Skip to main content

Happy Mother’s Day everyone! I figured a good way to celebrate Mother’s Day would be to take a look at some of the great women in Jazz. It should come as no surprise to say that women in jazz have often only been allowed a few specific sorts of roles and have often been marginalized when they break out of those roles. It should also not be surprising that in the 21st century, the presence of women in jazz is strong and loud.

It’s depressing to imagine all of the contributions to music and history that women were prevented from making. Consider that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a sister 4 years his senior who would also perform for the courts of Europe with her younger brother and also is said to have composed at a very young age. But once she hit marriageable age, her father would not let her perform and any compositions she is thought to have written are lost to history. What did we miss out on? Who else did we miss out on?

For the record, my own mother’s favorite Jazz is Miles' Porgy and Bess, but truth be told…she’ld prefer opera and/or Aretha Franklin. Dad is the musician, mom is the poet.

I learned things writing this diary, I hope you will while reading it. I thought a Poll on "Who is your favorite woman in jazz?" would be silly, but please do say so in the comments and please do mention any of the many women I've left out. Onward through the squiggle of orange.

First things first….

There was a documentary produced recently which appears to be quite worthwhile. I know a number of the clips I’ve posted today are used in the film.

The Girls in the Band

And there are now organizations dedicated to promoting women in Jazz

International Women in Jazz

Women in Jazz in New York

and this new organization based in Atlanta

Black Women in Jazz

onto the music….

It is hard to imagine Jazz without Ella Jane Fitzgerald, April 25, 1917 – June 15, 1996

But of course folks thought she was not pretty and Chick Webb was reluctant to put her in front of a band because of how she looked.

Jazz without Billie Holiday? (born Eleanora Fagan, April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) Surely you jest!

And she was abused by some of the men in her life and her struggles are well documented.

And of course there is the wonderful Sarah Lois Vaughan, March 27, 1924 – April 3, 1990

Who is said to have been as rowdy and bawdy as any man, and could swear as well as the best of them. And drink and smoke as much too.

Women in the early decades of Jazz were allowed to be singers and not much else. Of course as singers, they are the greatest singers of the 20th century. To hear more of Ella, Billy and Sarah…as well as a number of other singers female and male, please check out my diary on Jazz singers.

Women have been singing Jazz since the 1920s. Here are two women who sang in the speakeasies and the other juice joints during the Jazz Age.

Ethel Waters, October 31, 1896 – September 1, 1977

Bessie Smith, April 15, 1894 – September 26, 1937. Many would call Bessie Smith as the person other than Louis Armstrong who was the first great Jazz singer.

This is a film from the 20s I discovered on youtube. It absolutely is a product of its time with regard to the representation of African Americans, but its fascinating to see. Apparently this is the only film of Bessie Smith.

Jazz was not immune to the sexism of the time. Only an idiot would say a bad word about any of the five women I mention above, but women have often been dismissed in jazz as “simply singers.” There is nothing “simple” about being a great jazz singer, but in a similar manner that we gendered and then undervalued many aspects of the division of labor, singers…especially women singers…are often seen as being “less of a musician” than the other members of the band.

Where are the women saxophonists? Trumpet players? Many of them didn’t get a chance. They did exist. But most weren’t given opportunities to record or to lead their own bands. But Rosie the Riveter wasn’t the only one who go work during World War II.

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was the first integrated all women's band in the United States. They became quite popular in the early 40s and largely disbanded in 1948.

They were led by vocalist and pianist Anna Mae Winburn, née Darden, August 13, 1913 - September 30, 1999

Don't forget the premise to this classic film

And there were other are several women from throughout Jazz's history who have displayed  variety of skills and should not be left out of Jazz's cannon....

Hazel Dorothy Scott (June 11, 1920 – October 2, 1981) was the first woman of color to have her own TV show, The Hazel Scott Show. It first aired in 1950, Nat King Cole’s television program does not air until 1956. She left the United States and the McCarthy era environment for Paris in the late 50s and did not return to the US until 1967.

No discussion of women in Jazz can approach being complete with mentioning the great Mary Lou Williams, May 8, 1910 – May 28, 1981. Pianist, composer and arranger. She wrote for and arranged for Duke Ellington and for Benny Goodman. She was some sort of mentor to Monk and to Bird and to Dizzy.

from wikipedia....

