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Billie Holiday in Performance
Jazz in TimeWomen in Jazz
Women in Jazz, History in the key of jazz Parisian Red Heads, 1927
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Women in Jazz

by Sherrie Tucker, Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies, Hobart & William Smith Colleges

In 1942, Viola Smith, a veteran drummer with 17 years of professional paradiddles under her belt, sent shock waves through the readership of Down Beat by extolling the existence of "hep girls," female jazz musicians "who could sit in any jam session and hold their own." A firestorm of letters-to-the-editor ensued, passionately debating the topic: Can women play jazz?

Audio sample Back Water Blues by Bessie Smith
Recorded February 17, 1927
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)



Bessie Smith
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection

While this controversy may seem hopelessly outdated in an era of such commanding female jazz performers as saxophonists Claire Daly, Fostina Dixon, and Jane Ira Bloom, and drummers Terri Lyne Carrington and Sylvia Cuenca, its effects linger like a haunting refrain. Women who play jazz on saxophone, brass instruments, bass, or drums still encounter befuddled reception to their very presence: "I've never seen a woman do that!" or the ubiquitous, "You play good for a girl!" or "You play like a man!" Commentary about women in jazz still sticks at fundamental questions: Do they exist? Are they serious? Can they play?

Audio sample I Got Rhythm by Ethel Waters
Recorded November 18, 1930
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)


Ethel Waters
Ethel Waters
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection

Although social expectations of what women should and could do impacted their working conditions, reception and opportunities at every turn, female jazz players have proven their chops, repeatedly, for over a century. Women have played jazz on every instrument, in every style and era of the music's history, and have contributed to and engaged the same aesthetic and technical developments as their male colleagues. Yet — with the exception of singers and some pianists — they are invariably perceived as new. Once received as novelties, now more often celebrated as examples of women's progress in society, female jazz musicians are discovered and erased in one fell swoop; marketed as incipient, consumed as curiosities. Yet, despite their aura as perpetually unprecedented, female jazz musicians do have a history.

What are women's roles in jazz history?

Mary Lou Williams
Image courtesy of Chuck Stewart
One way to address the question of women's roles in jazz would be to talk about those with the highest profiles, women who made records and appear in jazz history books. These women are generally vocalists, such as the great Billie Holiday, whose contributions to jazz are widely acknowledged, and sometimes pianists, such as Mary Lou Williams, whose multiple influences as a musician, composer, and arranger, and in shaping the Kansas City sound, are well established. Another route would be to discuss women about whom much less is known: those who played instruments associated with men, often in all-woman bands. We don't tend to think of women saxophonists such as Vi Burnside and Margaret Backstrom squaring off at co-ed jam sessions in the 1930s and 1940s, or groups of 17 women hitting the road together in band buses, but these scenarios existed historically. If we knew more about such women, perhaps the question would be, what roles haven't women played in jazz? Because information on female jazz vocalists is more readily available, this historical sketch concentrates on instrumentalists.

Audio sampleFine and Mellow by Billie Holiday
Recorded December 8, 1957
(Courtesy Verve Music Group)


NPR Audio Feature The NPR 100: "Fine and Mellow"
Critic Nat Hentoff describes Billie Holiday's legendary 1957 performance of this song, a selection from National Public Radio's list of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th Century.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


Billie Holiday
Image courtesy of Herman Leonard
The early music history of the roots of jazz is rich with the active participation of African-American women in spirituals, gospel and blues. Piano skills were historically considered appropriate (and often desirable) for women in both African-American and Euro-American contexts. This is not to say that professional jazz musicianship was always condoned by white and black religious or middle class families. Yet, many female pianists and composers participated in the ragtime craze of the early 1900s. Women pianists, and sometimes brass, reeds and rhythm players, also worked — often in family bands — in circuses, carnivals and tent shows.

In the 1920s, while African-American female vocalists were cutting what are now known as the "classic blues" recordings, often collaborating with (usually, but not always, male) jazz instrumentalists, many female pianists busily participated in other hubs of jazz development. New Orleans pianists included Dolly Adams and Emma Barrett; while the Chicago roster boasted Lil Hardin Armstrong and Lovie Austin. In addition, several female horn players launched formidable careers, including the trumpet playing mother and daughter, Dyer and Dolly Jones. Frequently, women who played instruments other than piano in the 1920s did so in all-woman bands, including Bobbie Howell's American Syncopators and Bobbie Grice's Fourteen Bricktops.

