How does gender affect your music? Katharine Cartwright



Photo by David Coulter

Yes, I would say that gender has played a part in shaping my work as an artist in general, and my writing and arranging in particular. Gender roles were a curiosity even when I was a little girl. A line of feminist women in my father’s family, artists, and gardeners, had taken male names. My great-grandmother called herself “David” (“Granny Boy” to her grandchildren) and named her own daughter—my grandmother—”Carroll,” spelled the male way. I found this fascinating, daring, and romantic. To me they were like spies, secret agent women in a masculine world. And as a kid, I learned to read upside-down, in a manner of speaking. With books like Catcher in the Rye and all the rest, where the main protagonists were boys, I just read them as if the heroes were girls, flipping all the gender roles in my mind. In retrospect, I think Mary Martin‘s Peter Pan also gave me the idea to do this. The habit stayed with me, transmogrifying in various ways.

As a matter of course, I tweak the lyrics to songs in the standard repertoire to reverse the gender. I try to be subtle about it most of the time, priding myself on a notion that most people would find it all very natural and wouldn’t notice a thing. In “Have You Met Miss Jones,” boy-meets-girl becomes girl-meets-boy, as “he” says: ‘Miss Jones, I’m a man who understands you’re a girl who must be free’” (instead of “you’re a girl who understands I’m a man who must be free”). I enjoy being sort of devilish in this one, teasing him, still having him call her a “girl,” even as he tries to show his raised consciousness by acknowledging that she might want to remain unfettered. It gives me a perspective on the lyric that I can relate to, some nuance, some ambiguity. On other tunes, a lyric tweak will just be to make the roles more equal, rather than reversed. In “Alone Together,” I say “we’re not too proud to see, together, we’re strong as long as we are free together.” Clinging together doesn’t make us strong. It’s seeing that we can be separate and yet bonded that gives the relationship strength. I do this to so many songs, I can’t begin to count. I wouldn’t be able to sing a lot of the great standards if I didn’t, and I really love singing them. I’m not the only one who does it. Nancy King‘s “Mountain Greenery” (on her Impending Bloom album) is a great example. I love it when she sings, obvious grin on her face: “And if you’re good, I’ll search for wood, so you can cook, while I stand looking.”

In my own pieces, gender comes into play in a variety of ways. I wouldn’t say that I necessarily set out consciously to go against type or tap into archetypes, but once the opportunity presents itself, I’ll often take it on. My “Walrus” piece (on the Soulmates album) is told in the voice of siren, taunting this big fat male animal to leave the security of his safe shore, where he scavenges old cigars and fish-heads thrown by dockworkers. She beckons him to fish with the mermaids in the deep uncharted female ocean. It’s not meant to be a morality narrative exactly, but some feminine imagery and perhaps the suggestion that it might not be so dangerous in that woman-underworld after all.

Most recently, I did some sex-shifting in a couple of Ferlinghetti‘s poems in composing for a project entitled A Mumbai of the Mind (co-composed with Richard Oppenheim, all settings of Ferlinghetti poems). I had to screw up my courage to tell Ferlinghetti what I’d done to his “Poet Like an Acrobat” piece. The poem grabbed me because it describes so beautifully the high-wire act of creative expression, particularly for singers, who work without the “net” provided by a physical instrument apart from the human body. But I just had to change the gender. Ferlinghetti was very gracious about it, but at first he was concerned about what I’d do with the image of “beauty,” who stands waiting in the center of the poem, as the poet takes a death-defying leap to approach her. My response was simple: beauty is a man. He was satisfied with this, but it’s striking that it didn’t occur to him at first. You really don’t find too many poems or lyrics where “beauty” is a man. It was a pearl, I think. The poem is amazing.

The role of singer is so strongly gendered, that it sometimes reads as “woman” as much as “voice,” especially in jazz. In a recent project of John Cage‘s compositions (La Faute de la Musique), it was fun to stand the usual roles on their head a little. The score to the recording’s title track “La Faute de la Musique,” for instance, is just text with graphic alterations. My arrangement had the instrumentalists all “singing” the words with their instruments; even Bill Goodwin‘s drums “sang” the lyric. They did it beautifully, and in varied ways, sometimes melismatic, sometimes syllabic. For me, working in a context where instruments functioned as interpreters of text was a gender-bending experience.

Sometimes lyrics have nothing to do with it. I used the old seditious bebop move of writing a new line on an old set of changes in writing “Twin Sisters.” The A-sections are just a new melody with essentially the same melodic rhythm as “Four Brothers”; the bridge is a bit different. It allowed me to find a comfortable aesthetic space vis-‡-vis the composition, even though it’s just a scat piece.

In the jazz profession, I’m constantly reminded that I’m a woman and a singer, for better or worse. It’s certainly not the only thing, nor is it the most important thing. It’s simply there. It can be fun, or it can be a drag. So, in my art, I try to have some fun with it. A lot of us do, I think, as a matter of sanity and survival.