Dig Boy Dig


The gaping hole at Columbus Circle, former site of the Coliseum, represents more than New York City’s shifting landscape. As the future home for Jazz at Lincoln Center—an architectural plan totaling 100,000 square feet with a concert theater, atrium, and jazz café—it reflects the organization’s astounding growth, unprecedented among jazz institutions. What started as a three-concert “Classical Jazz” series in 1987 now presents over 450 events yearly, at home and around the globe. This season celebrates the centennial of trumpeter Louis Armstrong. A gala benefit titled “Swing That Music” launches festivities on November 13.

With prospective opportunities further increased by the expansion ahead, which musicians will benefit? Despite J@LC’s heroic visions and vast resources, accusations of nepotism, reverse racism, and age discrimination have long tarnished its reputation. But what nobody seems to have noticed is the profound, and unchanged, absence of women from the bandstand.

“There have been women good enough to be included for at least 60 years.”

Technically, J@LC does employ a substantial percentage of women—behind the scenes. “We are an EEOC dream, in terms of our staff, our board, our band, our makeup, our equality,” says Rob Gibson, executive producer and director. “I’ve heard many men here complain that we need more men.” Out of 50 administrators, 30 are female, including many department heads. The board of directors boasts such prominent figures as former Planned Parenthood president Faye Wattleton, business mogul Tina Santi Flaherty, and former mayor Koch’s former chief of staff, Diane M. Coffey.

The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, however, has never had a female member.

“I hire orchestra members on the basis of merit,” says artistic director Wynton Marsalis, implying women do not yet make the grade. “The more women we have playing jazz, the higher the level of playing gets, the more they audition, and the more women are going to be all over. It will be just like classical music.” Marsalis also cites slow turnover in the band of 15, limiting the availability of positions.

Contrary to the popular image of jazz women as singers, the number of female instrumentalists has grown substantially in recent decades—just not in big bands. Virtually none of the top mainstream bands—the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, the ghost bands of Count Basie or Duke Ellington, groups led by Lionel Hampton or Illinois Jacquet—currently employ any female players as permanent members.

“The argument that women will eventually be good enough is very old,” points out historian Sherrie Tucker. In her book Swing Shift: All-Girl Bands of the 1940s, published this summer, Tucker documents a generation of female musicians overlooked by the standard histories. “There have been women good enough to be included for at least 60 years,” she says. Lil Hardin-Armstrong, Louis’s second wife, figures among the earliest. Although the Lincoln Center celebration neglects her contributions, she was the pianist, and a composer and arranger, for Louis’s seminal Hot Five.

Pianist Billy Taylor, artistic adviser for the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, praises contemporary talents like Lynne Arriale, Terri Lyne Carrington, Jane Bunnett, and Ingrid Jensen. “Time won’t do it,” he claims. “There has to be an effort. People have to start focusing on the fact that not only the Regina Carters of this world deserve recognition.”

While increased public consciousness would help, hiring practices present the largest obstacle. Although Marsalis refers to auditions, the LCJO has never held one. Positions are not advertised. There is no formal hiring procedure. As in the majority of big bands past and present, hiring takes place by word of mouth, through personal recommendations. Sometimes musicians get a foot in the door by subbing—on referral—or by sitting in at rehearsals. “I ask the guys in the section who they like,” says Marsalis. He has autonomous decision-making power, determining who gets a job and whether or not they keep it.

Marsalis grudgingly admits that sexism could hinder awareness of female talent. “I think that’s true in a certain sense,” he says, “but for that 1 or 2 percent of people who excel above the others, you always hear about them. Christian McBride, Nicholas Payton, Roy Hargrove—I heard about him as this boy in Houston.”

Female musicians disagree. Renee Rosnes, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band’s pianist, argues that the recommendation process affects women regardless of skill. “When a male musician is looking for a substitute,” she says, “it’s a natural impulse for him to call a friend first, most likely someone who is also a man. I’ve had male friends tell me this and experienced it myself.”

Rosnes herself credits a longstanding connection for her entry at Carnegie Hall. “I wouldn’t hesitate to say I’m there because of the musical director, Jon Faddis,” she explains. “He has always been a strong supporter of mine and I used to play in his small group.”

If rehearsals and subbing form paths to potential employment, women’s J@LC prospects seem bleak. “Women come to rehearsals,” insists Marsalis. But asked for specific players, he comes up empty-handed. “There’s a trombone player who comes all the time and plays with us,” offers producer and director Gibson. “What’s her name?”

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.

The NEA guidelines, though general, evaluate candidates on providing “access to the arts for all,” for “outreach projects that involve diverse communities.” Of the other awards, NYSCA’s grant contains the most specific language and takes open hiring for granted: “The contractor will not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, national origin, sex, age, disability, or marital status and will undertake or continue existing programs of affirmative action to ensure that minority group members and women are afforded equal employment opportunities without discrimination.” Corporate donors, including Oldsmobile, refuse to publicly disclose any such requirements.

Does Marsalis believe in affirmative action? “Yes, unquestionably,” he says. “But the situation with Afro-Americans is very different from this situation. I want to stress that: very different. It’s very detailed, and it would take a long time for me to get into that. It’s not appropriate for this article.” Different or not, affirmative action programs tend to include outreach to women, as well as minorities other than African Americans.

“Are we trying to incorporate women? Yes,” Marsalis says hotly. “But are we doing it under the guise that we’ve got to get women in here? No, we’re not doing that. Do we not hire a person because they’re a woman? No. Do we go out and scour New York City to find women? No, we don’t scour New York City looking for any musicians.” Gibson extends this view to Columbus Circle: “I’m not approaching the new facility in any way, shape or form, except to give more jazz musicians work, period. I’m not thinking about employing more women.”

As Marsalis spoke from the stage of Alice Tully Hall over a month ago for J@LC’s season-opening “Body and Soul,” his face lit up. He talked enthusiastically about a new home for the music at Columbus Circle, the first hall built specifically for jazz. Hundreds of people looked on proudly. Then Marsalis made a request, asking everyone to say a little prayer before the foundation is laid, to “help make sure we get it right.” If you do, couple your prayers with a specific wish: that the only glass ceiling will be the one enclosing the atrium.