Audio sampleWithout Your Love by Billie Holiday
Recorded June 15, 1937
(Courtesy Verve Music Group)


Audio Feature Wynton Marsalis, musician
Reflections on Billie Holiday
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)


The Great Depression of the 1930s affected all industries, and often resulted in the firing of women workers to provide jobs for unemployed men. However, the alternative economic system provided by gangster-run nightclubs provided work for many jazz musicians, both male and female. Women worked as pianists in otherwise male jazz bands; as instrumentalists in all-woman bands; and as featured players of instruments associated with men, especially if such players provide the services of several entertainers for the price of one, perhaps singing and dancing, as well as playing an instrument, as did "Queen of the Trumpet" Valaida Snow.

Ella Fitzgerald
Image courtesy of William Gottlieb
Virtually forgotten today, but popular in their time, were African-American all-female ensembles such as the Harlem Playgirls. Several white "all-girl" bands of the 1930s gained access to lucrative circuits of the growing mass entertainment industry, particularly those that emphasized images of womanhood already popular, such as the Victorian "angel of the hearth" theme delivered in the light classical fare and billowing dresses of Phil Spitalny's "Hour of Charm" orchestra, or the blonde bombshell as performed by Ina Ray Hutton as she led her Melodears through hot jazz charts.

Gender roles drastically shifted during World War II, resulting in new, if temporary, acceptance of women's presence in male-dominated civilian occupations, including big bands. As the draft eroded memberships of men's bands, all-woman bands enjoyed increased prestigious bookings in major ballrooms and theaters, and in new circuits of military entertainment. The celebrated International Sweethearts of Rhythm played for the segregated black US troops in Europe. Notably, the Sweethearts, along with several other African-American all-female bands, sometimes covertly broke the color line by hiring white women. White all-woman bands of the 1940s included Ada Leonard's "All-American" Girls. Some female players filled vacancies in men's bands: Woody Herman hired trumpet player Billie Rogers and vibist Marjorie Hyams; Gerald Wilson hired trombonist Melba Liston; Lionel Hampton hired saxophonist Elsie Smith; and Benny Carter hired trumpet player Jean Starr.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Morning Edition: Review of Swing Shift
Lynn Neary speaks with Swing Shift author Sherrie Tucker and Clora Bryant of the legendary Prairie View Co-Eds about all-girl bands that arose during the war.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


Despite the common perception that women would become housewives after World War II, women's presence in the labor force grew in the post-war years, though countless Rosie the Riveters were channeled into so-called "pink collar" occupations. Accordingly, many women musicians moved into musical fields traditionally considered "appropriate" for women, such as music education or accompaniment. Some put down their horns and switched to piano or Hammond organ to take advantage of the continuing relative acceptance of women at the keyboard.

Audio sample They Can't Take That Away From Me
Sarah Vaughan

Recorded April 2, 1954
(Courtesy Verve Music Group)


Audio Feature Cassandra Wilson, singer
On the voice of Sarah Vaughan
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)


Sarah Vaughan
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection
Some women from earlier big bands formed 1950s-sized combos. The emergence of television brought employment for some white women musicians in the television bands led by Ina Ray Hutton and Ada Leonard. Women involved in jazz activities of the transformative 1960s include pianist/harpist/percussionist/composer Alice McLeod Coltrane, who replaced McCoy Tyner in John Coltrane's group in 1966, and pianist/organist Amina Claudine Myers, one of the few women associated with the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians).

The emergence of the women's liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s brought new interest in women's status, history, and cultural expression, and thus, a new audience for women's jazz performances, and for recordings and literature pertaining to historical women in jazz. The first Women's Jazz Festival was held in Kansas City in 1978, followed by the first annual New York Women's Jazz Festival. All-woman groups founded in the 1970s include Sisters in Jazz (New York, 1974-1977) and Maiden Voyage (Los Angeles, 1979-present).

Though bringing us many fine players, the 1980s and 1990s cannot be seen as the first time women played jazz at acclaimed professional levels, nor as the first time in which special venues such as all-woman bands or women's jazz festivals proliferated to compensate for the lack of opportunities in the field at large.

If women have played jazz all along, why don't we know more about them?

