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Scott Tinkler: Cancel Culture and James Morrison

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

By Jake Amy, Hugh Heller, Yara Alkurd, Rose Bassett, Ella Clair and Emma Volard

Scott Tinkler outside
Photo: provided by Scott

In the last fortnight, it emerged that James Morrison, a titanic figure in the Australian jazz community, wrote a character reference for a male student, helping to strike a plea deal to 'downgrade his two rape charges to indecent assault'. After a surge in demand on social media for one of the Australian jazz “boys club” members to speak up about the misogyny that has plagued the scene, Attaboi invited 50 elite male musicians to discuss the issue. Only three replied, and one declined. Internationally-renowned trumpeter Scott Tinkler accepted our request for an interview. Jake spoke with him at length about the Morrison incident and the role of men in addressing inequality. Here is an abridged version of the conversation.

Scott Tinkler playing trumpet
Photo: Andrew Cowan

Recently, Australian jazz musician and educator James Morrison wrote a character reference for a student who admitted to indecent assault. What do you think about this?

It’s very difficult to comment on James writing a character reference for someone as I only read the ABC article. I don’t know what James’s relationship is with the perpetrator, but personally, it feels like he’s taking sides. To allow a student (who’s under a curfew) to enter Victoria in order to perform with his band, especially in a town where the victim was living, is just outrageous. It’s very hard to see any way that James will come out looking ‘good’ on that front. Not that it should matter. 

A whole other level of the problem comes from people worrying about how they are perceived politically. People are scared to comment on this James Morrison issue because it may affect their future relationship with him. Your relationship with James Morrison is not as important as upholding women's rights. 

(I guess I can talk so openly about this because any power that might be perceived of me or my name in the scene doesn't actually equate to anything. I'm not part of any university or corporation. No one has power over me and I don't have power over anyone else. I'm just a freelance musician living on a little island down south. I have nothing to lose. By talking to you about this, maybe I can actually learn something about the way I think).

We could say that James wanted to help support both the victim and the perpetrator to help them through this? Maybe he didn't want to just ‘cancel’ this kid? I think it doesn’t matter what the reason is: the support to the perpetrator should not be given in the public realm. I think the way to do it is to offer therapy and change the way they think about life. I think James’s support given to the perpetrator is allowable to be very angry at.

Why has there been such a code of silence in the jazz scene about these issues?

It seems to me that there might be a large part of historical jazz culture which is quite misogynist. I mean, without a doubt there was. But I think the problem is a ‘systemic’ thing. Inequality exists throughout society on such a huge level and we can’t just say that there’s a problem in the jazz scene without addressing the fact that this problem exists in every aspect of society. I think the ‘code of silence’ you say may exist is not a vindictive thing, it’s just a horrible reflection of society and how people live. 

When I was younger, this was something that I didn’t think about. You’d hear little niggles here and there about things…  ‘I can’t believe that teacher is going out with that young girl’... but it just wasn’t as open, as talked about, as acknowledged, and as in-your-face as it is now. Nowadays, these subjects are talked about more openly. The change is fantastic, but these issues are so deep and very systemic, and I think the level of inequality is rife beyond just ‘men and women’. 

(There’s obviously inequalities between people of differing colours, and on top of that, if you’re on the lower end of the income spectrum, to even think about having the life of a musician is pretty privileged anyway).

Scott Tinkler in tree
Photo: Andrew Cowan
"Inequality exists throughout society on such a huge level and we can’t just say that there’s a problem in the jazz scene without addressing the fact that this problem exists in every aspect of society."

Why aren't we hearing from the older generation?

I just don't know… Perhaps discussion is most visible online, and the perception that we’re not hearing from the older generation might be because they're simply not on Facebook. I guess I'm an older person now. Personally, I don't find Facebook to be a very healthy space in a lot of ways. Certainly I find it difficult to have discussions like this on there. Invariable trolls. As far as virtue signalling goes, I feel I've been far more active behind-the-scenes than I have on social media. If we're not hearing from the older generation on social media, I’d like to think that those people are actually being very active offline. The whole virtue signalling thing is a very touchy area… 

In a world with something such as ‘cancel culture’, things could go very badly for you if you hold a position at a university and you do say something which is interpreted a certain way. I have a problem with that. As a society, we need to be careful of knee-jerk reactions. It can be counterproductive to say ‘you're fucked, you’re out of here, we all hate you’. It can scare people away from growing. It should be okay for people to make a ‘slightly wrong’ comment because discussion is so important. (There's also a fine balance between allowing people to be wrong and convincing them that they're right). There are misogynist, racist musicians who you do find out about on places like Facebook. Those people do need to be taught in a positive, healthy way. 

In fact, I got ‘cancelled’ by someone the other day for no other reason than liking a post on Instagram. People might say, ‘oh God, that's typical of someone like him, he doesn't even realise he's being misogynist’. The truth is, they might be very right. I just need to be told. Then I'll learn and hopefully I won't do it again. I’ve definitely had ingrained, socialised ideas within myself that I didn't even realise I had.

