by Camille Thurman
In the wake of the “Me Too” awareness this year, I’ve found myself reflecting on my personal experiences as a musician and my encounters with sexual harassment and sexism in the music industry. To say I have never experienced biased behaviors as a black woman would be false. After reading the countless stories of women from all disciplines who have fought fearlessly as they struggle to deconstruct oppression and acts of subjugation, it’s my duty to share my own experiences with fellow Local 802 members and the community at large. I was apprehensive at first, but realized there could be a possibility that others might read my words and say “Me too!” It might give them strength and encouragement to stand tall and to know that they are not alone.
I find myself thinking critically about how we as a community can share light, encouragement, love and healing beyond social media. Local 802 is a platform for me to renew my commitment to the community of musicians, particularly women. It’s time to see each other in our struggles and push past the uncomfortable silences.
I love music and I’ve been very fortunate to have an extended family support system. I come from a single parent household. My mother is a retired schoolteacher who raised a daughter and worked tirelessly to make ends meet. Music has always been my refuge and saving grace. It protects me, keeps me out of trouble and has always served as a healing agent, particularly during my rough and awkward pubescent years.
Having allies in music can make all the difference. It was my middle school band teacher, Dr. Peter Archer, who encouraged and welcomed me with unconditional love and support. Whatever instrument I was curious about learning, he encouraged me to take a chance, even if it wasn’t a “typical female instrument.” My dream at 13 was to play on Broadway (which I fulfilled 16 years later thanks to Mark Gross, Lance Bryant, Jay Brandford and Bill Easley). Once Dr. Archer showed me how all the woodwinds worked, it opened my mind. I learned as much as I could, strengthening my reading and studying fingering charts. By the time I was 14, I was already doubling on flute and saxophone.
Dr. Archer took me to a concert of the jazz orchestra of my dream high school, LaGuardia. He told me, “Thurmie, you’re gonna be up there too!” And he was right. Besides supporting my efforts to get into LaGuardia, Dr. Archer also helped me earn a scholarship to the Center for Preparatory Studies in Music at Queens College. Dr. Archer was the first teacher who gave me encouragement, support and love. He never crossed the line or took advantage of the fact that I was a young woman.
But it was in high school where I had my first encounter with sexual discrimination. I was blessed to study with the phenomenal tubist and educator Bob Stewart for two years. I cried when I found out he was leaving our school. I knew that once he left, it would be open season for being tormented and bullied.
At the time, there were only seven girls in the jazz department. Of the seven, two were African American, three were white, one was Asian and one was of Puerto Rican descent. It was made very clear by some of the young boys that we girls were not wanted in the band. We had to stand up and fight for our right to take solos. (Many times the guys would decide beforehand who got to solo, leaving us out.) We had so many players that we had to decide among ourselves which tunes (or parts of tunes) people would play on. Many times the guys had first dibs and would decide for us, including taking parts with solos, tunes with “good sections.” If they didn’t feel like playing the tune they’d hand it to us – which meant we had to be familiar with multiple section parts for tunes and knowing all of the tunes (which was double the work). We were often told that we simply weren’t wanted. We were told that we shouldn’t have gotten the chair. In some cases, our personal instruments were sabotaged.
I remember being pitted against another female student because she was white, blond, cuter and skinnier. Finally, I went to her and said “Hey, I don’t have anything against you and I respect you. Are we okay?” It was then that she told me how some of the guys were talking about how terrible I was, how she was much cuter and that they would rather have her instead of me in the band. I was called names (“perfect *itch”), humiliated, made fun of, mocked and talked about. If we tried to work through changes while taking a solo, we were humiliated and judged for our mistakes. Some of the other girls were dealing with relationships and abuse. When we approached the administration, we were basically ignored. Our band teacher didn’t actively push to have the issues resolved. It wasn’t until one of the boys cyberbullied us that the administration had evidence to do something and take action. By that time, we were all graduating and had endured two years of being completely disrespected. I went to school wanting to learn and instead left crushed, depressed, angry and traumatized.
By then, I wanted nothing to do with music. I actually had quit playing. My self esteem, spirit and confidence were gone and I really believed that I couldn’t play. But then I went to college and met Professor Mike Carbone. He encouraged me to audition for the jazz ensemble. I was so traumatized that I remember sitting in my dorm room contemplating whether or not I should go, and I ultimately missed the audition. I decided to go to an improvisation class to get my feet wet and immediately after hearing me, Professor Carbone told me, “You can play!”
I said “No, I can’t!” But he encouraged me to join the band and said I just needed a chance to play and grow. Those four years served as a safe haven for me to work with other instrumentalists, gain confidence and play for the love of playing. I flourished during that time and met amazing artists. Some of them even hired me or recommended me for gigs after I graduated, including Sherrie Maricle, Tia Fuller, Steve Davis and Cynthia Scott.
