Portrait of an Artist: Tracy McMullen
February 3, 2023
Professor of Music Tracy McMullen’s journey into jazz was neither direct nor without resistance. Raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, McMullen’s introduction to jazz came from a high school stage band visiting her elementary school.
“For me, it’s definitely mysterious how I had this love of jazz,” McMullen said. “I wasn’t really exposed to jazz except through this stage band.”
When McMullen got to junior high, she joined the school’s stage band herself, switching from clarinet to saxophone. But the prelude to her career in jazz came to a premature end.
“At the end of my junior year, I had this thought: ‘This is not what grown women do.’ So I stopped playing. I didn’t play my senior year, and then I didn’t play at all through college,” McMullen said, going on to express the sadness that accompanied her separation from music. “I would tear up when I heard saxophone on the radio, you know, because I just had really missed it.”
After graduating from Stanford University with an undergraduate degree in International Relations, McMullen moved to San Francisco. There, she encountered people who shared her passion for jazz. She bought a saxophone at a pawn shop for $170 and quickly redeveloped her jazz obsession, joining a band soon after.
“It was a pretty bohemian life that I was leading,” McMullen said.
In the time she spent in the Bay Area she did everything from canvassing for the Haight and Ashbury Free Clinic to substitute teaching in Oakland Public Schools, all the while practicing on her horn and developing as a musician.
At the age of 35, McMullen enrolled in the postgraduate jazz program at University of North Texas (UNT). She was inspired to do so by a couple of her jazz peers who had graduated from the school. Coming from the liberal backdrops of Stanford and San Francisco, McMullen was perplexed by the culture of the jazz program.
“I was pretty struck, immediately, by how it was really, absolutely dominated by white men,” McMullen said. “All my instructors were white men, the vast majority of the students, the instrumentalists, were white men.”
During her first semester at UNT, she attended a master class featuring two saxophonists from the renowned Count Basie Orchestra. One of them, a white man in his seventies, made a comment that seared itself into McMullen’s mind.
“[He] said, ‘Oh yeah, I never hire women—women just cause problems,’” McMullen said.
She was equally shocked by the absence of any rebuke or reaction to the remark.
“I’m thinking, ‘Well, I’m sure he’s going to get in trouble for this,’” McMullen said. “Nobody said anything, the instructor who was in there didn’t say anything.”
This interaction was indicative of the remainder of McMullen’s time at the university. Her experience there inspired her trademarked term “the jazzhole,” and would prove formative to her fascination with race and gender in jazz education.
“That was really foundational for me in terms of becoming a scholar and an academic, my experience with gender and music and jazz,” McMullen said. She went on to complete her doctorate at the University of California, San Diego.
McMullen is now writing a book on the UNT jazz program, which was the first in a college or university. At the time of the program’s founding in 1946, the university was segregated, ensuring that jazz’s introduction into higher education aligned with its appropriation from Black culture.
“It literally is a Black music that is brought into a white only space,” McMullen said.
As the first program of its kind, McMullen explained, UNT was emulated by the university jazz programs that followed.
“It’s founded on this segregation and that sets a template, that I argue in my book, is a huge piece of the puzzle of how it’s transferred [to other universities],” McMullen said. “It became, in many ways, this competitive, white, toxic masculinity about … who can play in a way that’s measurable to show that you’re better.”
McMullen, who recently visited UNT for the 75th anniversary of its jazz program, noted that the program has made changes in recent years, regarding race and gender diversity, that bring it closer to jazz’s roots.
Since becoming a professor at Bowdoin, McMullen has taught jazz history and led jazz ensembles in a way that works to deconstruct the toxic culture started at UNT.
“[McMullen] is really focused on exploring the social context around music and she’s really pushed me to think about how race, gender and sexuality fit into musical expression,” Inga Dovre ’25 said. “Rather than just, ‘Oh, what’s the form of it? What are the bars telling us? What are the chord progressions telling us?’”
Claire Stoddard ’25, a drummer, talked about how McMullen has inspired her as a musician.
“Having her as a female musician, coming up, it was really empowering, because she’s of such high caliber,” Stoddard said. “Just an incredible musician.”
McMullen is cognizant of her position as a white woman in jazz, not only in her teaching, but also in her playing.
“[I] try to feel like I’m playing with commitment and devotion and care about the lineage [of jazz],” McMullen said. “Trying to think about ‘What is my role as a white woman in jazz? What are the dues that I need to pay?’”
McMullen is the ACLS Frederick Burkhardt Fellow at the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice. Amongst her students, McMullen is legendary for her enthusiasm for jazz—and for her ability to inspire it in others.
“Everytime I see her, she kind of just yells, ‘Jazz!’ at me. It’s a pretty standard greeting from her.” Dovre said. “Then I’ll yell, ‘Jazz!’ back at her.”
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