So many men I’ve talked to have the opinion that ‘if you’re good, you’ll get booked’. In relation to the recent issue, does that mean that ‘if you’re good, then criminal charges don’t matter’?

That statement totally highlights the severe level of inequality in the scene. I would like to see James make a public statement on this. I'd like to watch his face and see him try to explain to us why he supported this perpetrator. Is it really just because he's a good musician? Being a good musician doesn't mean you're a good person.

I was watching Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a senator in America. She’s this young, vibrant, intelligent woman who was verbally abused by Ted Yoho, another senator. She rightly outed him. He apologized, but she said, ‘I'm not accepting your apology. I'm the same age as your daughter and you’re calling me a “fucking bitch”. It doesn't matter if you've got daughters. It doesn't matter if you’ve got a wife. It doesn't matter if you love your mother. You still abuse women’. It was a powerful speech. Just because you've got daughters and you love them, doesn't mean you can't be a rapist.

Facilitating education is obviously a huge responsibility. Do you think that the values of our educators in tertiary systems reflect the values that we want to pass on to the next generation of musicians?

I mean, we actually need to pass our values onto students much earlier than at university. Somewhere along the line in primary school and high school, females drop out of music. Historically, there've been a hell of a lot more male auditions for university music courses, compared to female. So, it's really not just at the university level that this needs to be addressed. It needs to be addressed well before that. There's a lot of boy-ish behaviour that occurs in high school. That teenage boy attitude probably needs to be put in check more than anything. Unfortunately, some boys carry their teenage attitudes into their 20’s and through into university. The education system has definitely changed a lot in the past 20 years. Places like Monash University and the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) are actively hiring amazing women and seeking parity in the student body. It’s so fantastic to see empowering, female role models such as Andrea Keller and Sunny Kim being employed.

J: What do you think about the implementation of quotas in universities for staffing and student intake?

It's incredibly complex. It would be lovely to see parity in student intake, but I mean, one year I’d love to see 80% or even 90% women, just because most of the students were that good on a meritocracy level and it just so happened to go that way.  My wife pointed out to me that there may be an overreaction to quotas. If we do try to achieve a quota, letting more women into a course may not be such a bad thing. Men have been so privileged in the past… Surely it doesn't hurt for there to be a bit of an opposite reaction for a while to try and balance it out.

Have you experienced sexist ‘locker room’ talk, and is that when only males are present?

Oh yeah, I reckon. And it depends on the scene, too. There's a ‘functional’ music world, like the ‘commercial’ music world, and in my experience, it can be a lot more misogynist and blokey. The ‘creative’ music scene is another sort of world that I've existed in since I was in my mid to late 20s, and I think it’s different. It’s such a different environment when you're playing in small jazz groups or working with people like Andrea Keller or international artists like Cindy Blackman.

Linda May Han Oh with bass
Linda May Han Oh. Photo: Shervin Lainez

Do you think that there are different expectations from bookers for female and male musicians?

I think that bookers do have different expectations. I think that there’s an expectation for women to ‘dress’. Not seductively, but in a way that they will have a ‘look’ about them. I don’t think that anybody would ever have a go at a guy about the way they dressed. I may be speaking out of my ass here, but this is actually what I see in advertising. But then again, I don’t think that my favorite female artists have ever presented themselves that way at all… For example, Linda Oh seems to be in control of her image. She presents herself honestly. I guess the thing is, it's not the really strong people that we have to worry about. It's the people who might be influenced the other way. [Again] it's not just a jazz thing: that’s a society thing.

If you were tasked with forming a group to educate and rehabilitate young men in the music scene, where would you start?

I actually think that the young men in the music scene would rehabilitate the older people in the music scene a lot better. Nowadays, I think there's a lot more ‘wokeness’ happening in the music scene, but young men still need to work with young women, play music together, and get the fuck over it.

There was an all-male band who posted a big rave about supporting women in music. It was really positive and then someone else commented something along the lines of, ‘yeah, but you're all white blokes… what are you doing about it?’. I think that’s an interesting debate, and had the band leader sacked two guys and replaced them with women for the sake of ‘looking better’, that would not be the best way to go. There are other ways to allow women their strength.

If someone asked me ‘how can we do better as men in the scene?’, I don't want to relinquish my identity [as a male]. I think [guys] need to be really conscious of how our actions and words affect others. It’s not that dissimilar from picking up your instrument and improvising. You need to have the same attitude with music as with the people around you. When you play, you'll learn how notes change in the environment that you're in. You'll learn how to change the sound of the chord, or the rhythm, or the texture, the tune or where the tunes are heading to, or what's happening dynamically in that situation. It's the same with your actions and words. We need to address those things and learn from them. When you play, you’ve got to have no fear in doing what you think is right. 

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We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article.

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