Is there such a thing as gay jazz?
The short answer is no. But there has always been a gay presence in the jazz world, whether acknowledged or not.
“Just as jazz is a conversation about race and class, and it’s the great American art that tells so many stories through music, one of the stories it tells is the LGBT story,” said Chris Barlett, director of the William Way LBGT Community Center in Philadelphia.
“Billy Strayhorn is a terrific example of that,” said Bartlett of the legendary composer who wrote one of his signature songs, “Lush Life,” in the mid-1930s. “Most people would hear that song as a universal song about love, a universal song about the frustrations of life — and it is that. But it’s also the story of being a young, black, gay man.”
Bartlett said he could find no evidence anywhere of a jazz festival focused particularly on gay musicians. So, with funding from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, he coordinated at least five venues to host dozens of musicians from around the country to take part in OutBeat, being billed as America’s first gay jazz festival.
The musicians — all of whom identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender — include vocalist Andy Bey, pianist Fed Hersch and bandleader Patricia Barber. They’ll take part in 35 events, including concerts, talks, and forums.
Although jazz has been known to attract outliers and outlaws (“‘Round Midnight” is when “most good people are at home in bed,” noted Homer Jackson of the Philadelphia Jazz Project), the genre was not always welcoming to gays and lesbians. Strayhorn was perhaps able to do what he did because people such as Duke Ellington protected him. “Billy Strayhorn is my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head,” Ellington once said.
“Although jazz has been a very progressive force for decades — for 50 years now — the gay aspect of music-making, especially in the jazz context, has only recently been brought to the surface,” said Mark Christman, founder of the experimental music presenter Ars Nova Workshop and the booker of the festival.
The festival is set for Sept. 18 through 21. A fully detailed program of concerts is not yet available.