I am a single, female, self-employed guitarist who has worked tirelessly to build a life and reputation in the New York session industry since moving to Brooklyn in July 2005. In July 2017, after suffering my fifth sexual and physical assault while on the job, I made the difficult decision to leave everything I had built for myself in the big city before I lost my mind.

Many amazing things have happened to me as a result of my time in New York. I am taking this time to speak about the things that happened to me that were not amazing. Do not confuse my coming forward about these things as a lack of awareness or gratitude for the privileges I have. I was able to spend over a decade playing at the highest possible level in the greatest community of musicians in the world. I am beyond thankful for the peers I have had, the places I have been, and the player that I have become. But I do not think it was necessary for me to pay the price that was asked in exchange for my success.

I am not seeking legal or financial restitution against any of the people who have perpetrated such harm against my body and my spirit, nor am I looking to discredit them or profit in any way from sharing this part of my story with the world. My hope is that, by speaking in specifics instead of dancing around my circumstances with euphemisms like ‘you know how it goes in the business,’ I can contribute to the dialogue in such a way that other women are able to feel less alone in speaking about what has happened to them in turn. Euphemisms normalize abuse. It is time for us to begin owning what has happened to us so that we can begin to heal.

 

THE FIRST ONE

I moved from Denton, Texas to Brooklyn, New York in the summer of 2005 to pursue my dream of becoming a well-known jazz guitarist and composer. I did this because I had been told by a number of people in the business that I had a profound gift for both these things. The catalyst was my first residency at the Banff Workshop for Jazz and Creative Music, which was helmed at the time by an internationally-acclaimed trumpet player that I had studied extensively from afar. In my time as a music student at the University of North Texas, I had fallen deeply in love with the man’s music and approach to writing, and so I was delighted to attend. It is not often that one’s hero wants to get to know you.

My first experience at Banff was so powerful, and filled with so many remarkable and inspiring musicians, that I returned to Texas just long enough to sell everything I owned and promptly flew one-way to New York. I arrived with a suitcase, a guitar, and $1700 to my name. Twelve years later, in spite of everything that happened to me, I had leveraged that $1700 into three modest businesses, a lease on my own rent-stabilized apartment, and a small guitar school that I opened in a coveted studio space I inherited after my co-tenant was evicted for stealing one of my guitars.

My early days in New York were filled with the usual wonders and brutalities—jam sessions in tiny apartment bedrooms, late-night waits for subway trains in poor repair, chance encounters with my heroes, the impossible hunt for work, a first encounter with street harassment, the rigors and exhaustion of learning to do everything on two feet and a tiny budget. There was very little networking by way of social media in 2005, and nothing remotely resembling the ‘sisterhood’ that has developed now that women are coming together to build opportunities for themselves.

A year into my career in the city, I had put together a band, begun plans to record under my own name, and started to make inroads into the business of playing jazz in the most elite market for improvisers in the world. I had performed at the 55 Bar, traveled to my home state in New Mexico to present music, secured bookings at the Cornelia Street Cafe and other art houses of a similar size, and become regarded as an emerging force on the local scene. I was Going Places. I was in awe, inspired, naïve, and full of promises for a future that I had been working toward since I first picked up a guitar at the age of seven.

On the heels of my early accomplishments, I received an invitation to return to Banff as a guest composer. As I was to be on tour in New Mexico with my group, the Suite Unraveling, it was arranged that I would start my residency at the end of the first week of the workshop, which was three weeks in length. Each week ended with a faculty and student concert followed by a reception, and it was into this reception that I arrived, breathless and excited to be there, and experienced the first of many indecencies that ultimately shaped the course of my career.

My early days as a jazz guitarist in Brooklyn, circa 2006.

At this reception were most of the students and some of the faculty, including several members of the now-famous fusion group Snarky Puppy, a former teacher of mine from UNT, as well as players who have gone on to become teaching adjuncts at a number of reputable institutions in and around New York. One of these players was a male percussionist who had been at the workshop the year prior as well, who stood about six feet in height and was quite broad in stature, who I had gotten to know socially during my time in Brooklyn. He had made several unwelcome advances toward me during my first year in the city, but these kinds of interactions were so common in the jazz and academic communities at the time that I am ashamed to say I didn’t recognize them for what they were until too late.

