Tony Whyton


On his book Jazz Icons: Heroes, Myths and the Jazz Tradition

Cover Interview of August 08, 2010

A close-up

In my view, the most thought provoking (and potentially provocative) section of the book links to the way in which jazz history promotes masculine and heterosexual norms.

In my opening chapter, I examine the way in which jazz can be understood as a heterosexual masculine discourse, from the way the history of ‘great men’ blends narrative influences from the 19th century genius to the American cowboy.  Even at the level of language, jazz is governed by masculine rhetoric; tenor ‘titans’, saxophone ‘colossuses’ and musicians that engage in cutting contests, trade punches and blow each other off the bandstand.

Masculine and heterosexual norms are later explored in a chapter on the life and music of Duke Ellington.  Several years ago, the author David Hajdu published an article in Vanity Fair that gave a beautiful account of the relationship between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and posed the question of whether their friendship could have gone beyond the purely professional.

From my perspective, it is irrelevant and impossible to know whether Ellington was in fact bisexual.  However, what I am interested in is the problem this concept presents for jazz audiences and fans of Ellington alike.  Within the chapter, I trace several narrative themes that are used to encapsulate the spirit of Ellington and his music but then question the extent to which these themes have anything to do with Ellington’s actual life experience.

The ‘problem’ of an artistic jazz legend being bisexual tells us something about the way in which great artists have to adhere to certain stereotypical traits in order to remain authentic.  And it makes us think both about how music itself is sexualised and about broader societal views.

Although gender and sexuality are only aspects of a much broader discussion of iconic influence in jazz within the book, these examples demonstrate very clearly the way in which jazz history is controlled ideologically to perpetuate and reinforce certain values and beliefs.