On the one hand, one of the most important jazz composers lived very openly with a man at a time when everything spoke against it. On the other hand, Billy Strayhorn has always worked in the background, in Duke Ellington’s shadow. He was “the invisible man”: He seldom stepped into the limelight where things could have gotten tricky for a slight gay black intellectual.
In its history, jazz has taken on many struggles, crossed many borders and plumbed the depths – but the fight for the rights of queer people was not among them. But there was. There have always been gay men, lesbian women and trans people in jazz. Some made their preferences openly the subject, others left it at hints, many withdrew in the face of a jazz world whose stars in a culture of racist exclusion all too often remained the refuge in macho clichés.
There is no “queer jazz” and there never was a movement, a self-understanding of all those queer people in jazz: “There is no real bracket that connects me with any other gay musicians”, the pianist Fred Hersch is sure of that, who made his homosexuality a very political issue in the ’90s. Which is why this series is primarily concerned with the question of how gays, lesbians and trans people encountered further exclusion in jazz, how the private voluntarily or involuntarily became art after all.
Fred Hersch is involved in many projects for people suffering from AIDS. Proceeds from four of his albums have already been used to support various organisations.
In the Harlem of the 1920s, this little journey begins with women who took radical liberties. It follows big band leader and trans man Billy Tipton, who spent a lifetime walking a tightrope to distract himself from his identity in the middle of the limelight. The journey takes you via jazz bohemians like Billy Strayhorn and Ralph Burns to the 80s and 90s, when greats like Gary Burton, Andy Bey, Cecil Taylor and Fred Hersch came out. And it ends with artists like Patricia Barber and Terri Lyne Carrington, who see their identity as political.
Today, Fred Hersch is certain, none of that matters anymore. Instrumental music is just instrumental music, no matter who is playing it: “At this point in the story, one’s own identity is definitely not an issue anymore. Maybe I helped a little bit to make that possible”.