Somewhat later in the evening, in front of over a dozen people, I was cornered by this percussionist, lifted up, and thrown face-down over the back of a nearby sofa. My head was shoved into the seat cushions and held in place so that I could neither breathe nor call for help. Unable to defend myself, I was spanked repeatedly, called a number of filthy names, and held in place while the percussionist’s genitals were shoved up against my buttocks repeatedly. Eventually, a hand made its way inside my pants.

Nobody in the room lifted a finger to help me. One of my peers had a camera and took a picture but did nothing. Several people watched from the other side of the room but did nothing. After some time I was released. I ran over to the nearest group of onlookers and asked for help, but they did nothing. I later discovered that the current bass professor at the City College of New York stopped long enough to snap a photograph, but did nothing. My former guitar teacher at North Texas remarked that the exchange had been ‘nothing but mildly amusing’ and turned away. Several years later, this teacher showed up at a gig of mine in Brooklyn and tried to force me to fellate him in the street. So it is no surprise, in retrospect, that he saw no reason to come to my aid.

Being young and full of a somewhat naïve sense of right and wrong, I pressed charges immediately. This made the majority of my male peers, including several young players that I had come up with in college, intensely uncomfortable. I became a pariah, both socially and musically, and spent the remainder of the workshop on my own. My attacker, on the other hand, continued to be invited to jam sessions, was asked to record with a number of people, and still works in the US and Canada with some of the people that were present in the room, all of whom failed to intervene on my behalf.

In a state of abject despair, I reached out to a number of my friends and colleagues by email and let them know what had happened. I believed—and still believe—that there is no place for known predators in the world of music. A number of male colleagues, including paid members of my own ensemble, suggested I stop speaking about the event immediately if I wanted to keep my place in the business. One of these men forwarded this email to the head of the program (my hero!) and he retaliated by reaching out to every single one of our mutual contacts, including venues in the New York area and across the country, and discrediting me.

Ultimately it was decided by the board of regents at the Centre, on the last day of the three-week residency, that if I didn’t want such things to happen to me I should make every effort not to be alone with the person that had done them. I returned to New York a changed woman. I was 24.

When I got back to the city, I vowed to throw myself into my work with renewed vigor, only to discover there wasn’t any work waiting for me when I arrived. Nobody would touch me. No venue would hire me. The head of the program, concerned that he might be seen as mishandling the aftermath of the event, had reached out and taken my career away.

The lesson I learned from this is, if you are female, you cannot speak about these things. This is a lesson I have learned time and time again, that I am still fighting twelve years later to unlearn. The only person who stands to lose, if the truth comes out, is you.

 

THE SECOND ONE

I stopped playing jazz because my heart hurt. Up to that point, I had endured a certain amount of sexism—a teaching adjunct at UNT suggesting that my presence in an ensemble was largely to help the male performers coordinate their concert attire; the adjunct that later assaulted me commenting on my appearance in our lessons; attending more than one workshop in which improvisation was spoken about in very masculine, very sexual terms; hearing in a matter-of-fact way from colleagues, instructors and professionals that women simply just do not have the ears to perceive complex harmony or the intellect to work with it if they did. But I still believed, at the time, that if I just got to a point where I was GOOD ENOUGH, I would be able to prove myself the exception to the rule and the vanguards of the industry would have no choice but to let me in.

After I was attacked, after I stood up for myself and was punished for speaking out, it became clear to me that my body and soul simply had no value to the jazz world. And so I left. I moved into a warehouse in Bushwick and pursued my art in the context of the DIY community that put Brooklyn on the map from 2006-2010. Many amazing, wonderful things happened to my music because I was diverted in that direction, and ultimately I have become thankful for all of them. I rebranded my jazz quintet, the Suite Unraveling, as an instrumental rock band in the hopes that I could eliminate the injustice I had suffered by marketing my way around it. In short, I soldiered on.

