Dig Boy Dig

Jazz at Lincoln Center Breaks New Ground, but Where Are the Women?

Marsalis similarly drew blanks on women he has worked with outside of Lincoln Center, naming just Rosnes and pianist Geri Allen. And of the hundreds of musicians hired by J@LC as guest artists, as concert headliners, or as part of their educational programming for young people, not one has been a female saxophonist, trumpeter, trombonist, bassist, or drummer.

Between rigorous touring schedules and time devoted to composition, Marsalis—who failed to recognize the names of several up-and-coming female musicians—confesses to being out of touch with the current New York scene. His players are similarly insulated by the demands of their work. The prestige and salaries afforded by their jobs—some orchestra members earn over $100,000—provide little incentive to network outside their immediate circle of peers. Unlike clubs, the current Lincoln Center venues do not allow hopefuls to approach would-be colleagues.

Bolstered by Gibson, Marsalis's unchecked power has caused its share of past labor issues. In 1993, Times staffer Peter Watrous charged nepotism influenced the awarding of commissions. Three of the four musicians then selected—Roy Hargrove, Marcus Roberts, and Terence Blanchard—were seen as Marsalis's friends or disciples. Other critics, including Newsday's Gene Seymour, asserted that J@LC excluded white musicians from the orchestra and the historical vision. The arguments culminated in 1994 with a heated public debate between Marsalis and historian James Lincoln Collier. But the same claims could be put forward today.

With stormier consequences, a letter Gibson wrote in May 1993 effectively dismissed older orchestra members. "We're making across the board changes in the orchestra personnel by hiring an entire band of guys under the age of 30," he wrote, presumably with Marsalis's approval. Gibson retracted the letter within days, under the threat of age discrimination lawsuits. At the time, J@LC was still a fledgling department under the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts umbrella; strangely, no one saw fit to create policy guidelines regarding orchestra employment or a more balanced power structure. Current orchestra performers are mostly in their twenties and thirties.

As the dispute—characterized by Richard Woodward in the Voice as a "ludicrous dick-swinging contest"—played out in the early '90s, apparently not a single critic challenged the chauvinistic assumption that only young men could fulfill the requirements of the band. Nathan Leventhal, outgoing Lincoln Center president, refuses comment. Gordon J. Davis, J@LC's board chairman since the beginning, will succeed Leventhal in January.

All of these employment issues might have been avoided through the more democratic measures followed by such other Lincoln Center constituents as the Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, and City Ballet orchestras: a tenure process, job advertising, and structured auditions observed by a committee. Such procedures may be specified by union contracts with the American Federation of Musicians, and are required by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. Most orchestras also conduct a round of "blind auditions," where unknown candidates play behind a screen, thereby limiting preferential treatment. Since the adoption of blind auditions, the number of women selected has risen dramatically—to the point of equal representation in hundreds of orchestras.

J@LC does hold an AFM contract, but the union itself does not possess enough leverage to initiate large-scale procedural changes. "The negotiations have always been at a much more fundamental level," says Bill Moriarity, president of Local 802. "This contract is probably our worst." Although the musicians are among the highest paid in jazz, Gibson unsuccessfully argued in 1997 that they shouldn't receive pensions. "Rob Gibson has an attitude that comes out of the 1930s," says Moriarity. "It's a real plantation mentality."

Where other Lincoln Center constituents would have involved a committee, in 1997, only Gibson and his attorney came to the table. Moriarity informed J@LC board members about the negotiations, but received no response. Efforts to involve musicians from the orchestra failed, whether out of their loyalty to Marsalis as leader and mentor, or for fear of reprisals. Since the current contract will be renewed in March, in February musicians might again be afraid to participate in union negotiations.

Recalling the AFM's historically shaky relationship with jazz musicians, Gibson criticizes the imposition of union standards: "I know exactly what I want to do with musicians. I resent being told how to take care of them when we do far better than the contract tells us to do." He blocked requests to interview board members and artistic consultants for this piece, then refused further comment.

Marsalis balks at the inconvenience of open auditions. "One job opened up at the Met for trumpet," he explains. "Eighty people auditioned for it . . . 80 people for one job!"

While some, including Marsalis and Gibson, would argue that auditions are not germane to the jazz tradition, J@LC's public funding provides compelling reasons for their consideration. In addition to money from the Mayor's Office and City Council for the new building—currently totaling $18 million—the organization is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council for the Arts, the City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Manhattan Borough President's Office. Gibson says he doesn't know whether or not these funds stipulate specific hiring practices.

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