In 1945, Williams composed the bebop hit "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee" for Dizzy Gillespie. "During this period Monk and the kids would come to my apartment every morning around four or pick me up at the Café after I'd finished my last show, and we'd play and swap ideas until noon or later", Williams recalled in Melody Maker.

She wrote and recorded The zodiac suit in 1945. It was performed with the New York Philharmonic at Town Hall.

She lived in Eruope for a few years during the 50s. She played through the 60s and 70s, composing longer pieces. Some of which were performed with the Alvin Alley Dance Company.

I pulled some of her notable achievements and posthumous honors off of wikipedia
•    Guggenheim Fellowships, 1972 and 1977
•    In 1980 Williams founded the Mary Lou Williams Foundation
•    Received the 1981 Duke University's Duke's Trinity Award for service to the university. In 1983, Duke University established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture
•    Since 1996, The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. has an annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival
•    Since 2000, her archives are preserved at Rutgers University's Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark.
•    A Pennsylvania State Historic Marker is placed at 328 Lincoln Ave., Lincoln Elementary School, Pittsburgh, PA noting her accomplishments and the location of the school she attended

I remember reading an old interview with her in Keyboard magazine where she claimed to have been playing modal jazz back in the 40s.

The one feature Carline Ray on bass

Carline Ray, April 21, 1925-July 18, 2013, guitarist, singer, bassist, and member of the International Sweethearts of Jazz.  Ray graduated Julliard in 1946. She played through the 50s and 60s, recorded with Mary Lou Williams in the early 70s, and really never stopped playing and performing at all.

But what about the 50s? Where were the women during the time of hard bop? Right there, if you know where to look.

Melba Doretta Liston January 13, 1926 – April 23, 1999

From Wikipedia

Liston was born in Kansas City, Missouri...She began to work with the emerging major names of the bebop scene in the mid-1940s. She recorded with saxophonist Dexter Gordon in 1947, and joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band (which included saxophonists John Coltrane, Paul Gonsalves, and pianist John Lewis) in New York for a time. She toured with Count Basie for a time, and then with Billie Holiday (1949) but was so profoundly affected by the indifference of the audiences and the rigors of the road that she gave up playing.

She took a clerical job for some years, and supplemented her income by taking work as an extra in Hollywood, including appearances in The Prodigal (1955) and The Ten Commandments (1956). She re-joined Gillespie for tours sponsored by the US State Department in 1956 and 1957, recorded with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (1957), and formed her own all-women quintet in 1958. In 1959, she visited Europe with the show Free and Easy, for which Quincy Jones was music director. She accompanied Billy Eckstine with the Quincy Jones Orchestra on At Basin Street East

Liston is best remembered as an arranger and in the early 60s arranged some records for Randy Weston which are considered jazz classics.

Terry Pollard, August 15, 1931 - December 16, 2009. Pianist

Member of the Michigan Jazz Hall of Fame, Detroit’s Terry Pollard is best known for her work with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs.

Joanne Brackeen, born July 26, 1938, is another pianist. When I was young, Brackeen and Mary Lou Williams were the only two women who were not singers that I was aware of who were Jazz musicians. I can’t say I actually listened to either of them until I was in my 20s. She began performing in the late 50s and worked with Dexter Gordon, Charles Lloyd, Don Cherry and others.

Joanne Brackeen Jazz

In 1969, she was the first woman to play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, recording with them in 1970 (sadly, I cant find any clips from this album on youtube. 1970's Jazz Messengers '70).From 1972-75, she worked in Joe Henderson’s band and then from 75-77 she played with Stan Getz. She continues to perform today.

Carla Bley, née Borg, born May 11, 1936, is a pianist composer and arranger, but best known as a composer and most associated with the avant guard wing of jazz.
Her’s is probably the most inventive website for a jazz musician I've seen after doing 14 of these diaries

Official Website

Bley entered the scene in the late 50s and her compositions were being recorded by 1960 by such folks as George Russell and Jimmy Giuffre. In 1964, she was involved with creating The Jazz Composer’s guild with Michael Mantler. This “guild” morphed into the Jazz Composers Orchestra and they recorded a handful of albums in the latter 60s. She wrote for Charlie Haden’s Liberation Jazz Orchestra.

A major achievement of her’s was the recording Escalator Over The Hill 1971. Its 3 hours long and was recorded over three years, 1968-1970.