With the Suite Unraveling, in the warehouse arts co-op that I called home in the mid-2000s.

I continued to improvise, but strictly as an avant-garde guitarist, playing in basements and churches and in the privacy of people’s homes. After a while, I co-founded a group with a few colleagues and we started working on installation-based performances together. I named the group after a famous female architect who had recently come to prominence for her design of some unlikely-looking structures that many said were impossible to build.

The ensemble had a conductor, cellist, two saxophonists, a laptop artist, trombonist, upright bassist, and even an actor and dancer. There was also a second guitarist that I had known for some time, who was European and in the US on an artist visa, that I had thought to be quite nice but never connected with outside of our time playing together.

My life as an avant-garde guitarist in New York—non-traditional instrumentation, alternative performance spaces, and some respite (I thought) from the intense sexism of jazz and academia.

I moved from Bushwick to Bed Stuy in 2009 and social media started to become the thing that drove and developed many small-market musicians’ careers. I began to engage with Facebook, built a small booking agency through my online presence, and started traveling nationally with the Suite Unraveling and a country band that has since dissolved. I was invited to and won a heavy metal guitar competition that seemed to validate my presence as a player, and my teaching career became a tangible thing. All of these things changed my trajectory for the better, but my busy schedule and my complete immersion in a male-dominated industry made it nearly impossible to meet any potential long-term partners in New York. And so, as many self-driven women do, I made a foray into online dating that I came very deeply to regret.

I did not realize, at the time, how much my presence in the online dating community would open me up to the possibility of assault among my peers. But I noticed that male colleagues who happened upon my profile would treat me differently, as if my admission that I was single somehow gave them an entitlement to a presence in my social life.

I had worked for a few years at this point at restoring my credibility as a teacher and performer, but for many reasons I still had a sense that I was barely hanging on. Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, the public humiliation I endured at Banff had cemented in me the idea that, if you want to work in this business as a woman, you cannot speak up where men are concerned. It had been conveyed to me, in many subtle ways, that it was highly unprofessional and potentially hazardous to tell a male colleague ‘no’.

So, when the other guitarist in my avant-grade group found my dating profile online and asked me out for drinks, I accepted even though I wasn’t interested. And when he put his hand on my thigh and his mouth on my neck at the bar I didn’t consent, but I also didn’t back away. A few days later I received a dinner invitation and didn’t feel it would be appropriate to decline. And when I arrived at his apartment and was almost immediately coerced into having sex, I froze and let it happen. I wanted to say no and found that, somehow, I couldn’t. I have learned since that this is not uncommon among repeat victims of assault. But at the time, I was not aware that there was a difference between freezing and consent.

The next fifteen minutes or so were like an out-of-body experience, in which I was aware that I was lying motionless on a relative stranger’s bed while I was undressed, and that certain things were happening to me, but I was unable to move or speak in any way to stop them. My entire body shut down, and for a while my mind was somewhere else, and mostly I remember thinking ‘you can’t lose your reputation as a player, you are going to have to wait this out.’ He finished, and I rose and dressed myself and somehow managed to make my way home.

A few days later, I received a text message asking for a third date. I declined. At that point, because I was able to communicate in writing, I managed to tell him his advances were unwelcome. “Oh, no worries,” he responded. “I’m just really horny and I think you’re sexy, that’s all.” It wasn’t until recently that I was able to look back on the incident for what it was—I was raped.

Not long after that, the group received an invitation for a performance and I responded to an email from the organizer by saying that I was available to play, but would not do so if the other guitarist was invited because there had been a ‘no-means-no’ situation in a ‘social setting.’ I was too afraid of what I might happen to my career if I spoke about the encounter in his apartment in clearer terms. I was never invited to perform with the ensemble—and ensemble I had started, and had named after a radically independent woman—again.

