Q&A with visiting guest Dr. Tammy Kernodle


Published: 16Oct2020
Dr. Tammy Kernodle

The Schulich School of Music is proud to welcome back Dr. Tammy Kernodle as a special guest in our Jazz Area’s Jazz History Series. She will present on Melba Liston, Alice Coltrane, and Mary Lou Williams on October 30 from 1-3 pm. This event is open to all Schulich students.

Tammy  L.  Kernodle  is an internationally recognized scholar and musician that teaches and researches in the areas of African American music (concert and popular) and gender studies in music.

She has worked closely with a number of educational programs including The American Jazz Museum, National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Public Radio (NPR), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RRHOF), Canadian Public Radio, and the BBC.  Her work has appeared in numerous journals, anthologies, and online platforms including NPR's 2019 Turning the Table Series and “Creative Black Music at the Walker Art Center,” a digital exhibit at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Kernodle is the author of the biography  Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams, served as Associate Editor of the three-volume  Encyclopedia of African American Music and the Editorial team for the revision of the  Grove Dictionary of American Music. She has appeared in a number of award-winning documentaries including  Girls in the Band, The Lady Who Swings the Band , and  Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool. 

Dr. Kernodle currently serves as the President of the Society for American Music and is Professor of Musicology at Miami University.

In preparation of her visit, we asked Dr. Kernodle a few questions over email:

How have women musicians/composers/arrangers such as Melba Liston, Alice Coltrane, and Mary Lou Williams influenced and shaped jazz history and/or the jazz industry?

Their impact on jazz culture has been grossly under-recognized. What distinguished them was their abilities as performers, arrangers, and composers. They were not simply playing the music, but also expanding the repertory and language of jazz through their arrangements and original compositions.

How have the controversies over a ‘women’s place in jazz’ changed over time?

This is an interesting question because I don’t think they have changed at all. Each generation of women musicians (vocalist and instrumentalist) have had to deal with the issue of dealing with preconceived notions about their abilities and also record companies and market strategies that often position their physical appearance over their musical talents.

What prejudices might young musicians need to unlearn? Whether they are conscious of them or not, what tips would you give to students at this time in their career to become better citizens of the jazz genre?

First black music and culture and the black lived experience cannot be separated. It’s not enough to like jazz and not have a consciousness about black people. To paraphrase Mary Lou Williams, jazz evolved out of the suffering of black people. It came to be the conduit for non-black people’s experiences and modes of expression. But it is rooted in and defined by the marginalization and physical and mental violence directed at black people. Jazz is about feeling, emotion, experience—not just chord changes, riffs, and formulas.

Search for and learn the full history. Don’t focus on or stop with just the common stories or narratives. Ask questions about who was present but not as recorded or discussed in jazz histories. Local histories and local music scenes were incredibly fertile spaces that have often been ignored by historians and record companies.

Train your mind and ear to know that when you see a woman in a performance space, she’s not there because she’s cute or slept with someone to get there. She had to navigate expectations and professional obstacles that 9 times out of 10 made her a better musician than many of her male peers. Men don’t have to prove themselves. They just need to show up. A man can be mediocre and still get opportunities. A mediocre woman is non-existent in the performance space.

Dr. Tammy Kernodle's presentation as part of our Jazz Area's Jazz History Series will take place October 30th from 1-3 pm. Zoom information can be found in your McGill email closer to the event.

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