J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

ADIFF ’12: T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness

Every six or eight months or so, one of the major jazz magazines runs a story about how difficult it is for jazz artists to come out of the closet.  The usual suspects are duly interviewed and everyone bemoans the lingering uber-machismo inherited from big band era.  Yet, many of the true pioneering women of the blues, almost all of whom have significant jazz crossover appeal, were evidently either bisexuals or lesbians.  Robert Philipson explores their largely unknown but not necessarily secret sexual identities in T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s (trailer here), which screens as a selection of the 2012 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith could be bawdy yet sophisticated performers.  They were also bisexual.  As one of Philipson’s interview subjects explains, as blues singers, they were automatically marginalized by the Church-centered mainstream African American society of time.  Ironically, this was somewhat liberating in an in-for-a-penny kind of way.  As a result, Rainey and Smith carried on rather openly with lovers of all varieties, while they maintained their careers and straight public images—for the most part.  The same was true for Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter, who were not really closeted or open lesbians, but something in between.  In contrast, patrons would have to be pretty dense to miss the significance of Gladys Bentley’s defiantly lesbian nightclub act.

If you adjust for inflation, Rainey, Smith, and Waters are among the biggest recording acts frankly ever.  It is quite extraordinary how such a significant aspect of their lives has been so widely overlooked. Yet, Philipson never overstates matters.  At one point Bizness’s narrator argues it was not their sexual identity that made Rainey and company such great artists, but it was an important part of who they were as people.

Philipson also makes some shrewd musical selections, ranging from “hmm, that’s an interesting double entendre” to “gee, how could anyone not pick up on that?”  However, viewers familiar with Waters’ long association with the Billy Graham Crusade in her later years will wonder how these two halves of her persona fit together.  Yet, Philipson never goes down this avenue.  Of course, there is only so much that can be addressed in Bizness’s thirty minute running time.

Philipson balances scandal and sensitivity quite well and features some great music.  Informative and briskly entertaining, T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness is highly recommended for jazz and blues fans.  It screens this coming Tuesday (11/27) as part of the Gay Theme Film Program at this year’s ADIFF.

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