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.

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