More Gender Musing at Medium

I think Chimamanda is right.  We all *should* be feminists; privilege is a real thing but so too is the burden of maintaining privilege.  So I keep writing.  The message on Aly Raisman’s body is that a woman shouldn’t have to be modest to be respected.  I agree and wrote about it.

Here’s the link. Applause or disagreeing and disdainful commentary is welcome.

This is what it looks like.

What We’re Still Not Getting About #metoo

A lot of times, I start writing a piece then I abandon it. Usually it’s because life’s complications push it out of my primary focus until the issue has lost its currency. But sometimes a point just sticks in my craw and the piece won’t let go of me. So, forgive me I’m late in addressing the peg for this story, but I think the point is still relevant. Perhaps more so.

Simply put, there’s a lot to the #metoo movement that people, well yeah, mostly men, are either willfully oblivious about or need the point hammered home to them. I was feeling like a handyman a couple of months ago, so I’ll don the overalls again now.

Two months ago, I started writing because I was outraged by the response in some circles to Aly Raisman posing nude for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. The outrage wasn’t the usual prudishness, it was because she had been one of 150 women who bravely testified against Larry Nassar, who was convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault for molesting girls when he was the team doctor for USA Gymnastics. In addition, she went on 60 Minutes to tell her story. Yet the near universal acclaim she received for those activities was almost entirely undercut by the reception she received for appearing in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.

SI has long recognized that smart, accomplished women like to look good in swimsuits, and probably close to half the famed issue is now devoted to photographs of women celebrating their physical self- confidence rather than models being objectified to accommodate male fantasies.

Given the capriciously high standards of beauty that women are subjected to, I’m inclined to think that any woman, who likes the way she looks in bikini deserves a high five, a bottle of their favorite wine or some such. But that’s beside the point. Sexual harassment isn’t actually about sex! That’s the point. It’s about power and the intimation of rape. The acts of sexual harassment closely mirror those of rape. They are attacks of the sovereignty of a woman’s body by an outsider with no right to that access. It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference if they were motivated by lust or by thoughts of chocolate mousse. The act is wrong and usually, preferably always, criminal. It is intolerable in a just society.

Aly Raisman in Sports Illustrated spells it out for you.

To equate Raisman’s appearance in the magazine with the culture that facilitates or even excuses this behavior illustrates (sorry!) that we just aren’t getting the gender politics in 2018. This silly association, the worst sort of false equivalency, is on the same low level that blamed women in miniskirts for rape. If every woman in New York City decided on some warm day to dress in their sexiest, most revealing outfit, or forego clothing altogether, the only agenda for Gotham men is to develop a respectful response and keep their eyes on the road. Lust can be a great motivator; it isn’t an excuse for disrespectful, antisocial and illegal behavior.

The disapproval that Raisman received also obscures the fact that her posing was entirely consistent with the boldness and courage that she demonstrated in testifying against and speaking out publicly against Nasar. She posed nude, not to please men but to celebrate her independence and the ownership of her body. Lots of women are doing just that. They show up in my Instagram feed following the examples of Nude Yoga Girl, Rhyanna Watson and others. They show up at Burning Man, New York City Body Painting Day and the World Nude Bike Rides. It’s become a vital way of embracing the glass as half or three quarters or whatever full and it flips the bird to a culture that screams at women that the glass is really ten percent empty.

I used to think that as a society we had at least learned to respect women in pantsuits, but the 2016 election has persuaded me otherwise. It isn’t optional. Whether she’s fully dressed or completely undressed society has to find a way to respect women and their own prerogatives. It really isn’t optional; the survival of the species depends on it.


Martin Johnson is a freelance writer whose work on music, sports and culture has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Newsday, New York, Vogue, Rolling Stone, The Root, Slate, The Atlantic, and numerous other publications and websites. He also blogs at Rotations, and he can be contacted at



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At WSJ on Sara Serpa’s Stunning “Close Up”

Close Up’ Review: Breaking New Ground

Songs on Sara Serpa’s new album draw on the works of Virginia Woolf and other writers.