 

THE NEXT ONE

Other things happened to me on the road around this time that continued to diminish my sense of power. As the only woman in the country group I was prohibited from driving the band’s vehicle, even though everyone else did, because it was decided driving would somehow give me too much power over the other members of the band. I booked the tours and managed the travel arrangements for the group for no extra pay because I wanted to be included in something so badly, and I really wanted to be able to get out and play. But I was never once allowed to drive. One night, onstage in Arkansas, the frontman told a crowd of college students that I would ‘show them a little something’ if they bought a t-shirt or album between sets. I was mobbed. Everyone else in the band went to the bar for a drink. I cried for days.

In my own group, a trio, I was prevented from speaking about male partners unless a euphemism was used because the idea that I had a sex life made one of the two male members uncomfortable. I was rufied once after a gig in San Antonio and, rather than being defended or protected in any way, I somehow managed to stay standing long enough to make sure we were paid before collapsing in the back of the van. After I was in a car accident that nearly took my life and almost ended my career, this same bandmate excoriated me in public for failing to ‘show up’ for the other two members while I spent months paying out of pocket for physical therapy, trying desperately to save my arm. I did manage to save my playing but, sadly, I was not able to save the band.

Ultimately, I started an all-female tribute group and was able to find some comfort and relief in working with women, though it took much longer than I had anticipated to find female players who were both musically and professionally up to the task. This band became my graduate school (there is no academic process for developing one’s playing in the world of rock and roll), and in a lot of ways it pushed me into becoming the player that I am today—sober, articulate, empowered, and with a relative mastery over the course of my life as a woman in a world run by men. But in the band’s early days I had begun to drink heavily in order to numb my fear of the predators in the industry and it was during this time that my adjunct guitar instructor from North Texas appeared at a venue we were playing in Williamsburg and invited the keyboardist and I out for a drink after the show. One drink became several drinks, then became a trip back to the keyboardist’s apartment, and at 3am I found myself on the streets of Bed Stuy with my former teacher, who grabbed my hand as I offered it for a handshake to say goodnight, and shoved it forcefully down the front of his pants.

I declined profusely. He insisted, and attempted to coerce me on to my knees and into fellating him right there on Bedford Avenue. This is when I realized, all these assaults, they weren’t about me at all. They were about the power I had, the power I had developed within myself through my persistence, and about snuffing out the creative spark that has lived within me since the first time I picked up the guitar and thought, I can do this. I learned this because, as I was being shoved onto the concrete, he kept saying “I don’t even know why I find you attractive, because you aren’t.” This wasn’t about wanting me. This was about owning me. Belittling me. Limiting my freedom. It always had been, and no amount of professional or creative success was going to make me safe.

I was able to extract myself from any true physical harm, and in a bizarre but somehow unsurprising move, my former teacher called my keyboardist friend the next day and offered her a job in the music department that he oversaw. She accepted the offer and worked for him for years, knowing what he had done. We have never talked about it. I haven’t had the heart.

I toiled away at building the tribute group to a national level and the assaults started to become shadowy figures that lurked in my hindsight but no longer intruded into my daily life as an artist in New York. This is the story I told myself, over and over again. These things happened, but they didn’t have an effect on me. I am doing fine. My career is fine. Better than fine. Look at me. In spite of myself, I have become amazing.

Onstage with the tribute band, summer 2014

All of these things are true. But they are not the whole truth. I didn’t have a sense of how deep the hurt was, how acute the sense of powerlessness was, how powerfully transformative the shame had been, until I got sober and did the necessary spiritual and personal housecleaning that comes along with getting clean. And even though I was happy and empowered and successful, the assaults kept happening.

 

THE LAST ONES

For a long time, I thought maybe it was because I had been drinking (really drinking, because that’s how the boys in the business drink), that these things happened to me. Maybe, somewhere deep down there, I really was partially to blame. Maybe it was important, as they say, to start owning my shit.

Buying into that stance, which is essentially one of profound self-blame, is the only thing I have been complicit in throughout the course of these assaults. And when I got sober, and my head cleared, and I was able to see my younger self with some love and understanding, the sense of sadness that grew within me was as deep as it was profound.