She also has recorded with Rock legends Jack Bruce (of Cream) and Nick Mason (Pink Floyd). She released several albums under her own name in the 70s and 80s and continues to perform now.

Geri Allen, born June 12, 1957 in Pontiac, Michigan. I’ve read that Terri Pollard was a mentor to Allen. Pollard’s role in Detroit’s Jazz scene is important. Geri Allen represents the newer generation of Jazz musicians. She came to notoriety in the 1980s and has been playing strong since. I do believe she was (is?) part of the M Bass collectiver with Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, and others.

Geri Allen

She’s recorded with Betty Carter, Charlie Haden, Oliver Lake, Steve Coleman and a host of others.

Terri Lyne Carrington, born August 4, 1965
Official Website

You may have seen Terri Lyne before. Perhaps often. She was the house drummer in Arsenio Hall’s band when he had his talk show in the late 1980s. A friend of mine got to know her some in the early 90s when she was in Al Jarreau’s band. I met her once or twice, though I wouldn’t expect her to remember me. She was/is a cool person

She’s performed with Dizzy, Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Mulgrew Miller. And Geri Allen.

She leads and records with her own trio now, working frequently with yet another great…and relatively new…woman in Jazz, bassist Esperanza Spalding, born October 18, 1984.

It’s not 1943 anymore. Women are playing all sorts of instruments today and recording extensively. In fact I could keep listing women playing jazz today: Cindy Blackman, Dianna Krall, Patrice Rushen, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Jane Ira Bloom, Regina Carter, Kit McClure, Emily Remler, Renee Rosnes. Obviously I have not even mentioned Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Marian McPartland, Nancy Wilson, and many other singers. And I left off two of my personal favorites, Nina Simone and Cassandra Wilson. But also, there are many many women that I know of in the NJ-NYC region who are struggling jazz musicians just like the rest of us. And they play damn well.

Jazz is still dominated by men. Jazz is vicious and cut throat. Jazz is not without its misogyny. Notice, Miles Davis gets a bit of a “pass” for his domestic violence. It gets wrapped up in the “Miles was a complex and angry man” narrative. How’s Cheadle gonna deal with that in the upcoming film?

It’s also worth pointing out that while it is really cool that all of these women were composers and arrangers, consider what that means. An arranger is bit more “behind the scenes”. The arranger is invisible to the audience. I think you can also make an argument about women and pianists, pianists sometimes being valued for their ability to accompany and support rather than for their ability to take center stage. This is a different role from standing alone in front of the audience with the band behind you, playing a 20 minute tenor sax solo that brings the crowd to its feet and to spiritual and emotional ecstasy. I am not saying a woman couldn't do that, I am asking where were the opportunities for her to do least prior to the 1970s (At best).

Jazz college…at least in my day…has a fraternity feeling to it as well as being reminiscent of a sports program. It cannot be easy for young women to operate in that environment. "She plays good...for a girl" is still a repeated phrase.

However, just as we approach—and still yet fail to achieve—gender equality of a sorts, women in Jazz have risen in their visibility and their opportunities. Women will be a significant part of Jazz for decades to come. And since I mention the future….

I’ld like to end with two young ladies I’ve known somewhat since they were born, Leonieke and Natasha Scheuble. Their father is an old friend of mine and a fantastic jazz drummer who has performed at Lincoln Center and with Wynton Marsalis. Their mom is a very smart lady with a Master’s degree in mechanical Engineering and a high powered good job that resulted in the family living in Holland for several years. Both of their parents are some of the nicest people I know. Will these two young ladies become real jazz musicians? Maybe…for their sanity and health, part of me hopes not…..

Thanks again for listening and reading. I think next week I’ll take the time to discuss the few openly gay men in Jazz. There are not many who are or were out, but the few that are happen to be rather significant. Please support your local Jazz musicians and support all local live music.

(PS I told my mom about the paragraph at the beginning where I say Porgy and Bess was her fave and such. She liked it and liked the notion of "Women in Jazz" as my topic for mother's day.)

Originally posted to An Ear for Music on Sun May 11, 2014 at 07:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Protest Music and Community Spotlight.


Who Have You Heard of Before?

3%3 votes
0%0 votes
0%0 votes
6%5 votes
1%1 votes
0%0 votes
0%0 votes
1%1 votes
8%7 votes
3%3 votes
0%0 votes
10%8 votes
5%4 votes
51%41 votes
8%7 votes

| 80 votes | Vote | Results

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site