Sara Serpa

Since her arrival on the New York jazz scene 10 years ago, vocalist and composer Sara Serpa has blazed her own path. Although she can sing compelling versions of standards with conventional backing, she is more likely to create groups where her voice, often singing wordlessly, is at equal standing with other instruments in the ensemble. Her compositions are unique, lithe and often based on classic literature, among them works by John Steinbeck, Herman Melville and Herodotus. She has released eight recordings; her style expands the range of jazz vocals.

“Close Up” (Clean Feed), her ninth, comes out on Friday, and it continues to break new ground. Some of the nine songs on the recording have literary antecedents. In the liner notes, Ms. Serpa cites writings by Virginia Woolf, poet and essayist Ruy Belo and philosopher Luce Irigaray as inspiration, and the title track reflects the deep impression made on her by Abbas Kiarostami’s 1990 film “Close Up,” particularly the fluid identities of the movie’s characters.

The music is spare and entrancing. Ms. Serpa leads a trio where she’s joined by two virtuosos, cellist Erik Friedlander and saxophonist/flutist Ingrid Laubrock. The ease and grace with which the members move between rhythmic and lead roles underscore that this is no academic exercise in abstraction. Ms. Serpa’s compositions usually follow easily recognizable song forms, often with narrative flow even if they mostly lack words. It’s delicate music played so confidently that the results are often enchanting. The interactions often work so well that I think of dancers moving to the music in varying duos and trios.

The 41-minute recording opens with “Object,” which begins with Ms. Serpa’s fluttering vocals and Mr. Friedlander’s cello. The short staccato lines of the cello contrast beautifully with Ms. Serpa’s high-pitched voice. Then Ms. Laubrock’s flute enters, curlicuing lines around her bandmates as Ms. Serpa reaches a repeating motif before they reach a resolution. Then Ms. Serpa solos over Mr. Friedlander’s plucked lines before the band repeats the theme from earlier in the song. “The Future,” based on an entry titled “Future” from “The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 1: 1915-1919,” also starts with a Serpa-Friedlander duet, her gentle chants contrasting with his long, agile lines. Then Mr. Friedlander shifts to pizzicato and Ms. Serpa sings the title repeatedly, varying her intonations and accents as Ms. Laubrock plays gentile unisons and accenting lines.

Ms. Serpa, who is 39 years old, was born and raised in Lisbon, where she studied piano and classical singing at the Lisbon National Conservatory. She moved to the U.S. in 2005 and enrolled at the Berklee College of Music, followed by graduate work at the New England Conservatory of Music. She has sung with pianists Danilo Perez and Ran Blake and collaborated with Guillermo Klein, Nicole Mitchell, Tyshawn Sorey, John Zorn and many others.

Voice as a textural element has been a growing trend in jazz for several years. Important composers and bandleaders like Steve Coleman, Ryan Keberle, Maria Schneider and Jen Shyu employ vocals in unique ways, but usually in large or midsize ensembles. Ms. Serpa’s triumph is to bring this ambitious approach to an intimate setting. Even without words she conveys the emotion of her innovative music, and that should broaden its appeal to fans of many different genres.

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At WSJ on Elise LeGrow’s Playing Chess

‘Playing Chess’ by Elise LeGrow Review: Old Made New

The singer reinvents many of the classics from the Chess Records catalog on her new album.

Elise LeGrow's new album is ‘Playing Chess’
Elise LeGrow’s new album is ‘Playing Chess’ PHOTO: SHERVIN LAINEZ

During the past quarter-century or so, soul revivals have happened so consistently that it’s fair to wonder if the sonic deities have a schedule. In the early ’90s, singers like Lisa Stansfield, Mica Paris and Carleen Anderson scaled the charts. During the late ’90s, Americans like Maxwell, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo infused contemporary R&B with a healthy dose of classic lyricism and soulful melody. Popular music of the early years of the 21st century was highlighted by the work of Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones, Joss Stone and Amy Winehouse ; they kept the flame burning for vintage grit, funk and depth. Lately, there has been another revival sparked by the diligent efforts of Michael Kiwanuka, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, and Leon Bridges.