By this time, I had opened a small guitar school in a studio that I managed, and the tribute band was traveling nationally just about every weekend. My playing had attracted quite a lot of interest and I was working on and off Broadway, at high-end corporate events, and had been asked to join a well-known local brass band called Gato Loco. I had known the co-leaders of this group for quite some time, and my overall feeling about the two of them is that, as far as straight, white men in the New York music business go, they are among the few ‘good guys’ when it comes to the way they handle their affairs.

Playing in this band was an absolute joy for me, and a perfect fit for my skills as a lead guitarist, which now stood on a foundation that is equal parts jazz, flamenco, blues, country, and rock & roll. I spent 2 1/2 years as the guitarist in Gato Loco, and am still beyond proud of my contributions to their success. The members of that band became my collaborators and friends, and they supported me unwaveringly when my father died suddenly, when I took on some work as a DJ to defray the cost of his final expenses, and when I was physically assaulted by someone who came into the bar and beat me up after they demanded to see what was underneath my shirt and I said no. I am very sad to admit that these same men are ultimately the reason I felt compelled to leave New York.

Onstage with Gato Loco in Brooklyn, Valentine’s Day 2016

The leader of Gato Loco would occasionally recommend me to friends and colleagues looking for an electric guitarist, and in July 2017 I was recommended for a private party hosted by one of the founding members of an internationally-famous not-for-profit and performing group. The event was to take place at his summer home in upstate New York over the course of the July 4th holiday weekend. I was to prepare lead guitar parts for a number of songs by the band AC/DC, to accompany the man’s fiancée in a tribute performance not that far off from what I was doing in my own group. We negotiated details and upstate I went, on good faith, because I had taken the offer on recommendation from a colleague that I also viewed as a close ally and friend.

There was an evening rehearsal, an overnight, and a performance scheduled the following day. I arrived, as is not unusual for me at this point in my career, a bit more prepared for the rehearsal than the other members of the band. It turned out, in fact, that I was considerably more prepared than the vocalist who had hired me. After a short time, it became clear that this vocalist was used to being the only woman in a performance environment, was used to being the dominant personality in the band because she was the only woman, and that as a result I was being sized up as a potential threat.

The rehearsal was uncomfortable but not entirely unpleasant, and as a guitarist and educator I thoroughly enjoy everything about Angus Young’s music, so I held my own as a player and that seemed to settle the tension in the room into something agreeable. I consented to stay the night and do the gig, and it wasn’t until much later on that I realized my safety was at risk.

Casual drinking among the others at rehearsal became heavy drinking as the evening progressed. As has happened to me many times throughout my career, the heavier the drinking became the more fascinating I seemed to be to the singer I had been hired to support. I experienced a number of escalating comments about my hair (it is red) and weight (I have hips and breasts). The merits of my sex appeal were discussed quite openly in front of me, to anyone who would listen, and I began to be touched in places without my consent.

By about 11pm, I realized I was presented with a serious predicament—I could continue to endure a litany of inappropriate physical contact in public, where it would hopefully only go so far, or I could remove myself from the social setting but risk that I would be found alone later on that night with no-one around to come to my defense. I decided to tough it out.

Around 1am hands started going up the inside of my thighs and into my shorts, and down my shirt and inside my bra. It was suggested that other people inspect and fondle my thighs and chest in kind. I was told, in a slightly rowdier fashion, “I wish my fiancée wasn’t in the room, because I would have sex with you right here and now.” I waited until it seemed my aggressor might be about to pass out, ran back to my suitcase and guitar, and began calling the men in Gato Loco for help.

I was hours away from Manhattan in a cabin in the woods. Ultimately no help came, and no apology was issued for recommending me professionally into such an unsafe environment, though they did express a modicum of concern somewhere around 2am. I waited until the sun rose, packed up my things, and left. I have never, in my life, for any reason, left a gig before I was supposed to play.

The fiancée tried to apologize as I was walking out. When I explained in no uncertain terms that I had lived through too much abuse as a woman in a male-dominated industry to allow for even ONE more wayward hand, my attacker had the gall to look at me and say “girl, I feel you.” I managed to maintain composure long enough to get my gear into the van, eased the van through the woods and onto the highway, and then I sobbed the entire way home.

