OK, here it is: I hate to get dressed for a gig.
I should probably be more specific. I intensely dislike the process of getting the glamour on for a performance. The business of hair, make-up and fashion is bewildering to me. I’ve said it many times before; I find the feminine arts to be, well, stressful. This has been a lifelong difficulty for me. I’ve always been too big and clunky to fit into our cultural ideal of beauty. I have broad shoulders, a thick neck and a large frame. I got all this from my father who was a tall, stocky guy with huge hands. I’m quite strong and definitely physically fit. All the dance and yoga classes account for something. But I’m just not small or particularly delicate in features.
My aversion to the demands of feminine beauty started when I was a kid. My fashion-forward mother was chronically disappointed in me. She wanted a girly girl. She envisioned cute dresses, Mary Jane shoes and well-kempt hair with big ribbons. What she got was a feral tomboy who wore dusty boots and had to buy her clothes in the “husky” section. Mom didn’t even try to hide her embarrassment. Instead, she cajoled me to try this diet or that and to dress in navy blue because it was “more slimming.” But the harder she pushed, the more I resisted. As ridiculous as it is to admit, this push and pull continues to this day, although I don’t really see her very often. I can say that I’ve definitely developed my own sense of style over the years; think men’s button down shirts, blue jeans, Fat Baby boots and cat-eyed glasses. It works for me. It just doesn’t exactly align with the mainstream definition of fashion.
There is an onus on female jazz vocalists to have a certain va, va, va voom quality. It’s not enough to just sing well; we must possess some measure of physical allure, which often involves a sleeveless gown, a plunging neckline, impeccable hair and make-up, perfectly manicured nails and dazzling accessories. This look typically does not include tattoos, disheveled hair or extra pounds. It’s hard to pull off. Evening gowns are especially problematic for me. If I choose the wrong style, I basically look like a drag queen. I am envious of my male colleagues. How I long to throw on a jacket and a pair of slacks and call it done.
The gender inequality and attendant unfairness go without saying. I work very hard on my music. For example, over the course of the summer and fall, I’ve been focused on expanding my scat vocabulary. This has meant hours of practice and rote repetition of various vocal exercises. (This week it’s been long eighth note runs, accenting the upbeats.) I’m also busting tail to pull together a bunch of holiday music for some upcoming December gigs. It’s plenty to do, believe me. But I also have to devote some of my brain space and energy into what I’m going to wear on my gigs, if I have a nice enough dress for the Christmas casual, what I’m going to do about getting my hair cut, blah, blah, blah. As loathe as I am to think about these things, I know that in some situations, I will be dismissed or lose the gig altogether if I don’t have “the look.” I don’t figure male jazz musicians have this same pressure. I often think about Ella Fitzgerald. What would it be like if she were coming up the ranks today? Could her singing stand on its own merit? Or would she be judged on and perhaps limited by her physical appearance? Please let me qualify that I think Ella Fitzgerald was a beautiful woman and, obviously, a brilliant jazz vocalist. I’m not questioning her abilities or beauty at all. Instead, I’m questioning a contemporary culture that would potentially limit a woman’s opportunities based on an inflexible standard around how she should look.
Before I go any further, I would like to attach a proviso to this post. When the situation dictates, I can mostly definitely pull it together and play dress up with the best of them. If you’re thinking of hiring me for your daughter’s wedding or your company’s New Year’s Eve soiree, you can rest assured that I’ll bring the glitz. And if there is any question, I have an amazing support team. I’m not a complete disaster by any stretch of the imagination. I’m just saying this stuff doesn’t come naturally to me.
I know that my disdain for the glam aspect of vocal jazz is probably on the extreme end of the spectrum. I imagine that most of my fellow female vocalists would also prefer to focus on their craft but probably don’t stress as much as I do about the style thing. It’s all in a day’s work. And of course, there are some vocalists out there who live for thrill of dressing up for a gig, sometimes to the detriment of the music. Those ladies are sitting at the opposite end of the spectrum from me.
On Friday night, I am performing a concert as part of the new Valley Vibes jazz series in Columbia City. My trio has the honor of opening for the iconic Legacy Band led by the mighty Clarence Acox. I’m excited about the show. I’ve been pulling my music together. I think I’m going to craft my set around some of my favorite lyricists. I’ve rehearsed with Randy. I’ve been diligently running through my vocal exercises every afternoon. I’ve promoted the concert to my peeps. Everything is coming together.
But I still have no clue what I’m going to wear. God help me.
As always, the comments are open. I would love to hear from anyone but especially from some of my fellow female vocalists. How does all this sit with you?