The Gendered Saxophone (excerpt)

The following excerpt is taken from a recent lecture presented at the World Saxophone Congress in Zagreb, Croatia, and is based on research for the PhD dissertation, "'Unacknowledged Ubiquity': the saxophone in popular music".  In the research, the various meanings that the saxophone represents in popular music and culture are explored, such as cool, kitsch, sensuality, nostalgia, and gendered identities.  This exploration is carried out through ethnographic and autoethnographic methods, i.e. I interviewed several professional saxophonists who perform and record in mainstream music styles and have included personal experiences and narratives as a complete member researcher of this social and professional world in order to paint a full picture of the saxophone in today's society.

“Women aren’t cool”

Women are notably left out of discussions of cool (as they relate to the saxophone) as well as music that is intended to be nostalgic, in some ways due to the fact that there were not that many female instrumentalists involved in jazz in its formative years.  We can’t be nostalgic for something that never happened.  As Dinerstein notes, cool was a masculine sensibility until at least the 1970s.  Before that, women were expected to assume their role in patriarchal society as wives and mothers, and didn’t have the time to sit around and cultivate an image of “ironic detachment.”

And while Dinerstein does make mention of a few jazz vocalists that were considered cool such as Billie Holiday in the pre-war years or Nina Simone in the 1970s, female rebelliousness and its resultant “cool” came in the form of rock and roll singers like Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde.  

A very interesting inclusion in a book entitled The Saxophone in Advertising by Eggert and Vockeroth is the discussion of a research project in which a psychological approach to preference for musical instruments and related personality traits was investigated. The researcher found that saxophone players are “lively, extroverted people who are usually well balanced and rather masculine in their self-perception⁠1” (Vogl, p. 44, 1993). 

It is important to briefly examine the saxophone’s predominantly masculine gendered identity.  The saxophone is sometimes perceived as an extension of the male musician’s virility; for this reason, whether perceived or substantiated, it has been difficult for female saxophonists to be taken seriously, even though several virtuosic female saxophonists were publicly active in the early days of the instrument’s history. 

Perhaps it is the seductive shape of the instrument that confuses people.  Serpentine and phallic, it brings to mind comparable concepts of gender identity associated with musical instruments such as the feminized hourglass shape of the violin or the frequent notion of the electric guitar “as a vehicle for phallic display” as Steve Waksman says (Waksman, 2003).  In Segell’s book Jean-Marie Londeix said, “The form, with its beautiful curves, is female.  But when viewed from the side, it could also be an erection.  Part of its appeal is that it’s never clear what it is…its ambiguous sexuality is very modern” (Segell, 2005).  Sexual ambiguity has always played well in the mass market; think about David Bowie, or the hair bands of the 1980s with their tight spandex pants.  

This is yet another possible reason for the pervasive popularity of the instrument. 

"You and I definitely don't fit the bill for what a saxophone player looks like. We will win any bar bet for what we do for a living!  I think that it's great that we are a part of changing the perception of what a saxophone player looks like, sounds like, feels like.  I think that there are a lot of women out there right now that have theirown sound, that have their own vibe, and are just as successful as the men in their respective career paths whether it's jazz or it's rock.  It's fun to watch it slowly but surely change.  And it's going to be slow.  It's interesting."

--Mindi Abair

In my personal experience, people do not expect me to be a saxophonist. Furthermore, they do not expect me to be an accomplished saxophonist.  All musicians are judged when they walk in a room to play, but typically expectations as to a woman’s skill on the instrument are very low.  We are continually proving ourselves.  

My theory is that because of these conscious or subconscious perceptions of the masculine nature of the instrument, people are confused by female saxophonists.  Is it sexy, is it masculine, is it a joke?  They don’t know.  I do believe, like Mindi, that this perception seems to be changing, however.

female saxophone.jpg

Jamiroquai Automaton Arena Tour

Saturday night, November 11, Chad, Derek and I went to the Antwerp Sportpaleis to hear Jamiroquai.  I've never seen them before and I was looking forward to the live experience.  Of course the funny thing is I used to listen to them A LOT, but that was many, many years ago!  They were so big in the 1990s with their album Traveling Without Moving  and their hit song and video "Virtual Insanity".  They (I should say "he", in reference to the main member and driving force of the band, Jay Kay) just released a new album, Automaton.  It has more EDM elements than previous albums, which I like, but it's still funky.  The thing that stood out to all three of us was this Kay's voice hasn't changed a bit.  He sounds like he did back in the 1990s!  His dancing wasn't great, and he has put on a few pounds since in the past twenty years, but who hasn't!  

