Roxy Coss is empowering women with her potently political jazz

Jazz and politics go way back. One can argue that Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings in the 1920s were political since they were a daring push to be taken seriously and treated equally. Most blues recordings of the ’30s and ’40s also were political in that they were creative expressions of an impoverished “low-down” life experienced by many Americans during the Depression, particularly African-Americans in the South.

In the 1950s and beyond, jazz as an individualized form took up the fight of civil rights and injustice. Jazz began to fully express frustration with the slow pace of integration with Sonny Rollins’s Airegin in 1954 (Nigeria spelled backward). Other recordings that took on the movement were Rollins’s Freedom Suite (1958), Charles Mingus’s Fables of Faubus (1959), Max Roach’s We Insist! (1960), John Coltrane’s Alabama (1963) and so many others, including music by Yusef Lateef, Randy Weston and artists throughout the late ’60s into the ’70s.

Today, we are seeing jazz start to champion new socio-political movements. One terrific example is Roxy Coss‘s The Future Is Female (Posi-Tone). All 10 of the album’s songs were composed by Coss and celebrate women’s rapid shift from silence and acceptance to pro-activity and cultural upheaval. Coss’s message is as powerful as it is personal, and her songs are akin to essays written with music.

Credit: Desmond White

It’s about time. Jazz has an obligation to go beyond the safety of the American songbook and classic recordings and songs of earlier artists. Jazz is art, and art has obligations. To survive, jazz must remain relevant and current. It must have the courage to take on society at large and the grit to agitate for what’s right. Jazz matters when it moves the cultural needle. Coss gets it.

Back to the music. Raised in Seattle, Coss began playing piano at age 7 and grabbed the saxophone at 9. At 11, she started listening to jazz and played in her school’s jazz band. Today, she is highly acclaimed and turns up on polls.

Credit: Desmond White

Coss is also the founder and director of the Women In Jazz Organization. In Coss’s notes, she defines the organization as “a collective of professional jazz musicians who identify as women, gender-neutral or non-binary. WIJO intends to help level the playing field, so that women and non-binary people have equal opportunity to participate in and contribute to the jazz community, leading to an improved and more rich, diverse, and successful art form.”

What I love about Coss’s playing is the fluidity of her articulation and her drive. You can hear it in every song. I also love the boldness of her original work and how it expresses the frustration women feel today as they struggle to be taken seriously, not to have their space invaded, and to be given a chance to be equal or better than their male counterparts.

Some album highlights:

  • Nevertheless, She Persisted is a hard-bop work that pays tribute to women who push through marginalization and reach a place where they make a difference.
  • Little Did She Know is another hard-bop song. Coss wrote it in college, a place of wonderment and discovery but also, unfortunately, still a place of male wilding and power plays, alcohol abuse, female belittlement and worse.
  • Females are Strong as Hell is a minor blues with the flavour of a Coltrane manifesto. Coss’s playing is strong and striking.
  • On #MeToo, we get to hear the moaning quality of Coss’s bass clarinet. There are flecks of Almost Like Being in Love, but the song wisely steers clear, and Coss’s bass clarinet delivers long ribbons of reflection on the #MeToo movement that began in October, 2017, with the sexual-harassment allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein. What started as a revolutionary push-back against workplace male sexual aggression has widened to serve as a bulwark against female subjugation and antiquated male behavior and language. As we know, the battlefield in just two years is littered with those who crossed the line.
  • Feminist AF, according to Coss’s notes, “is an anthem to feminine power.” And here’s where Coss really hits the nail on the head: “Entertainers have historically stayed neutral, but artists now have a responsibility to be advocates for equal rights.” The song feels like a Sonny Rollins composition in its bounce and melodic articulation.
Credit: Desmond White

On The Future Is Female, Coss isn’t gilding some radical chic concept to sell records. If the music was lousy, the point would be moot. The music on this album is superb and helps make the listener more sensitive and open to what’s going on. Sometimes notes can make a point more poignantly than words.

A word about Coss’s band. Alex Wintz on guitar is excellent, with a poking attack and a John Scofield flavour in places, particularly on Ode to a Generation. On the song, Coss plays terrific soprano saxophone. Pianist Miki Yamanaka unleashes robust chords and a richly sensitive feel. Rick Rosato on bass and Jimmy Macbride on drums sustain the feel and unite the group with a rhythmic togetherness.

Jazz is political. Even when the music’s messages aren’t obvious or blunt, jazz at its best is arguing for positive change. Coss’s new album not only argues the case but also takes the fight for women’s rights to the jazz community and begins to address the issues that have kept women from fully flowering as worthy artists.