Toronto-based Elise LeGrow follows in their footsteps with her latest recording, “Playing Chess” (S-Curve), but the 30-year-old singer takes a different direction. Rather than faithfully cover classics from the Chess Records catalog, she successfully reinvents many of them. It’s an ambitious and vitally important endeavor; fortunately, she scores more than she misses on the 11-track, 35-minute recording.

Ms. LeGrow announces her intentions right away. On the first track, Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” her band—rather than adopting the giddy uptempo pace of the original or George Thorogood’s cover—takes it slower and funkier, with snarling guitar riffs rippling along the bassline. The backing heightens the comical bluster of Ms. LeGrow’s first couplet, “I walk 47 miles of barbed wire / I use a cobra snake as a necktie.” She sings in a low alto that makes the demand of the title compelling and augments the groovy strut of her musicians.

“Rescue Me,” the 1965 hit for Fontella Bass, is also effectively reinvented with a slower tempo, which makes this tune sultrier. As in the original—where Bass’s phrasing runs behind the beat as if she’s chasing both it and a lover —Ms. LeGrow lurks behind the beat. But she uses the space to change the narrative. Grit rises in her voice as she sings “I’m lonely and I’m blue,” and there’s a pregnant pause before she continues “I need you.” Then her lyrics grow breathier with each successive chorus. She hasn’t just covered the song, but redramatized it. This approach also works well with “Over the Mountain, Across the Sea,” the Rex Garvin song that was a hit for Johnnie and Joe in 1957, and for Chuck Berry’s frequently covered “You Never Can Tell.”

In some cases where her renditions are faithful to the original, as on “Searching for My Love,” it feels restorative, in contrast to Huey Lewis and News’s muscular take on that 1966 hit. On other tracks, such as “Can’t Shake It,” a song penned by Ed Townsend and recorded by Etta James, Ms. LeGrow stays too close to the first version, inviting a comparison that dooms almost every singer.

Tackling classic, cherished repertoire is a good approach for Ms. LeGrow. Her voice has depth and graininess, and she sings with a clear grasp of the lyrics. On her YouTube page there’s a stunning performance of Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Backed only by a guitarist, she turns the lament into a smoldering 3 1/2 minutes of yearning, pain and hope.

Ms. LeGrow is establishing a niche by interpreting songs that are many decades old. It would be valuable to hear her takes on more contemporary material. She has the talent to give them broader range and richer meaning.

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Max Roach and Sarah Vaughan

There are a lot of reasons that I began writing professionally 34 years ago, and I’m still writing today.  A lot of those reasons are things that happened early in my career.  I found great mentors.  My friends and family were and still are very supportive.  And in the case of writing about jazz, many legends of the music embraced me like I was family.  Here are two examples.

Baseball Is the Secret to Max Roach’s Success

When Sarah Vaughan Interviewed Me

Max Roach by Ozier Muhammed

View story at

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The Gender Pieces at Medium

I set up this blog to be an archive of my published work, but during the last year or so, I’ve been cheating on it.  I took an account at Medium and began using it to publish pieces that were a tad more memoirish and focused on gender.  Put simply, I grew up around lots and lots of strong women (my Mom, my sister, many cousins, my maternal grandmother, many friends, many of my sister’s friends, etc.), so it took me a long, long time to understand why society normalized the concept that feminine means weak.  Now, that we’re undoing that foolish notion, I think we need to re-form masculinity.  It can’t be the opposite of feminine, and it can’t be “hard.”  Hard isn’t always adaptable.  I like to tell young people that the dinosaurs were hard and where are they today?

Anyway, these two pieces were my big hits and since this blog is on my business card and Medium isn’t.  I thought I’d post them here.

This one is on lust.


