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Book Reviews

Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies

By Published: April 18, 2009
Big Ears: Listening For Gender in Jazz Studies
Edited by Nichole T. Rustin and Sherrie Tucker
Paperback; 472 pages
ISBN: 0822343207
Duke University Press
2008

Reading Ingrid Monson's "Fitting the Part," one of 15 fascinating essays in this tome, I wonder if I too "am all wrong." Is an Asian-American woman, who plays no musical instruments, a contradiction in the social history of who has typically written about jazz?

Similarly (or conversely, depending on how you look at it), Monson, the Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music at Harvard, questions how her personal history as "a woman, a trumpet player, a Midwesterner, a Norwegian American, a daughter of the white middle class and perhaps the most damning, a lesbian," fits in "with the current understandings of who ought to be writing about jazz." In her essay, she examines the stereotypes of gender, race and sexuality in relation to her experience as a trumpet player and academic, also reaching conclusions about reconciling her race with her identity as a jazz scholar.

The theme of exceptionality—in Monson's case, being a female trumpeter in male-dominated bands and a white scholar of a historically African-American music makes her feel like the odd woman out—runs throughout this volume of essays. In "With Lovie and Lil: Rediscovering Two Chicago Pianists of the 1920s," Jeffrey Taylor explores Lovie Austin and Lillian Hardin Armstrong's roles as accompanists and soloists, in relation to their male counterparts. At the conclusion, Taylor wonders whether Hardin Armstrong's exceptional piano accompaniment may have contributed to her relative invisibility in jazz history.

The pieces collected in this volume view women not necessarily as exceptional but as "common" and vital in the history and culture of jazz. The editors, Sherrie Tucker, author of Swing Shift: All Girl Bands of the 1940s (Duke University Press, 2000), and Nichole T. Rustin, do a fine job of analyzing the role of women in jazz studies from all perspectives: as musicians, scholars, writers, critics and listeners. They have also made these academic essays highly accessible; in turn their call for further exploration of gender dynamics as well as race and sexuality in jazz studies falls on receptive ears.


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