Anyway, being Americans we were all surprised at how many people were at this show.  By that I mean the band was big in the States two decades ago, but not really anymore.  This is NOT SO in Europe!  They played the same venue where I saw Madonna, musical icon for the past three decades and one of the world's most successful musicians.  It's a huge arena and it was pretty packed!  Also, this might be the most animated crowd of Belgians I've experienced at a show since moving here.  When we saw Madonna the crowd was very reserved (it kind of pissed me off, actually).  HOW IS IT POSSIBLE TO NOT BE DANCING AT A MADONNA SHOW?!  Apparently they prefer their neo-funk, acid jazz, EDM jams over the dance pop of M.  

There were ten musicians onstage.  Jay Kay, a drummer, a percussionist, two keyboardists, guitar, bass, and three backup singers.  Surprisingly, we felt like there should be more, namely some horns (definitely saxophone).  Many of their songs would be enhanced by this addition, and as a matter of fact, several of their recordings do include horns.  There are several saxophone solos in their tracks. 

Lights! Lights! Lights!
There were seemingly thousands of lights on stage.  There are even lights on Jay Kay's hat/costume/helmet thing.  He's known for always wearing a hat, and this one is pretty damn cool.  It's mechanical, so it opens and closes.  It also must have LED lights or something similar all over it, because it changes colours.  It's a very cool effect.  It's so cool that it has become the symbol for the band.  Here it is in action:


This is the same outfit he was wearing at the show we saw in Antwerp. 

This is the same outfit he was wearing at the show we saw in Antwerp. 

Overall, this was an enjoyable show.  I wasn't overly familiar with their discography (just their second and third albums which were big in the U.S.) but it was funky enough that it didn't matter.  Jay Kay sounded amazing (great voice!), the background singers were excellent, and the light show was mesmerising.  I'm glad we went!



"Rap Disrupted Music First. Now It's TV and Film." The New York Times


"The history of popular music in this country is in lock step with the rest of the country’s history, from the slavery era until now. That’s why it’s so crucial to tell these stories faithfully and from these perspectives. “Straight Outta Compton” is a biopic, but also functions as cultural and political history. “The Get Down” is magical realism, but doubles as a lens onto how the government-abetted devastation of New York City created the space for raw cultural innovation. These aren’t just stories about sounds — they’re documents, biographical or fictional, of our struggles as a nation."

-Jon Caramanica


St. Vincent Fear the Future Tour at Ancienne Belgique, Brussels, Belgium 23 October 2017

Last night Derek, Chad, and I attended St. Vincent's show at Ancienne Belgique, which is a medium-size venue not far from the Grande Place in Brussels.  This was my first time at the venue.  It was similar in many ways to the Pageant in St. Louis, namely in size and type of shows hosted there.  Anyway, St. Vincent's new album was just released a few weeks ago so I was looking forward to hearing the new tracks, as well as hearing her live again.  This was my third time, the first being when she opened for the Black Keys years ago, and then when she did her own tour at the Pageant in St. Louis after the St. Vincent album was released.  

The most striking thing about her show is that it was just her-there were no supporting musicians.  She sang and played guitar live over previously recorded backgrounds which included heavy bass lines, background vocals, and strings.  On almost every song she performed she played a different guitar, and the colors of the guitars were coordinated with the overall color scheme of the show.  I'm kind of obsessed with her aesthetic choices and the amount of artful planning she puts in to her live performances.  It's so unique!  She's doing this overtly sexy, glamorous thing with the new album, which, at first thought, seems contradictory to her musical style which can at times be considered as punk or even noise rock.  However, the more I watched her at this gig the more I was enamored with the entire aesthetic.  There's also the feminist perspective to consider--in other words, she's a strong, creative female playing a historically hyper-masculine instrument, while dressed in a very sexy red patent leather bikini with puffy arm attachments.  If she had been performing in the 1980s, my formative years, I may have chosen to play the guitar instead of the saxophone!  What a vision.  I guess it takes someone like her to smash pre-conceived notions of gender norms, musical genre, and instrumental performance.  All I can say is thank god for artists like her.  

Back to the concert...the audience was smaller than we expected, but they were enthusiastic.  It seemed to be an almost equal male to female ratio.  They were all caucasian, and ranged in age from 20s to 50s.  The way her performance progressed really pulled the crowd into what she was doing.  She started out singing just with a microphone (no guitar) in one corner of the stage with just a tiny bit of the stage curtain pulled back, and as she went through several songs from Strange Mercy the curtain was pulled further back to reveal a mostly empty stage.  The only items on the stage were various vocal microphones that she moved to after each song was over.  By the second half of the show, there was a screen that played previously recorded scenes that featured her and several models.  The visual evolution of the show was very effective and kept the audience entertained throughout.  I know I loved it!  At one point people were chuckling while watching one of the videos that featured the models in all types of compromising positions.  

Attending a live show is such an adventure.  You never really know what you're in for, and the end result (for me, anyway) is usually a renewed interest in not only the featured artist, but music in general.  And now that I'm in the second year of the PhD in musicology, I couldn't help but think of the entire show through the ethnography lens.  I kept thinking, "how great would it be to interview St. Vincent"?!