JazzTimes: Where are the female jazz critics?

By Nate Chinen

Willis_Out coverIf you’re familiar with the Irving Berlin chestnut “I Got Lost in His Arms,” you probably know it from the musical Annie Get Your Gun. Maybe you’ve heard it mangled by a high-school glee club or finessed by someone like Julie London. Or, esteemed JazzTimes reader, perhaps you’ve heard the version evenly crooned by Gretchen Parlato on Terri Lyne Carrington’s new album, The Mosaic Project (Concord Jazz), in a style Berlin could never have envisioned. Like much of the album, it’s terse and self-assured; like the album’s entirety, it’s the product of an all-female personnel. ...

These issues were recently thrown into high contrast for me by the publication of Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (Univ. of Minnesota Press). Willis, who died five years ago at 64, was the New Yorker’s first pop critic, a writer of resolute conviction. Her anthology, long overdue, puts to rest the notion that a female critic has to compromise, masking her gender or softening her authority.

One essay in the book about Creedence Clearwater Revival opens with the image of Willis dancing alone in her room to the band’s recordings—a fan’s indulgence—before locking in on some sharp critique. She seems as surprised as anyone when she compares CCR’s John Fogerty favorably to both Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. “Jagger’s male power trip is alienating,” she writes, “and the fact that he obviously doesn’t take it all seriously only makes it worse; at some point I discovered in myself an unsuspected frustrated need to know that there was a human being under all those layers of irony.”

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