexual colleagues. An overwhelming majority have confirmed that it appears to them that jazz is populated with heterosexual men. This is my background for claiming that openly homosexual professional jazz musicians are few and far between, at least today and at least among white musicians. But of course ‘the others’ exist. The music critic and author John Gill (1995) thinks that there are more homosexual male jazz musicians than meets the eye. He thinks their not being open has to do with homophobia, one expression of which being that art is brought into discredit if linked to homosexuality.

5. I have borrowed this term (in Norwegian: ‘blør og dør av’) from the Norwegian sociologist Dag Album (1991).

6. Here the analysis uses Søndergaard (1996b and 1999) as a point of departure.

7. With reference to Butler, Lindholm gives an example of this: in butch-femme relationships many ‘see’ a ‘man’ and a ‘woman’. This implies that also a homosexual relation is interpreted in light of the heterosexual matrix which prescribes ‘oppositional’ direction of desire and two genders.

Trine Annfelt

Dr.polit. and researcher at Centre for Feminist and Gender Studies, Department of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies, NTNU, Norway

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