The women of OutBeat riff on sex, music and the definition of “queer”

By its very nature, jazz is about experimentation, about testing out sounds that may seem an impossible mix. The same might be said for OutBeat, the newest jazz event in the U.S. that, for the first time, brings together LGBT artists in Philadelphia (Sept 18-21). As an eclectic mix of world-renowned jazz musicians get ready to educate and entertain audiences with performances, master classes and frank panel discussions at venues throughout Philadelphia, a few of the female headliners talk exclusively about why sexuality, like jazz, can be pretty transcendent. 

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From her early days leading a jazz trio in small Chicago nightclubs, Patricia Barber has composed what can only be described as “cool” piano improvs, and later, vocals that draw on highly personal lyrics. She once said,  “Art can be created neither by logic nor diligence.”  

Diligence classifies Jennifer Leitham’s experiences as one of the few transgender jazz artists working today. When she began her career as John Leitham, she had already earned a famous following thanks to her very well-known engagements–not only was Leitham Mel Torme’s bassist for a decade, but she worked with everyone from Peggy Lee to Woody Herman. She’s probably played every legendary jazz club you could think of and has continued to share her talents as a creative force in the industry.

Dena Rose is a Grammy nominee who recently paid tribute to Shirley Horn on her latest album, We Won’t Forget You: An Homage to Shirley Horn. Rose has also shared the stage with greats including Ray Brown, Phil Woods, Jimmy Cobb and Benny Golson, while Grammy winner Teri Lynn Carrington has works for two decades with luminaries like Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz and Cassandra Wilson. She also gained fame as the house drummer for the Arsenio Hall Show and later Quincy Jones’ late-night show Vibe. Her more recent musical projects pay tribute to jazz greats, including Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington.

AfterEllen.com: How did you first get involved with OutBeat?

Patricia Barber: My agent received a call. Would I like to be a part of this event? Yes!  

Jennifer Leitham: Mark Cristman from Ars Nova contacted me a couple of years ago, asking if I’d be interested in playing, and when it became official this year I was thrilled. Although I moved to Los Angeles in 1983, Philadelphia is still my hometown.

Patricia BarberPhoto of Patricia BARBERvia Getty

AE: For you, what’s the significance of an all-queer jazz event? 

PB: Putting jazz together with gay is an unusual pairing. Jazz remains a homophobic field, especially for men. It is good to bring everybody out, in jazz, in all fields of endeavor.  

Dena Rose: Not sure what the significance of an LGBT Jazz Festival is other than the fact that it shows that our “community” is represented in the community of the jazz world and that’s the main reason I am participating–educating. 

JL: Maybe I’m of a certain age, but in my honest opinion, labeling the festival as an “all-queer” jazz event is not a very good idea. To folks of my generation and also to a lot of jazz fans, the word is a derogatory term. The idea that your sexual preference or gender identity is the main reason for inclusion in a jazz festival is absurd to me. It should be about the music, and the world-class level of the talent, not genitalia or attraction. I didn’t sign on to be a “queer” artist in a “queers-only” festival. If it were called an LGBTQ jazz festival, I would be less offended. Calling attention to the exclusion of LGBTQ artists by most of the jazz world is a worthwhile thing. In my opinion, OutBeat is also calling attention to jazz artists who are out and open about themselves and thereby display great courage in trying to remove obstacles. 

But I think that labeling everyone as “queer” who is playing at the festival is a bit presumptuous. I don’t identify as queer. I doubt that most of the public is aware of what the word even means.

Teri Lynn Carrington: I operate from a place that supports freedom in all ways. I am doing the festival to show my solidarity with the LGBT community. Though I realize the term “queer” has been re-appropriated to not be derogatory, the term still does not resonate with me. But again, I believe in freedom and support any and all efforts to bring awareness to minority or oppressed communities. Personally, I don’t like boxes and am always encouraging others to step out the box, as I believe that is the key to discovery and advancement. This is how I am with my art, as well. I defy categories, yet accept them because I have not figured out how to live in a society without them. But honestly, I feel that that I am what I am at any particular moment and that will have to be sufficient. Duke Ellington once said that jazz means “freedom of expression.” and Wayne Shorter said jazz means “no category,” and Jack DeJohnette said it is “multi-directional.” I deeply agree with all of those things, as I am constantly looking at the challenge of merging life and music. These are the reasons I decided to participate. I also am not crazy about designated times to celebrate a certain type person–like Women’s History Month or Black History Month. These things should be celebrated all year, just as LGBT or queer or gay–or whatever one calls his or herself–artist. My bottom line is if this festival helps to break down any walls of homophobia, then I’m all about it.

