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
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.
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.
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
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.
Labels: ADIFF '12, Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith, Documentary, Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey, Short Films