And this one is on athletic clothing

I think they are good, and happily they went viral.  The goal is to do more writing like this in the future.

View story at

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At Timeline on Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland at 50

One of the reasons I love writing about music is that it forces me to live inside the music for a while and allow the music to live inside of me.  I’m constantly curious about who I am now and what today’s music says to me, which is why I mostly cover the new stuff, but this project was fun.  I first heard Electric Ladyland 39 years ago and was able to parse what it meant to me then as well as what it means to me now in the context of evaluating its overall impact, which I think is as powerful today as it was in 1968.

Have a read!

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At WSJ on Kris Davis and Craig Taborn’s Octopus

‘Octopus’ by Craig Taborn and Kris Davis Review: Diving for Deep Listening

Live recordings of the jazz piano duet offer insights into the roots of the players’ technique.

‘Octopus’ is the new album from jazz pianists Craig Taborn and Kris Davis
‘Octopus’ is the new album from jazz pianists Craig Taborn and Kris Davis PHOTO: PETER GANNUSHKIN

Piano duet recordings are rare in jazz compared with trios or solos, yet they offer huge rewards. A duet of artists with contrasting styles—say, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock or Cecil Taylor and Mary Lou Williams —enables listeners to find surprising common ground between the performers and appreciate the idiosyncracies more. Duets pairing pianists with similar approaches—as on the albums featuring Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan or the one with Muhal Richard Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers —offer insights into the roots of their technique and often take listeners into unexpected sonic territory. The latter is the case with “Octopus” (Pyroclastic, out Friday), a splendid document of live recordings featuring pianists Kris Davis and Craig Taborn.

With their lean, restrained and abstract music, both Ms. Davis and Mr. Taborn often remind me of the painter Paul Klee in their embrace of the modern trends that recently preceded them. In addition, their style is bright but not sunny, like the flavor of a Sancerre. “Octopus” consists of two compositions by Ms. Davis, three by Mr. Taborn, and two covers—the Carla Bley jazz standard “Sing Me Softly of the Blues” and Sun Ra’s “Love in Outer Space.” The recording opens with Mr. Taborn’s “Interruptions One,” a spare, lyrical piece in which both pianists skillfully interact with silences as capably as they do with each other. The proceedings heat up a little on Ms. Davis’s “Ossining,” which is named for the town in the Hudson Valley, a region where she and many other musicians now live. The pace quickens and each pianist layers cluster over cluster, with Ms Davis playing prepared piano in parts to exhilarating effect. Their reserve gives Ms Bley’s composition a wistful air; they find a soulful edge with the music of Sun Ra.

“Octopus” is compiled from concerts in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Columbus, Ohio; and San Diego, when the duo toured following the Ms. Davis’s 2016 album, “Duopoly” (Pyroclastic), which featured duets with Mr. Taborn and such other jazz luminaries as guitarist Bill Frisell, clarinetist Don Byron and saxophonist Tim Berne. One stop on the tour, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, can be found on YouTube, and the variance is instructive. There are elements of the compositions found on Octopus, but many are taken in substantially different directions. Both pianists are restless improvisers with enormous arsenals of ideas.

Mr. Taborn, who is 47 years old, has had notable sideman gigs with saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Chris Potter as well as bassist Chris Lightcap, but his recent work as a leader on three recordings for ECM has solidified his reputation as one of the leading pianists in jazz. Ms. Davis, who is 38, has been a standout in bands led by bassist Michael Formanek, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and others; she leads the acclaimed quintet Capricorn Rising and several other bands. She will perform nightly in various configurations at The Stone in New York from Jan. 23-28.

Ms. Davis and Mr. Taborn, as well as many of their contemporaries, are elevating jazz beyond the limiting continuum of accessibility and abstraction. Long rhythmically intense stretches of “Octopus” are easy to grasp, yet so too are the austere sections. It’s music that is defining its own terms rather than shoehorning itself into categories like tradition and avant garde. The audience gets it; the enthusiastic ovations that punctuate the recording border on ecstatic.

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