I’m often asked wht I don’t perform music publicly. I generally give the shortest answer I can in that moment. Something akin to “I lived out of town for a number of years, and I’m working on getting to know the community again.” Which is true. But it’s not the truth. The truth is more complicated.
I was homeschooled from kindergarten through high school graduation. In the 1980’s and 90’s there was very little opportunity for budding musicians to perform with others, especially im the rural Midwest where i was raised.The vast majority of my time as a musician was practicing, and since I had the luxury of time, I was able to practice 3 or more hours a day. Alone. Oh, and i had never heard of jazz besides a lecture in a piano camp when I was 17.
I went to college and almost immediately infiltrated the jazz band. I wasn’t a member; I was in choir, but as it often happens in school, those groups of musicians segregated themselves. After a semester I was asked to join the big band, later a jazz combo. By then, there was only one other female in the big band (killer bari sax player and flautist), and she graduated that semester, leaving me the only female. I was cool with it at first; I only even notice the lack of females in retrospect. But I received virtually no help from professors, and was mostly talked to in a “we’ll, you’re a girl so you can’t play jazz” kind of way. That phrase was spoken directly to me about me on more than one occasion, by more than one professor. The only feedback I ever received was “good job”. I was eager, willing and able to learn and perform, but with no constructive feedback I remained stagnant in my learning and performing of jazz. I continued to study on my own, but until I worked with one specific professor, William Lenihan at Washington University in St. Louis, my jazz education was primarily in my own hands.
My personal life during this time became a giant factor. I was married to a drummer, and almost all my musician contacts were through him. When we divorced, I lost those contacts. I was already wary of making new contacts due to my gross lack of experience doing so, and being an unmarried female made that task immensely difficult. That’s where the sexism shifts. The players I met would be all encouraging and positive and helpful, but their female life partners would get jealous and possessive, and having dealt with enough of that in my life, I wasn’t willing to go through the discrimination of other women towards me. I attempted to be part of a trio comprised of women, but guess what? No one wanted to hire a group of female jazz players. So that fizzled to nothing. And again, I worked alone.
Then the “I live out of town for a while” part of my life happened. I lived in the suburbs, 45 minutes or so from any performance opportunity. No big deal, really. But I was already isolated. I already knew no bass players or drummers to work with. I was working three part-time musician jobs to make ends meet for me and my new (and unemployed) husband. I was more wary of meeting and working with new people. Oh, and the jazz school I went to and quit never bothered to teach me HOW to meet new people and get gigs; they were too busy not teaching me how to improve as a jazz musician.
Then I divorced again and moved back to the city. I’m still teaching, which I love to pieces. I tried for a while to meet new musicians to play with. But my issue now is that I’ve spent 20 years practicing and improving, so my standards are incredibly high, and all the musicians with whom I could potentially ask to perform are excellent players, all with regular gigs and side projects of their own. Beyond that, there’s an additional wariness due to the fact that I’ve NEVER made a habit of performing live, leaving me with no references. So again, I’m alone.
I realize it’s never with negative intention, but when people ask me if I’m playing anywhere, and my answer can only be “at home”, it makes me feel like I’m not good enough. Like there’s something wrong with the way in which I am a musician and artist. Because I practice an art that is best displayed in a group, or at least a duo. And because I received virtually no formal training, I feel like I don’t know enough and that what I taught myself is somehow “wrong”, even though there’s no such thing as wrong in improv.
Unless my life or personality drastically changes, this will likely be the continuing pattern. It does not make me sad; merely a moderate regret. I like being alone. I like playing alone. Being a musician isn’t for anyone but me.
But maybe only because it has always been that way.