Confronting Bullying in Jazz
By promoting acts of aggression and dominance in jazz, we inadvertently fuel the hatred and violence plaguing society. It’s time to confront bullying in jazz.
Brief caveat: There are many other things that need to be done to address racism and other forms of injustice in our in society. This piece is based on my own experiences as a White, female jazz musician/educator and is aimed primarily at other White musicians.
When I was interviewing jazz musicians for my dissertation, the topic of bullying came up several times. I’ve wanted to write about it for a while, but the horrors of last week finally motivated me to speak up. Here’s why we need to call out and find alternatives to bullying in jazz:
Bullying requires victimizing certain individuals/groups and then blaming the victims
One of my dissertation interviewees pointed out that a lot of bullying jazz musicians had themselves been victims of bullying by jocks and other more dominant males in high school. When victims become victimizers, they need some person or group to victimize. This promotes the idea that victimization is fine – just as long as you’re not the one being victimized. In order to justify participating in or tolerating bullying, people convince themselves that the victim(s) somehow deserved their fate.
Bullying perpetuates the idea that “<Inferior people> are taking our jobs,” rather than seeking to create new jobs
Most bullying in jazz boils down to, “You’re not good enough – you need to stop playing.” While music is certainly a competitive field, this tactic of attacking and driving out perceived professional/economic competition underlies the worst and most destructive forms of racism, sexism, etc. It also ignores the fact that welcoming more hobbyist jazz musicians/enthusiasts would create more performance and teaching opportunities for many of us.
Bullying punishes those who are less privileged and/or outside the norm
Bullying is often a personal attack disguised as constructive feedback. The bully isn’t identifying an area of improvement and suggesting strategies – he or she is lashing out at another musician for not possessing certain knowledge or qualities. Never mind that musicians who lack knowledge often come from less privileged backgrounds and have had less access to educational resources; or that musicians who fall outside the norm will almost always be considered to be lacking in desirable traits (ex. female musicians who are never considered “aggressive,” no matter how intense their playing).
Bullying fetishizes Black masculinity and promotes dangerous stereotypes
Admittedly, all White jazz musicians – including me – engage in some sort of appropriation of Black culture. But when White jazz musicians adopt the perceived hyper-masculinity (or hyper-aggression) of Black jazz musicians past, they’re inadvertently promoting some pretty toxic stereotypes. The White jazz musician emulates and adores the same stereotype that provokes murderous rage and fear in the White police officer. It’s also a display of White Privilege in that White jazz musicians almost never have to worry about being hurt or killed because of their perceived aggression. We idolize Miles Davis, but conveniently forget that he was a victim of police brutality and other forms of racism.
In my next post, I’ll discuss some ways to combat bullying and find alternatives. Have you been bullied by other jazz musicians? Can you think of other ways in which seemingly harmless bullying feeds into much larger, darker problems?