Can She Dig It

"Unearthing lost gems" often reinforces the gendered principles that have excluded women from cultural canons

No one worth possessing
Can be quite possessed.
—Sara Teasdale

MY former saxophone teacher offered me three scraps of advice: Drugs don’t help, men make it worse, and music makes it better. I should try drugs, he said, but nothing injected, and they would never help me play better. Second, as a girl, I should be wary of male musicians trying to take advantage of me. Finally, if I wanted to play well, I should diligently study the masters, in true jazz fashion.

Heeding the last bit, I spent months working through Charlie Parker transcriptions, inhabiting the sneaky contours of his solos. Soon I found my way to Miles Davis, whom I preferred to imitate because his sparse, elegant phrases made space to climb inside. I bought all his records, even the weird ones—On the Corner, Agharta. When I learned that both Bird and Miles had been womanizing heroin users, I let it slide, allowing my teacher’s third tenet to trump the other two. 

I play jazz, in part, because my saxophone teacher introduced me to jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan. He claimed that male instrumentalists he knew imitated her exquisite sense of phrasing, which made perfect sense to me—who but her had ever moved so freely in time? In reality, most men overlook her, but my teacher exaggerated Vaughan’s influence for my benefit, concocting a canon with room for me. He knew that I had not yet gathered the tools to disregard male approval altogether.

Around that time, my real-life liaisons with a musician were meticulous and exhausting, with each of us pouring over into the other’s bumbling sense of self. I memorized every lyric he had ever written, I gleefully promoted his music in my zine, and I bought his band’s records with money I’d earned pulling espresso shots and cleaning toilets, and prized them. I was convinced we were soulmates, maybe even equals. As it turned out, to him I was a groupie, a flower, a toy. Only later did I realize that he never even asked me which instrument I play, let alone why I play it.


AFTER one too many jam sessions at which I was regarded either as an ornament or a nuisance, I accepted that I would never cut it as a jazz saxophonist. I developed a coping mechanism in response. If I cannot create, I thought, then I will curate: I will construct canons myself.

The “jazz tradition,” though still appealing, seemed in need of serious revision. Digging through archives, I learned that jazz history is replete with gendered inequalities. In college, my friends worshipped Sun Ra, the psychedelic jazz musician who purported to be from Saturn. Sun Ra’s quirky space humor has helped entice one generation of hipster listeners after another, but I was hung up on something I’d read in historian Valerie Wilmer’s book As Serious as Your Life: Sun Ra had excluded Carla Bley, a pianist and composer in his circle, from his Jazz Composer’s Guild—a society Bley helped found. Citing sailor lore, Sun Ra claimed it was bad luck to bring a woman aboard the ship. Bley, meanwhile, had to beg Sun Ra’s label to record her.

Sun Ra is admired because he fabricates his cosmic origins with such conviction. By contrast, Bley’s origins are without myth; they are all too real. Born in Oakland, California, she moved to New York City and worked as a cigarette girl at the Blue Note, serving jazz musicians whom she tried, for years, to persuade to play her compositions. Eventually, she was recognized within the city’s avant-garde scene, collaborating with such musicians as Steve Lacy, Jack Bruce, and Charlie Haden and co-leading the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra. In 1971, she released her eclectic jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill.

The further I delved into jazz history, the more it became clear how thoroughly women have been written out of its dominant narrative. Their absence tends to be taken for granted, as in the way historians have interpreted the career of Billy Tipton, a swing-era musician and bandleader. Upon his death in 1992, it was discovered that Tipton was female-bodied, despite performing as a man. As Judith/Jack Halberstam notes in In a Queer Time and Place, Tipton’s choice to present as a man has often been characterized as a coping strategy to deal with female musicians’ lack of involvement in swing music. But as historian Sherrie Tucker has recently demonstrated, hundreds of all-women big bands were active in the 1930s and 1940s, hiding in plain sight. Assumptions made about Tipton’s inner life—the truth of which remains unknown to us—have worsened historical erasures rather than resolving them.

Whether joining dominant narratives or confounding them, musicians and historians alike have grappled with gendered injustice and amnesia by whatever means necessary. Guitarist Annie Clark, performing as St. Vincent, sometimes covers the Beatles’ song “Dig a Pony.” She turns Lennon’s cryptic, evasive lyrics back on themselves. “We can celebrate everything we see,” she sings, transforming the imperative pronoun you of the original lines into the inclusive we. Time and time again, Clark’s intervention is to expand our archives, making room for everyone—even those who have routinely effaced her.


FOR many listeners, jazz is synonymous with innovation. But the originality essential to the musical style is circumscribed by the rigid reproduction of jazz lore: familiar memories, stories, and standards of appreciation passed down like fossils. As a result of this emphasis on inheritance, critics have often used the fact that women and transgender musicians are missing from the historical record as proof of their supposed inability to properly understand the music.

When historical accounts don’t overlook women’s participation entirely, they frequently marginalize or minimize it, producing a feedback loop of invisibility and disregard. For example, in 1956, André Hodeir wrote in Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence, “To be understood, jazz seems to require a fresh, still unsatisfied sensibility, a kind of person who is overflowing with energy and searching for an outlet. …There is nothing surprising in the fact that young people of both sexes—but particularly boys rather than girls—have in a way made jazz their own.”

Participation, exactly what jazz history has made difficult for women, is often understood as a prerequisite for the truest type of jazz appreciation. “Digging isn’t just liking, it’s about getting involved,” writes Phil Ford in his erudite history Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture. He chronicles the emergence of digging as a practice of insider appreciation, stressing the importance of intimate engagement. But while women writers and musicians were abundantly present in the New York City jazz circles Ford traces, they are buried deep in his narrative’s endnotes.

