Legendary jazz drummer Charli Persip is known for his drumming skills, for the musicians he has played with, and for his off handed comments towards his female students. These comments include remarks about the way students’ clothing fit them and common use of derogatory language about women. “He’s just in class like ‘man, I could really use some pussy right now.’ It’s not really chill in my opinion,” said Zeb Stern, a 22 year old drummer at The New School for Jazz, where Persip leads an instrumental ensemble class. Stern once asked Persip for a drum lesson and Persip told him, “maybe if you had a pussy.”
Persip spends his Wednesdays teaching two ensemble classes. In his second ensemble of the day he tells his students, “Whatever you guys wanna play is cool, just don’t play nothin that’s pornographic…include me in that, if you can find a way to do it.” Dressed in camo pants, accessorized with a custom made wooden cane that has the continent of Africa carved in it, he takes his time walking from the teachers lounge to the classroom right around the corner. Students and teachers greet him on his way, “Hi Charli, how are you doing today?” Persip likes the students, if they can play. “If they can’t play, don’t bother me,” he said. One thing he likes about the school is that they make sure the higher level students are in his classes.
“It takes him about 15 minutes to walk across the 5th floor”, said Briana Williams, a 19 year old student vocalist. “I mean he’s senile, but he’s a legend so he’s still working here.” There is no doubt that Persip, an 89 year old jazz professor at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, is a living legend. He grew up in Newark, New Jersey and made his break after he performed with famous American jazz musician, Tadd Dameron. Persip has played with many other jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker. In fact, he says Miles Davis is the only musician he missed the chance play with during his career.
Persip is known for his crude vocabulary as much as he is known for his playing. “It’s just funny, everyone thinks it’s funny.” said Williams.
Not all students feel that Persip’s comments are funny. Rebecca Zola is a fifth year voice major at The New School. She says she enjoys the school because she likes that she gets to work with a diverse student body and faculty who all have different approaches to their improvising. “I just love getting to work on my craft every day”, she said. She likes that the faculty’s personal experiences range because of their diverse ages. Zola took Persip’s ensemble class in the Fall of 2015. “He basically just came in and we played tunes, and he fell asleep a lot, and he’d sometimes tell us if something sounded good or bad.” she said.
Zola was the only female in her class and Persip would often comment on her appearance. “He told me that he really liked my top because it fit me nicely,” she said. After this specific comment she chose to leave the classroom because she was so uncomfortable. She then brought up the issue to her advisor, Kyle Wilson, who encouraged her to keep telling him whenever something like this happened again. Zola continued to inform him but she’s never heard that an official sexual harassment charge was never filed. Wilson said he was unavailable for interview.
Persip doesn’t blame the females in his class for being offended. “I know I’m a dirty old man” he said. “I live the way I live, I speak the way I speak,” he said. He is currently in a jazz trio with a female bassist and pianist. “I like playing with the two ladies and they’re also beautiful, which really helps a lot, nobody wants to look at no ugly folks on the bandstand,” said Persip. Persip didn’t hire them for their looks but because they play beautifully. “The fact that they’re beautiful, that’s just a plus,” he said.
Alyssa McDoom, a sophomore vocalist has taken an ensemble class with Persip as well. In McDoom’s ensemble Persip didn’t do anything, but she liked it that way, because she was in the ensemble to play with her group, and she enjoyed the freedom of Persip’s inattention. McDoom was pleasantly surprised by how respectful he was to her because she had heard of his reputation of harassing women. She said he would take the time to tell her about the importance of female drummers.
Persip didn’t always feel this way. When he first started playing professionally he didnt believe in women playing jazz. This all changed when he played with a woman trombone player in Dizzy Gillespie’s band. “We became good friends and she sat me down and (…) she said ‘Listen you dumb motherf*****r’,” said Persip. After that moment, he realized he was wrong and that women can play this music because, for him, jazz is spiritual and “How are you going to leave women out of that?,” said Persip. Persip had to complete a preventative sexual harassment course before teaching, which he thinks is a positive thing. “I mean we can joke and laugh and romance or whatever, but women should be respected.”
This doesn’t stop the students from commenting on Persip’s vocabulary. During guitarist Tom McCaffrey’s senior recital he performed a song with the lyrics, “ He called me harry and said I was a wizard and he said he’d take me away. But then he just started smashing my stuff and said I wasn’t magic at all, He said his name wasn’t Hagrid, it was Charli Persip, and he likes to shatter little girl’s dreams”. “I made a goofy joke that had nothing to do with him touching children, it only alluded to the whacky sh*it he says,” McCaffrey said, after another student misinterpreted his lyrics.
Zola believes that the instances of misogyny stems from Persip’s age and status as a jazz musician. “He can’t work, he shouldn’t be working, and he’s not the only one, there are other professors in this situation.” said Zola. Briana Williams also said that she believes professors don’t get fired because they are important figures in the jazz community.
Zola has experienced a teacher who wouldn’t stop hugging her in class and another professor who is infamous for hitting on women in class. “It’s not subtle in any way, when those conversations happen it’s just talking about women as objects,” said Zola. She believes that there will be a transition when these older professors start leaving the school because of their age and are replaced with professors who are more formally trained in education.
Persip believes that his age aids him in his teaching. ”I think it effects it great, I have more to show, I have more to do, I’m very experienced,” he said.
It’s Wednesday afternoon, Persip has left his ensemble class early and is waiting for his ride home from another professor. “You got dimples,” he tells me. “Charli!” Pam Sabrin, the Director of Administration at the jazz school warns him to stop. Charli grins and I leave.