Feminist historians argue that commonly held definitions of "woman" and "man" are not just about natural attributes, but about social meanings ascribed to "femininity" and "masculinity" and how these relate to power arrangements of a society. In other words, while no inherent differences exist between men and women that would make the latter less suited for jazz musicianship, societal definitions of appropriate gender roles result in quite different expectations, attitudes, and career paths. So while it is true that jazz is a demanding and competitive field for both men and women, it is also true that a woman who shows up for an audition or jam session with a tenor sax or trumpet in her gig bag is greeted with a special variety of raised eyebrows, curiosity and skepticism. Is she serious? Can she play? Time-worn questions about women and jazz buzz through the room before she blows a note.

To ignore the gender of jazz musicians is to ignore the ways that male and female jazz musicians have been differently perceived. But to hail contemporary female jazz musicians as trailblazers is to ignore the hundreds of women who preceded them. Efforts to push beyond "Can women play?" include incorporating knowledge of historical jazzwomen in sites such as this, as well as projects such as the Sisters in Jazz mentorship program of the International Association of Jazz Educators, Cobi Narita's International Women in Jazz, and the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival. All of these work toward a jazz future in which special festivals, organizations, and articles geared toward women in jazz will no longer be necessary.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library: Billie Holiday
NPR's Murray Horwitz and jazz critic and poet AB Spellman recommend Holiday's Lady in Satin (Sony Legacy).
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


NPR Audio Feature NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library: Ella Fitzgerald
NPR's Murray Horwitz and jazz critic and poet AB Spellman recommend Ella's Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie (Verve).
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


NPR Audio Feature NPR's Louis Armstrong Centennial Radio Project: Bessie Smith
Harry "Sweets" Edison, jazz historian Gunther Schuller, and Armstrong himself recall the "Empress of the Blues."
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


NPR Audio Feature NPR's Jazz Profiles: Anita O'Day
Host Nancy Wilson presents this profile of Anita O'Day, a singer who influenced a generation of vocalists with her improvisational range and skill at interpreting a lyric.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


NPR Audio Feature NPR Jazz CD Review: Mildred Bailey Box Set
Jazz composer and historian Loren Schoenberg reviews this long-awaited release, which reveals the relatively unheralded Bailey as a giant among female jazz vocalists.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


NPR Audio Feature NPR's Jazz Profiles: Mary Lou Williams
Host Nancy Wilson presents a profile of pianist Mary Lou Williams, who broke through significant barriers to women in jazz in her roles as a composer, innovator, and mentor.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


NPR Audio Feature NPR Jazz Book Review: Morning Glory
Writer and historian Patricia Willard has a review of this recent biography of incomparable Mary Lou Williams.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


NPR Audio Feature NPR's Marian McPartland: A Tribute to Mary Lou Williams
The host of NPR's award-winning program Piano Jazz performs an excerpt from "Threnody," her musical tribute to Mary Lou Williams.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


NPR Audio Feature NPR Jazz Feature: Rosemary Clooney
Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg presents this profile of female vocalist Rosemary Clooney, still recording and performing at age 71.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


NPR Audio Feature NPR Jazz Feature: Dianne Reeves
Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg presents this profile of female vocalist Dianne Reeves, whose voice is often compared to that of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


NPR Audio Feature NPR Jazz Feature: Jane Monheit
Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg presents this profile of 22-year-old female vocalist Jane Monheit, who released her debut CD, Never Never Land, in 2000.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


NPR Audio Feature NPR Jazz Feature: Stacy Kent
Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg presents this profile of London-based, American-born female vocalist Stacy Kent, 32.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


NPR Audio Feature NPR Jazz Feature: Betty Carter
Dean Olshur presents this profile of Betty Carter, a true jazz original. When her contemporaries moved towards more popular styles in the 1960s, Carter started her own label and ran it for 20 years.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


For more information on women's jazz history, see:

Linda Dahl. Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen (New York, 1989)

Leslie Gourse. Madame Jazz: Contemporary Women Instrumentalists (New York and Oxford, 1995)

D. Antoinette Handy. Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras 2nd ed. (Metuchen, New Jersey, 1998)

D. Antoinette Handy. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm rev. ed. (Metuchen, New Jersey, 1998)

Sally Placksin: American Women in Jazz, 1900 to the Present: their Words, Lives, and Music (New York, 1982)

Sherrie Tucker: Swing Shift: "All-Girl" Bands of the 1940s (Durham, 2000)