FOR THE WOMAN, it was a long-overdue chance to speak her truth. A noted pianist, she wanted to finally talk about the time, 28 years ago, when a male pianist had pushed her off the bench – and nearly off the stage. We didn’t envision a next step. Speaking out was progress enough.
When I called jazz pianist and New England Conservatory graduate Rachel Nicolazzo, known as Rachel Z, to talk about the lack of gender diversity in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by artistic director Wynton Marsalis, she responded by telling me what had happened with another of Marsalis’s bands. In 1990, she and Marsalis were both on Columbia Records, and George Butler, the noted producer and A&R man who had signed them both, had encouraged her to solo with the band at a label event. She never got to. As she did a bit of comping — playing chords — Marsalis’s regular pianist, Eric Reed, slid next to her and pushed her off the piano bench — taking over the instrument.
Reed’s motives weren’t clearly defined. Performers can be competitive about the spotlight. Jazz, in particular, has a tradition of “cutting contests,” in which musicians try to outdo each. Still, this incident felt abusive — and it had stayed with Z for nearly three decades. “When you’re a young person,” she said, “that kind of thing really does mess with you.”
It was a striking anecdote, but in order to use it, I needed to offer Reed a chance to respond. In a phone interview, Reed sounded as distressed as Z. “My God, that kind of upsets me,” he said. Although he had no recollection of the incident, he acknowledged that it probably happened. “I was a very cocky, arrogant young man,” he said, adding, “It was disrespectful and I shouldn’t have done it.”
We then went on to discuss bandstand showmanship, the culture of cutting and macho theatrics and, more broadly, how our society is changing – for the better, but with a rapidity that may trip some good people up.
“I was nurtured in an environment that was intrinsically about men being in power,” said Reed. How these factors interact – what is misogyny, what is machismo, and what was simply an earlier ethos – is not always clear.
“It’s important that we’re asking these questions,” said Reed. “I’m at a place in my life that I’m ready to embrace the mistakes of my past and move on.” A turning point, he said, came last month, when his 21-year-old niece confronted him about his assumptions. “Uncle Eric, jazz is not your personal social club,” she told him.
Reed asked for Z’s contact information. With her permission, I passed it along. And Reed called her. “He healed a lot of pain in that call,” she said. Both have told me their dialogue will continue.
In “Crime, Shame, and Reintegration,” criminologist John Braithwaite discusses the theory of restorative justice, in which the offender must take responsibility for the damage caused by his or her actions. As utilized by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, restorative justice involved giving victims the chance to recount what they had suffered – and then letting aggressors apologize. The goal is to reintegrate all parties back into a functional society, and finally let the wounds of the past heal.
Maybe that broader theory can work on the personal level as well. After all, we can’t change who we were. But by acknowledging who we have been and what we have done, we can perhaps move forward — establishing who we are now and being the better for it.
Clea Simon is a Somerville-based mystery novelist. She can be reached at www.cleasimon.com.