[EVENT] Darmstadt Jazzforum 14: Gender & Identity in Jazz

By Nicolas Pillai

Located south of Frankfurt, Darmstadt is known as Germany’s “City of Science.” But it could just as easily be called the “City of Jazz.” Every two years, the city’s Jazzinstitut hosts an international conference that welcomes musicians, academics, journalists and interested townspeople for discussion and debate on the music’s ongoing place in society.

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This year the topic was “Gender & Identity,” a subject which attracted a variety of speakers and prompted lively argument. I had been invited to give the final paper of the conference and had chosen to speak on the Hollywood jazz film. Using Laura Mulvey’s theories of visual pleasure, my paper addressed the homosocial gaze in films about performing men. I wasn’t sure how this would go down; happily, the reactions from the audience were generous, effusive and intellectually informed – all characteristics of the conference as a whole.

Among a range of talented speakers, I was delighted to hear Katherine Williams’ reworked narrative of women in jazz, Joy Ellis and Adam Osmianski on women in the jazz jam and Sherrie Tucker on the problematic construction of ‘inclusivity’. These papers provided focused accounts of the challenges facing women within jazz performance and jazz education. Meanwhile, the masculine myths present in so many jazz histories were challenged by Christopher Dennison’s analysis of homosexual language in jazz anecdote, John Murph’s exploration of queerness in the work of Sun Ra and Christian Broecking’s triumphant celebration of Irène Schweizer.

Delegates were treated to warm German hospitality with a very fine meal and a brilliant jam session held in the cellar below the Institut. Meanwhile, I was excited to take a tour of the hunting lodge within which the archive is held and especially to browse the very impressive collection of jazz vinyl. An exhibition on the top floor tying into the conference gave a cohesion to the whole event and gave a glimpse into the wonderful resources held at the Jazzinstitut.

Proceedings for the conference will be published in the Darmstadt Studies in Jazz series, a volume I am looking forward to having on my bookshelf. I’m keen to return to many of the papers which I heard on this weekend but also to have a souvenir of one of the best-run and most productive conferences that I have attended. 

Conference programme available here