Record collecting, as the foremost practice through which relics of jazz history circulate and accrue value, reinforces in material culture the gender-based misrepresentations of the culture at large. “I’ve been to record fairs where I’ve been the only woman in the room, which is a strange feeling,” said Rebecca Birmingham, one of few female collectors featured on the blog Dust and Grooves: Vinyl Music Culture. Though women have collected vinyl since the inception of the medium, female collectors, like the women musicians being collected, often lack representation in public space that is commensurate with their actual involvement.

Crate digging, through the thrifty celebration of happenstance, has the potential to undo such woeful neglect, allowing music lovers to stumble upon hidden luminaries they otherwise might have missed. A copy of Carla Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill, long omitted from “best-of” lists, might appear by chance in the discount box of a stoop sale; its cover, glistening in the sun, suddenly warrants being dug through sheer coincidence of place.

Some music hunters make such corrective collecting a deliberate goal. As collector Rich Medina said in Eilon Paz’s book of interviews Dust and Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting, “I guess filling holes always comes before anything else when I see a large stash of records. There’s something fulfilling about walking away from a long digging session with missing pieces of catalogs or genres.” This practice might seem to elevate historically marginalized musicians and connoisseurs alike, but obscurity itself remains defined within masculinized domains.

What constitutes a hole is already a gendered delineation. In the words of Will Straw, “To collect is to valorize the obscure, and yet such valorization increasingly stands revealed as dependent on the homosocial world of young men.” As Straw and many others have suggested, acquiring collections can be a way for men to harness power. The standards of connoisseurship, however accepting of the rare and hidden, cannot be separated from these gendered power relations.

The possibility of a full, attractive record shelf—the lure of a tidy whole—is premised upon the fiction of a stable canon in the first place. When collecting is seen as filling gaps, it equates completion with appreciation. Musical canons, in this milieu, are less meaningful sets of objects of aural delight than satisfying puzzles to be solved. To admit that there is no ideal discography and never was would threaten to leave the crate digger aimless, forced to concede that his hunt is not a matter of the objective historical archive but a kind of luxury consumption, which he uses to legitimize his pretenses to authority.

And yet, digging of both kinds—whether appreciating jazz or searching for jazz records—has always been enabled by the very gaps it claims to fill. Only by confining his collection within limits can the collector achieve the mastery he seeks. Logistical constraints, necessarily producing exclusions, make the collector’s mission possible. More often than not, these necessary omissions are rationalized and rendered acceptable through recourse to tacitly gendered norms.

Collector Sheila Burgel, featured in Dust and Grooves, elucidates these norms, characterizing record collecting as a boys’ club. “Quantity matters. So does rarity. And your knowledge about what you collect,” she said. She continued to collect on her own terms, resisting these norms: “What girl wants to bother with being held to such silly standards when we’re already judged on just about everything else in our lives?”

Women collectors who tend record shops have noted that men regularly challenge their knowledge of historical minutia, doubting a woman’s ability to appreciate appropriately. In August, when music critic Jessica Hopper invited women to share stories of marginalization within the music industry on Twitter, hundreds of female connoisseurs weighed in. One responder, @samorama, expressed what seems to be a common experience: “Working at a record store men ignore me & seek out other men to answer questions. Then they’re referred back to me.” Discussing an attempt to enter a music venue, @GIRLEMPOWER pointed out the dangers of restrictive borders of musical taste: “Was hassled/not allowed in until I ‘proved’ my knowledge of the scene/bands. Occasionally assaulted/groped once ‘allowed’ inside.”

Disparaged for lacking expertise that turns out to be a moot point, women interested in digging music often encounter this double bind. Women are pressured to inhabit male practices of appreciation, only to regularly be doubted and shamed for trying to impress men. Exemplifying such contradictory demands, another responder, @rebecca_faith, wrote, “If I said I liked certain bands, I wouldn’t be believed and I was apparently pretending to like the band for male attention.” Damned for what she does and doesn’t know, the female record collector embodies our struggle to possess knowledge, even as we are possessed by it.


DURING bouts of feminist ennui, I’ve considered burning all men’s work in a heap to the ground, destroying every folder, fragment, and file in retribution. Destroy all trace of him, I think on occasion, ejecting men and their impulse toward mastery. In the 1940s, they melted vinyl records down to puddles to gather shellac for the war. Just last month I fleetingly considered smashing my computer, mining my hard drive for its mineral contents, scraping the tantalum and coltan into vials with which to poison every man who has ever made me compromise.

In this spirit of dismissal, when my hard drive crashed last year, I didn’t mourn the loss of every MP3; I was grateful for the clean slate. These days, I build canons that aspire not to completion, nor thoroughness, nor exhaustion of any kind. Instead, I practice a mode of appreciation that eschews mastery and exclusive expertise, in favor of a collection that is expansive, anyway—one that moves freely in time, untethered to myths masquerading as authoritative fact.

When I lost my music, there were a few men I missed: Elliott Smith, his poetry praising our maker with the pronoun she. And Kind of Blue, which I wish I could carry with me wherever I go. Mostly for Cannonball Adderley’s saxophone solo on “All Blues,” which must be accessed regularly and felt in real time. Me, finding my own joy in his singing without a voice. If only I could keep them and not the rest.

My mother, an accountant, taught me material and emotional thrift—techniques of digging through bins and racks for latent treasures, hiding good deals at the bottom of the pile and returning for them later. When my investment in searching exceeded my returns, she taught me ways of saying goodbye too. “Time to let go,” she would say, of shoes, lovers, and false notions. Holding objects lightly, we welcome more.