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'You Don't Play Like a Girl': Queer in a Jazz World

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All female musicians go through a hazing period, an eye-opening moment when they first observe the extracurricular activities and conversations that go down offstage in the music business. Thanks to my first drum teacher, Walter Salb, I got my hazing period over with at age 14. Walt always said, "If you can deal with me, then you can deal with anyone in this business." He was right! I didn't just learn how to play paradiddles from him. I learned how to curse like a sailor, volley and one-up sarcastic insults with speed and precision (with beer in one hand and a whiskey in the other) and demean women with vulgar prowess. I also learned how to "man up" and show no emotion. This was all fine and dandy with me. I loved it. I was a little tomboy drummer, obsessed with jazz, who hadn't quite discovered her sexuality. I would just hang out at Walt's house, practicing the drums, cursing, drinking, talking shit and listening to old jazz records. My sexist vulgarity quickly surpassed most of the boys'.

Time went on, and I went away to college, kept practicing those drums, honed my crassness, sharpened my drinking skills and enthusiastically discovered that I was a big fat homo. I now had two love affairs in my life: jazz and women. Historically, jazz and women make a classic combination. But being a woman and loving jazz and women? Not so classic. The dichotomy of the two felt absolutely ridiculous. I spent my days transcribing Miles Davis solos and my nights chasing girls. Let me make one thing clear: My sexuality, at this point, was absolutely one-dimensional. I had no awareness of feminism, equality or politics. I was interested in sex only, and I could still one-up the boys with a dirty joke.

After college I moved to the jazz capital of the world, New York City. I had no idea that it was also the gay capital of the world. How fabulous! I met gays unlike any gays I had ever encountered. Gays fighting for equal rights. Gays who were interested in more than just accumulating notches on their belts. I quickly got schooled in feminism, gay rights and gay subculture. Righteous queer female artists and activists flooded into my life: BETTY, Toshi Reagon, Ani DiFranco, Gloria Steinem, Animal, Melissa Ferrick, Indigo Girls, Staceyann Chin. I was taken to the mecca of all feminist festivals, the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. I slowly but surely became a full-fledged lesbian feminist.

Now what was I to do with this new identity? How was it going to fit into my life as a touring jazz musician? The jazz world is a boys' club. How would I continue to play the music I loved while being a radical lesbian feminist? How was I supposed to be one of the boys when I was realizing how powerful I felt as a woman?

I began to feel oppressed while on the road playing the music I loved. I was starving for the company of like-minded feminists. I became increasingly aware of the damaging implications underneath every chauvinist comment or joke. I started feeling internal conflict and guilt if I participated in post-show examinations of the physical attributes or deficiencies of women we'd seen in the audience.

I went from actively participating in the dirty joke to keeping my mouth shut and feeling silenced and invisible, and from that to losing all humor and wanting to march on Washington every time anyone said anything, even complimentary things, about women. I didn't know how to be all of myself. How could I speak up without the fear of being the lesbian feminist buzzkill?

So, risking not being liked, I started speaking up and challenging men when they crossed that line from funny to sexist. Surprisingly, a lot of them were receptive to my challenges, and the ones who weren't just stopped calling me, which was fine by me. There are fewer of those guys than you would imagine. For the most part, the jazz world is not as conservative as I thought it was. But believe me, when someone needs to be called out, I'm happy to do it.

Today I know who I am. I am a fully integrated person. That's sort of the key to feeling like you "belong." I can be my whole self everywhere I go -- unapologetically. I'm at home in the jazz and the feminist communities. They aren't so separate for me now. I can exist happily in both -- and I need them both to exist.

Honestly, it's hard to be a woman in this business. I have to prove myself over and over again. So many people have said to me, "You don't play like a girl!" They think it's a compliment. But actually, I do play like a girl. This is what girls play like. People hear with their eyes: They see a "girl" and are surprised when they hear the power and prowess that they associate with "boys." By getting onstage and throwing down while looking the way I do, I am breaking stereotypes. I am a woman. I am a dyke. I am a tomboy. I play jazz.