As a jazz pianist, I'm asked this almost every time I’m at a session. In this context, it is slang that we musicians use to verify that players know what the form of a tune will be before it starts. Among a few close musician-friends who know my sexual orientation, I sometimes joke in reply: “No, actually.” But when the question comes up at a gig or jam session with unfamiliar musicians in France, Holland, or Boston, I just smile to myself and reply, “yeah.”
It goes without saying that one’s sexual orientation -- just like gender, race, religion, you name it -- has no place on the bandstand. All that should matter is what a player brings to the musical conversation. If any genre has come to stand for an affirmation of common humanity, it is jazz. Despite being borne out of the suffering of a distinct ethnic group, its endeavor to transcend the historical memory of African American suffering has earned it almost universal appeal.
That’s why it’s so ironic that the culture surrounding jazz musicians has, I believe unconsciously, excluded other minority groups, namely women and homosexuals. How many people in larger society, let alone from these demographic groups, are jazz musicians? Not many! It’s worth exploring elsewhere why this is the case, but I want to focus here on the place of gays in jazz, what is truly a “straight man’s world.”
Jazz as an institution is heteronormative beyond one’s wildest dreams. The sometimes-rough quality of the music gives it a distinctly “straight” vibe in popular culture -- it’s as if the sexuality of musicians is constructed from the nature of the sounds they produce. Openly gay pianist Fred Hersch relates here that some listeners take the beauty and lyricism of his playing for granted. After all, what straight man could play with such emotion and sensitivity? Or, turn this question around: how can a gay man possibly produce rough, edgy music?
It’s easy to reinforce such stereotypes in a musical environment where being openly gay makes one stick out like a sore thumb, even more than in mainstream society. It’s hard to make an accurate guess, but I would say that less than one in every 500 jazz musicians is openly gay. And Fred Hersch’s life-story is instructive: if a man playing with the great saxophonist Stan Getz found it difficult to come out because of what his sexual orientation could mean for his career, there have got to be some jazz musicians out there in the closet, with no plans to come out anytime soon. In fact, I believe I’ve met two myself.
However, it’s worth noting that Hersch has become remarkably successful as one of the greatest jazz pianists of his generation. Gary Burton, also openly gay, is world-renowned for reinventing the jazz vibes. We can’t run a tidy experiment, controlling for talent or luck, of which these men have obviously had their fair share; or for sexual orientation. That would be nice. But I’m convinced that even if the jazz world is heteronormative -- and yes, a bit homophobic, just like the larger world -- that it is a place where talented LGB people can make inroads.
The success of Hersch and Burton -- two homosexuals in an overwhelmingly heterosexual environment -- is a testament to the facts on the ground. Jazz is a straight man’s music not by nature, but by sheer numbers, and this is why LGB jazz musicians -- even though they are and will always be outnumbered -- need not fear homophobia or discrimination.