But later, I experienced sexual harassment and discrimination. When I was 27, I was hired by an R&B artist to work in her band. While we were playing a festival, I met a musician who was in another band who had friends in common with me. He and I ended up talking shop, listening to music and just being musicians. We got together to play. But instead of it being a friendly playing session, it turned into him making advances on me. He placed his hands on me and I told him not to touch me. He instantly flipped the situation and told me I was making advances on him and that I was threatening to ruin his family. He said he would tell musicians who we mutually knew that I was promiscuous. I knew I didn’t do anything wrong but I left feeling angry at him, angry at myself, humiliated, confused, scared and fearful – but also disappointed.
I remember attending an awards ceremony and being sexually assaulted in front of two male musicians and one of their wives. I’ll never forget that feeling of being humiliated and not having anyone stand up for me. What happened was that a man shoved his business card in my cleavage. The wife of one musician saw this happen, but she complimented me on how “politely and appropriately I handled the situation.” I felt my heart sink to the floor. I couldn’t move. I was angry. But I could see in my mind how the situation would turn out if I yelled or made it clear that I was violated. I found myself for a split second wondering if it was my fault because I had dressed too nicely. I wondered if I could have handled the situation more sternly. I was mad at myself for not reacting the way I wanted to. I was afraid of causing a scene – and afraid of being ousted by the industry.
I remember working with a bandleader and an amazing lineup of musicians for an event hosted by an NBA athlete. The bandleader (who also played saxophone, like me) would not talk to me. He ignored me and did everything in his power to leave me out. Although I was given the music at the last minute, I came prepared, learned all of the tunes beforehand and aced the sound check. The bandleader allowed everyone else to perform and solo – but left me out. When we agreed to stay overtime and play, everyone in the band received extra payment except for me. The band was given thank-you gifts for the event. I asked for mine and the leader ignored me. I came home feeling angry, powerless, and upset. I had done my job, I had been professional and I sounded great, but I had been ignored and ill treated. The bandleader and I played the same instrument, and he made it clear that there was only room for one saxophonist.
I remember once receiving a video of a concert of mine. I thanked the videographer. Little did I know that it contained an hour’s worth of close-up shots of cleavage, legs, and behinds. Not one shot focused on us playing the music.
Sexism is real. It exists. There are many forms of it, and in my 17 years of playing, I have experienced different levels of it as a student and as a professional.
So how do we fix it? I believe it starts with moving outside of silence, creating places where women can gather and talk about experiences openly, finding ways to bring voice to the insidious nature of patriarchy that supports sexism, racism and oppression.
There were many times I wished my male colleagues or friends would have stepped in and said “Hey, this is wrong” rather than remain silent to it. It takes consciousness and honesty on everyone’s part to think more critically and develop more consciousness about how we can dismantle the system.
It also starts with the youth. Let’s teach the kids in our lives to respect each other and work together, breaking down the gender/power constructs that exist in society. I was fortunate to have teachers who told me that I could do anything. My mentors never used mainstream society as a measure of what I could and couldn’t do. We have to teach children that everyone should be respected and loved. We need to show them how to work as a community and uplift each other.
I was very fortunate to have a community of caring people who nurtured and helped me along the way. When it came to studying my instruments, I had mentors, both men and women, who took me under their wings. They respected me. They never crossed the line. I’d like to personally thank a few individuals for assisting me along the way amidst the turmoil. Your guidance and love have lifted me and strengthened me. Thank you, Dottie Anita Taylor, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Tia Roper, Tia Fuller, Mimi Jones, Nia Love, Bertha Hope, Maxine Gordon, Antoinette Montague, Robin Bell-Stevens, Sherrie Maricle, Antoine Roney, George Coleman, Bruce Williams, Abraham Burton, Bill Saxton, Hamiet Bluiett, Russell Malone, Houston Person, Michael Carbone, Darrell Green, Dorthaan Kirk, Luis Perdomo, Dr. Peter Archer and Bob Stewart for being there for me and helping me to become the musician and person I am today. And thank you, Local 802, for providing a platform for me to share my story.
I know this might not be the story for some and I feel for those who have dealt with abuse. I’m in the process of taking accountability for myself. We all need to do this. I hope that this story will be heard by everyone, including those who have been abused and also those who have been the abusers. Silence is no longer the status quo.
Saxophonist and vocalist Camille Thurman has been a member of Local 802 since 2013. Her web site is www.CamilleThurmanMusic.com. Allegro welcomes personal essays from members for possible publication. Send an e-mail to Allegro@Local802afm.org.