Sly And The Family Stone
Sly And The Family Stone

Goodbye Harvey Weinstein, I’m Glad We Didn’t Meet!

It brought me great satisfaction witnessing Harvey Weinstein cuffed and clutched, then speed-marched into a courtroom and charged with a variety of heinous crimes, including rape.

Knowing this predatory bully, with more industry clout than a Mike Tyson face punch, will face his accusers could also assure millions of women and men who have endured unwanted advances, physical threats and promises of career ruin, that justice will be administered. We can only hope this moves the equality meter closer to parity between men and women and sends a message to those who sit atop businesses that coercion and bullying for self-gratification are over.

As a music man who has lived on the bandstand and lived through a good fifty-eight years of corrective measures through civil unrest, I can attest to the monumental changes. Even during the hard-fought era of the civil rights marches, black and white front-line images exemplify men locked arm and arm, yet women were everywhere in the mix. They bled, they mothered, they fought with the same ferocious militancy as the lionized men. They managed the wounds of brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, as well as their own.

I hit the stage early on during the fading hours of the big band era. Sixteen men with instruments and at the far end of the stage, a petite, appropriately dressed woman on display. Eye candy. A prop! Occasionally, the bandleader would call a number for the young singer, make a few lame jokes about her being a housewife out of her natural habitat who just had to sing a song or two for leering men. During an hour-long set, she’d be awarded six minutes of ‘showtime,’ then back to a folding chair. Dare she play an instrument. In fact, the only female instrumentalist I can recall having on disc from that era was pianist Hazel Scott, a frightfully magnificent player. When I’d mention her name around the bandstand men would return a blank stare.

The levelest playing field for young men and women was high school band/orchestra.  Most were evenly mixed. Why? Because playing in a high school band was considered feminine. Boys belong on the gridiron, battling under a hoop, high jumping, shagging fly balls in an outfield. Blowing a clarinet was as ‘macho sexy’ as folding a pair of silk pyjamas.

I’m still particularly moved by the experience. That youthful intensity between the sexes was never more potent than in the teens.  Just getting an opportunity to chat with the flute player a row ahead or the female clarinet player next to me in the section was an out of body experience; me coming from a stern evangelical family where the separation of gender was the written law, even when living with two younger sisters.

Sisters, if you have a sister or two or a half dozen, the Bill Cosbys, Harvey Weinsteins, Donald Trumps, Anthony Weiners should make your blood curl.

My years in high school band were spent in hours of daily practice; the rest engrossed in academic studies and hallucinating about girls. Honestly, I knew everything I needed to know about men by just being one, which carried with it a farcical evaluation of the opposite sex. Guys just knew everything about a woman’s every move, desires and thoughts. Just ask them. A good portion of boyhood assumptions painted women in need of constant gratification and never-ending sex. From the shower to the locker room, to the lunch counter, and the ride home after school; that was the all-consuming topic. She wants me! I can see it in her eyes. I could ‘have’ her.

Meanwhile, exam time. The women are killing it. Learning seems to be a breeze. No mention of the fact many stayed up late at night re-reading text, jotting down notes, memorizing and planning for their futures. It was just a given, women were smarter than men except for that guy Dirk, wearing a protractor like it was a ceremonial label pin.

Dirk knew about everything, even the gas-type and content of most planets. He couldn’t throw a baseball, but he could calculate the speed of the pitch. He read about and planned to visit an IBM computer laboratory, had a pocket-collection of multi-coloured television capacitors, could recall passages from most Isaac Asimov sci-fi novels and had a fascination with weird comic books. Dirk also spooked women. He was no threat until the 1980s when computer illiterates needed his services. Then he became sexy.

You had to be there to know this.

In the '50s, few women worked at day jobs; mostly telephone operators, domestics, nurses, cosmetic counter clerks, flight attendants, and teachers. The pay was marginal. During high school, mom decides nursing and rearing four kids has its limitations, then starts taking college courses by mail. That means when pops came home she would still have dinner prepared, and only after he was fed would she pull out her books and a pad of paper, and sit at the kitchen table with her children as we laboured through homework and do her own.

Eventually, pops called an end to nighttime studies. He determined she had enough responsibilities around the house and learning complicated their arrangement. I could read the loss across in her face and hear the regret in her voice as she neared old age and reminisced. Mom was no different than millions of other women looking towards the future and shackled by the past. It was my aunt Dorothy and aunt Maudie that advanced the cause. These were women intent on following their own path while tending to domestic chores.

Dorothy had two young daughters and a hard-working husband who laboured on the family farm and held another day job at nearby Penn State. Dorothy studied by mail then went on to attend university. Any moment I could spend with her was an open book to the world. She saw beyond expectations and demands and projected herself into another realm. She was about to shatter and break the claustrophobic chains of perceived family servitude, and it wounded.

Aunt Maudie explored the world. She wore the Tilly hat, kept a read on birds, talked music and books and most of all, independence. I could play Stravinsky for her and she might not get it, but she could sure appreciate and inspire me.

At the top of our family institution stood the rock; the most independent, in your face, opinionated and openly anti-women in the workplace other than herself force of nature; our Italian grandmother. Nellie ran the farms, bought the equipment, negotiated the loans, of which bankers trembled when she arrived, fed the masses and kept everyone in place and in motion.

We were surrounded by loving aunts, macho football playing uncles, hundreds of cousins, and extended family. When you were singled out individually for something of merit, the response from family came back sounding like the roar of an eighty-piece choir. Everyone acknowledged, embraced and championed each other. In fact, pops at 6’x6”, face to face with Nellie, withered in her presence.

The point of this rambling gesture is that the women who have nurtured, loved, protected and still care for us are the same ones who have been subjected to unwanted taunting, sexual abuse, low-pay in the workplace and denial of opportunities.

I was thinking last night how forward-thinking Sly Stone’s 1960s “Family Stone” band was. The group was bi-racial and women-friendly. Women with instruments. Women given a prominent role. This was a breakthrough on the bandstand. I caught the act at Jimi Hendrix’s club, Generation in Greenwich Village, New York City in the late sixties. The sight of men and women sharing the stage with instruments in hand was not only exhilarating, it was inspiring.

I remember the early nineties when superb saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom came to Toronto to play a local jazz club. The club owner approached me and expressed how excited he was to have this magnificent talent on his stage. He then went on to repeatedly remark he’d seen the publicity photos and thought she was beautiful and sexy.

I had interviewed Bloom in 1989 for a feature in our Jazz Report Magazine and repeatedly played her debut LP, Modern Drama for Epic records.

When Bloom showed for soundcheck, I get a call from the club owner. “She’s not attractive at all," he says. Wow! Bloom would later say the owner had nothing to do with her, avoided and acted like a jerk.

Roll ahead to 2018, the bandstands are packed with women bandleaders, mixed genders, races; everyone playing an instrument of choice. In fact, in many cases the most desired players are women.

I’ve been with the same woman forty-nine years and that bond is still as powerful as our early days. She’s fierce, no-nonsense and a champion of everything women. I’ve learned so much from her. I’ve heard her fears, her battles with the dark side of men in her early days, and the comfort and security of knowing she can be herself in a long-term relationship.

When a Harvey Weinstein, a Cosby and their like are beaten back, prosecuted and locked away for years to come, it not only makes the lives of aspiring actors safer, it sends a message to all men that we have much to learn about ourselves and should rethink the short-sided narrative that plays in a young immature man’s mind.

Lastly, if you don’t know Hazel Scott’s story, do Google and watch her play the piano and read of her past. You will be in awe!

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