Dena Rosedenarosevia Facebook

AE: How does your gender or sexual identity influence your own music?

PB: Sexuality is often the engine of my songs. If the songs are about love and loss (and most songs are) then sexuality plays an enormous part in that. Sexuality for me as a writer begins with the slightest longing and ends with a deadly Greek mythological type of obsessive passion. There is a full continuum; in between that is extremely interesting. Sexuality makes everything in the arena of love animated.

DR: Sexuality doesn’t influence my music whatsoever.

JL: I don’t really think about it. My identity has certainly affected my career. Since my transition, the level of pay and the volume of shows in the more prestigious venues has fallen off. Maybe some of the isolation has led me to a more diligent study and given me more time to compose. It has certainly inspired some of the lyric writing in my compositions.

TLC: I think music should be seductive, so your sexuality comes into play that way to me, not your sexual orientation. I tell my students to seduce me (musically) all the time. As this is a quality that I look for in music, that I enjoy listening to, and is a quality I try to bring forth in my own music, yet sometimes in an aggressive way. So I guess I try to make “aggressive seduction” a quality of my music and performances.

Teri Lynn Carringtonterrivia OutBeat website

AE: What’s it like being “out” in the jazz world?

PB: Truly for me, it hasn’t been an issue since very early on in my career when I was afraid to come out because the club owner might have wanted a “straight girl” singer to engage the men in the audience. When I told him I was gay, he thought that might work even better to engage the men, so while I didn’t expect that reaction, it worked just fine to let me be myself. After that, it’s never been an issue that I know of.  

DR: Being “out” in the jazz world hasn’t really influenced my career other than being able to be a part of an article on the subject a few years ago in Jazz Times Magazine, and to take part in this first-ever OutBeat jazz festival. I’m excited.

JL: It’s like anyone else, except that I’m transgender–most of the “jazz world” has turned their backs, but not all. I’ve been surprised by the ever increasing acceptance. I’ve never tried to hide anything, but I’ve also tried to stay off of the soapbox. I have kept my activism a bit more private. I let the music speak for me. I’ve become persona non grata compared to the level of gigs I was doing before, but the business has changed a lot also. The more people allow themselves to become familiar with me, the more they accept. I try and let the music be the first line of communication. I’m certain that a multitude of people who would have never thought about or been interested in the subject have become educated by me. Many of them have become staunch allies.

TLC: Again, I reject the traditional terminology. I was never in the closet, so I do not consider myself out of a closet. I am just who I am, always have been. I love people and do not put any limitations on who I love. Some people would call that bisexual, but honestly even that term sounds limiting or too categorized to fit me. The one thing I know is that the people I work with or work for do not seemed concerned about my sexual life. Neither do my fans or supporters. Throughout my career I have crossed boundaries in and out of jazz.

Jennifer Leithamjlvia Facebook

AE: What can we expect from you at the event? 

PB: I have a couple of actual “gay” songs I’ve written–“Narcissus” and “Devil’s Food.” We’ll perform those. But other than that, I’ll just be who I am and hopefully that will be enough.

DR: I’ll be performing songs from my new HighNote Records release, We Won’t Forget You: An Homage To Shirley Horn, with my trio of Matt Wilson on drums and Martin Wind on bass. The recording has been in the top 10 of the Jazzweek.com radio charts for the past four weeks.

JL: My trio is a force of nature. I’ve been blessed to have played for some of the very best jazz performers who came from a time when entertaining was as important as the musical content. We put on a show with passion, lots of variety and we never fail to swing hard. I am ecstatic to be bringing my trio from Los Angeles!

TLC: I am bringing two bands with two different repertoires. One is based on my CD, The Mosaic Project, featuring great female instrumentalist, and the other is based on my CD Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue, which celebrates the music of Duke Ellington and the classic recording he did with Charles Mingus and Max Roach.

For more information on the OutBeat Jazz Festival, visit outbeatjazzfestival.com.

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