Ten days later I traveled overseas with Gato Loco and realized I was no longer equipped in any way to be the only woman traveling with a group of men. There was no sense among them that what had happened to me was tangible, powerful, real. That I might be in need—and deserving—of extra care. As a result, I am sure I seemed difficult to travel with. More difficult, at any rate, than if I had been a man.

I had never been assaulted by a woman before, let alone a woman actually in the music business. The betrayal broke me. I traveled back to New Mexico to catch my breath and realized, once I was halfway across the country, that my career in New York was coming to an end. And so I started taking time away from my life in the city, one week at a time, in the hopes that I could regain my composure and eventually return.

Gato Loco ultimately fired me because the situation made them uncomfortable, and the fact that I took time away to manage my own recovery seemed to make them resentful and afraid. I have seen the men in that group leave the band for months at a time over better gigs or more lucrative tours, and then return at their convenience with no repercussions or threat of removal from the ranks. But I was told by the band’s primary composer that, given his interest in starting a family with his wife, my absence—even though it was scheduled around our performance calendar—was disrupting the focus of the band. To date I had only sent a substitute guitarist to a single gig, and that was because I had been called away to bury my father the previous year. Nevertheless, the notion that my occasional departure might have to be accommodated in the exact same manner as my male colleagues became something the bandleader ‘just couldn’t get his head around’. And so I was replaced. And that is when I realized, if I wanted to stop being treated like a person of lesser value, I was going to have to let go of everything I had built and walk away.

It is with so much strength, and with so much gratitude, that I am finally able to write about these things because I have left a world that has told me time and time again that I deserved the abuse. But I did not deserve the abuse, not one second of it, and so I am taking myself back from the industry so I can heal. My heart goes out to every single one of my colleagues, both male and female, who have consented to putting their bodies at risk because they love their art SO MUCH that they are willing to pursue its perfection at whatever cost.

I have worked tirelessly since the age of seven to become good enough, smart enough, professional enough to be allowed to Play With The Boys. More than once I have walked away from opportunities for relationships, children, financial stability, time with family, vacations, health insurance, and peace of mind. I have been proud to do this because I love who I am, what I have built, and what I do.

Among my peers I have a reputation for being one of the best of the best in the city. My guitar school is consistently rated among the top in the market. People whose playing I admire have come to me from time to time seeking guidance with their concept or technique. I was raised by an incredible guitarist to be an incredible guitarist. My potential or sense of worth as a creative person was never once diminished by my father because I happened to be female. It should never have been diminished, in any way, by any of my employees or peers. I am so proud of who I am, what I do, and who I have become as a teacher, as a player, and as a human being.

I have heard many times over, from many people, ‘man, I would give anything to be able to play like you and your pops!’ The harrowing and unnecessary lesson I have learned time and again is, if you are female, it is wise to be very careful what you wish for—if you would like to be able to sleep through the night once you have achieved your dreams.

It would be easy enough to look at my abusers and say that the thing they had in common was me. But the bigger picture is, the thing they had in common was their power over me, by virtue of their professions, connections to powerful people, or by virtue of the fact that it is still a million times less likely that we will listen to a woman than a man.

When we believe these things happen to us because ‘that’s the biz’. When put ourselves at risk because we think we have to. When we continue to willingly put ourselves in harm’s way because we know no other way. When we do these things, even if we do not consciously know that we are doing them. When we do this, we are sending the message that we are not worth the liberation from abuse. I sit here in New Mexico, having taken myself back from a system that means well in may ways but is just so incredibly full of sickness and denial, in recovery from my own amazing, horrifying life. I have walked away from everything I built, because I am worth it. I am COMPLETELY worth it. And the industry is not. That is all I have to say.

3 Thoughts to “Playing While Female – One Independent Guitarist’s Account of Assault and Abuse in New York City”

  1. Your Dad made me feel this way as well. “My potential or sense of worth as a creative person was never once diminished by (your father) my father because I happened to be female.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *