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The ladies of jazz who fought towards racism and sexism to open doorways for his or her sisters

Female instrumentalists also had to grapple with the often hostile attitudes of male musicians and jazz critics, who struggled to take them seriously. That was reflected in a 1938 Downbeat Magazine article entitled "Why Women Musicians Are Inferior." The otherwise respected New York jazz writer Whitney Balliett wrote in an article in 1964 about the pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams that she was the exception to other jazz musicians whose short-lived careers he attributed to the "lack of physical equipment and equilibrium in women." Percussion and percussion instruments such as trumpet, bass and drums. "

Well, the best counter-argument to such sexist comments is to go to the video. This clip contains some highlights from the 2011 documentary, The Girls in the Band, recommended by director Judy Chaikin, about the struggles faced by female jazz musicians. At 3:51 am there is a clip from the 1950s TV show Stars of Jazz in which patronizing presenter Gene Norman asks pianist Marian McPartland if she ever thought it was a handicap "as a woman." trying to get into a profession as a jazz pianist. ”

For many years women had the greatest success in jazz in certain defined roles– –as a singer and / or pianist.

This is reflected in the representation of female recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Awards, the nation's highest jazz award, introduced in 1982. (Note: The award is intended as a scholarship for living jazz artists.)

Of the 161 Jazz Masters to date, only 24, or about 15%, are women, and three of them are non-musicians who are recognized as advocates of music. 16 of them are exclusively singers and / or pianists, three are mainly recognized as arrangers and composers, and only two are non-pianistic instrumentalists (trombonist Melba Liston and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington).

The first instrumentalist to be recognized as a NEA Jazz Master was Cleopatra Brown (also a singer) in 1987. She was a boogie-woogie and step piano player who replaced Fats Waller as a pianist on New York radio station WABC. In 1959 she largely retired from music to become a nurse.

Here is her 1935 recording of "The Stuff Is Here And It's Mellow".– –Drummer Gene Krupa from Benny Goodman's band can be seen in the rhythm section.

Brown is seen as an early influence on Dave Brubeck, who played during the breaks of their shows. Brubeck later paid tribute to her with a solo piano composition "Sweet Cleo Brown".


The tradition of female jazz pianists is rich and goes back to the early years of jazz in New Orleans. Pianists like Sweet Emma Barrett and Billie Pierce began their careers in the 1920s and later performed with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band from the 1960s.

The piano was the respected instrument of choice for young women, and at times their formal musical training surpassed that of many male musicians. Such was the case of Lil Hardin Armstrong, who exemplified the saying, "Behind every great man is a great woman."

She graduated from Fisk University in Nashville and moved to Chicago with her family. She performed with cornetist King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band when he sent a young New Orleans cornetist named Louis Armstrong to join his band. She gave Armstrong a makeover so he didn't look so "rural".

Armstrong and Hardin married in 1924. She helped Armstrong learn classical music, encouraged him to be more confident, and eventually urged him to leave Oliver's band later that year. She was the pianist when Armstrong's Hot Five was first recorded. She helped write the arrangements and composed pieces like "Struttin’ With Some Barbecue ". Armstrong's Hot Five / Hot Seven sessions (Earl “Fatha” Hines later filled the piano stool) are among the most influential recordings in 20th century American music.

She would later form her own big band. Her divorce from Armstrong was finalized in 1938. She died of a heart attack at the age of 73 when she called “St. Louis Blues ”at a tribute concert to Armstrong in Chicago in August 1971, one month after the death of the jazz legend.


Like many jazz artists, Valaida Snow came from a musical family and began stealing the show at the age of 5 as a member of her father's performance troupe. She was a singer, dancer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist, but she was best known as a trumpet virtuoso.

She was called "Little Louis", and Armstrong himself called her "the second best female trumpeter in the world". TOILET. Handy, the father of the blues, called her the "queen of the trumpet".

Snow never made a commercial record as a trumpeter in the US, but she has recorded dozens of pages in European studios, including what became her signature song. "High hat, trumpet and rhythm."

Snow was a bigger star overseas than in the US, and she is credited with helping spread the jazz craze across Europe. While living in Europe, she toured Denmark when the Nazis occupied the country. She spent 10 weeks in custody in Nazi-run Danish prisons and finally left the country in 1942 on an American ship sent to rescue refugees as part of a prisoner exchange.

She did not recover from the experience physically or emotionally and could not regain her previous success. She died in relative darkness in 1956.


Mary Lou Williams was hailed as "one of the greatest swing pianists of both sexes" in the 1930s as a soloist in the Kansas City-based band Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy. But she was much more than a "pianist". It was her work as a composer and arranger that helped the band achieve national success. Here is one of the songs she wrote, arranged, and performed with the band:

Williams was soon sought after as arranger and composer by some of the swing-era best bandleaders, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman. In 1937 Goodman recorded her boogie-woogie tune "Roll’ Em ".

But Williams' adventurous musical spirit continued to evolve beyond the swing era. In the mid-1940s she gained the reputation of the "mother of Bebop". Her apartment became a meeting place for musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk brought her compositions for review. She began writing bebop pieces of her own, including "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee" for Gillespie's band.

(In 1945 she also wrote the expanded 12-part “Zodiac Suite” one of the first modern jazz symphony compositions. Here is Part 4 “Cancer” of the “Zodiac Suite” with the tenor saxophone legend BenWebster

She converted to Catholicism in 1954 and took several years off to set up the Bel Canto Foundation to help musicians struggling with addiction. When she performed again, she began writing jazz-influenced sacred music, including a mass, "Music for Peace" later known as "Mary Lou & # 39; s Mass" when she was choreographed by Alvin Ailey for his dance company has been.

In 1977 she even gave a two-piano concert at Carnegie Hall with free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor.


In her career, trombonist Melba Liston had to endure and overcome many of the obstacles jazz instrumentalists faced in order to pave the way for women in other jazz roles as a singer or pianist. In an interview with writer Linda Dahl for the book Stormy Weather, A Story of Women in Jazz, Liston remarked, "I had to prove myself like Jackie Robinson."

Liston, who grew up mostly in Los Angeles, was one of the few female musicians to appear with all-male bands in the 1940s. She performed with the small combos of tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, the Big Band of Gerald Wilson and the Count Basie Band.

When Dizzy Gillespie invited her to join his bebop big band as a trombonist and arranger in the late 1940s, it didn't go well with some of the other band members who wanted to join one of their friends in the band. Liston recalled in Dahl's book that the band members said to Dizzy, "You sent all the way to California to get a bitch."

But Gillespie had asked Liston to bring at least two of their arrangements that he had the band play.

"And of course they took like two things and fell out and got it all messed up and stuff," recalled Liston. "And Dizzy said," Well who is the bitch? Something was really dizzy. After that I was everyone's sister, mom, aunt. "

But experiences like touring Jim Crow South with Billie Holiday in 1949 and working for little money proved daunting. In the 1950s she took the first of several breaks in her musical career to work for several years as an employee of the Los Angeles Board of Education.

She later returned to Gillespie's band on State Department-sponsored tours in 1956 and 1957, forming her own all-female quintet. She then performed with Quincy Jones' touring band for several years.

This is Liston, who performed in Switzerland with Quincy Jones' band in 1960.

Liston became a sought-after arranger and even worked for Motown Records for a while. However, she was best known for her almost 40-year partnership with pianist Randy Weston, who arranged compositions (mostly his own) on many of his albums.


This all-female swing band was in a league of its own. It was the first integrated all-women band in the American pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines, whom they called the "First Freedom Rider" because they violated the Jim Crow laws by touring the south by bus and performed together on stage. They also had a secret weapon used to fool the local sheriffs: the band's white members used makeup to darken their skin color and appear black.

The band was largely unknown to white America, but enjoyed a large following among African Americans. That's because they only performed in places like the Apollo Theater in Harlem and the Howard Theater in Washington, DC, which were mostly intended for the black audience.

T.The band was formed in 1937, and its original members attended Piney Woods Country Life School, a boarding school for African American children in rural Mississippi. Most of the band members were orphans. Originally known as Swinging Rays of Rhythm, the band initially began touring to raise funds for their school.

In 1941 the band turned into a professional act, disconnected from school, added new members such as trumpeter Ernestine "Tiny" Davis and saxophonist Vi Burnside, and became the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Most of the musicians were black, but the band also included members from Latina, Asia, Puerto Rico, and Native American people.

Singer Anna Mae Winburn had led an all-male band in Omaha, but when many of the musicians were lost to the draft, she accepted an invitation to become the bandleader of the all-female swing band.

Here is a brief history of the band that Piney Woods School prepared for Jazz Appreciation Month in 2011.

And boy could these ladies swing:

After the end of World War II and the return of male musicians, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm found it harder to get bookings and to break up in 1949.

Trumpeter and singer Ernestine "Tiny" Davis was one of the big band's top soloists. Louis Armstrong even tried to hire Davis for his band for a lot more money, but they wouldn't leave the all-women band.

After the band split up, Davis formed her own all-women band The Hell Divers, which included drummer Ruby Lucas, her partner for more than 40 years. In the 1950s, the two women opened their own club in Chicago called Tiny & Ruby & # 39; s Gay Spot, a popular spot for gays and lesbians.

Tiny and Ruby became cultural icons of the gay rights movement. This is an excerpt from a 1987 documentary by Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss, Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin & # 39; Women.


Clora Bryant called herself "Trumpeter" and grew up in the 1940s when she fell in love with the new bebop style. She was the only female trumpeter to play with both Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Trumpeter Gillespie considered her his protégé and gave her one of his mouthpieces. Gillespie, interviewed in the documentary Trumpetistic, Clora Davis, said: "she has the feeling the trumpet. The feeling, not just the grades. "

She had been a member of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm for the past few years and later joined another all-women band, the Queens of Swing.

It became a mainstay of the Los Angeles jazz scene but was largely passed over by the music industry. She only made one album as a leader in her career – Gal with a Horn in 1957. But the label's producers, despite their objections, demanded that she sing and play the trumpet on the eight tracks as well.

In 1988, Bryant wrote a letter to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev saying she hoped to become "the first horn player invited to your country to perform". A year later she toured the Soviet Union as the first female jazz musician.


The pianist and vibraphonist Terry Pollard was active in the Detroit jazz scene, but was also one of the overlooked jazz artists. She had her greatest success in the mid-1950s when she was discovered by vibraphonist Terry Gibbs and toured and recorded with his band. She recorded her first album as a leader in 1955 and won Downbeat magazine's New Artist Award a year later. However, shortly after she released her first album as a Leader in 1956, she basically retired from a full-time music career to raise her family and performed mostly in the Detroit area.

Pollard was an inspiration to young musicians from the Detroit area. Pianist Geri Allen, who recently profiled Denise Oliver Velez in DK, said in an NPR interview that it was "a breakthrough for me" when she heard Pollard play with Gibbs. Allen said she was impressed “to see her and how wild she was. She commanded the bandstand in a way I'll never forget. "

Pollard put together an all-female septet that was performed along with trumpeter Clark Terry's all-male septet on the 1954 album produced by noted jazz writer Leonard Feather: Cats vs. Chicks: A Jazz Battle of the Sexes.

In keeping with the Irving Berlin piece “Anything You Can Do (I can do it better”) from the musical Annie Get Your Gun, the soloists of each band meet. The male musicians all had long and successful careers; Almost all women didn't.

Pollard gave a truly remarkable performance when she appeared with Gibbs on the Steve Allen-hosted Tonight Show in 1956. Just think of the historical context – this gig was just a year after Rosa Parks refused to seat a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

On the first melody, "Gibberish", Pollard Gibbs usually accompanies vibes. But see what happens to the second tune, "Now & # 39; s the Time", at 2:30 am when the two play a duet on the vibraphone and Allen is at the piano. And then, at 3:39 am, Pollard playfully pushes Gibbs aside so she can play alone.

Let's pay tribute to these jazz women who paved the way for their sisters to follow.

When the women's movement prevailed in society in the late 1960s and 1970s, women played a more visible role in jazz. Women's jazz festivals sprung up in Kansas City, New York, and Washington, DC, at the Kennedy Center. Opportunities arose when jazz education programs were launched at universities across the country.

The All-Star Global Concert on April 30th on International Jazz Day consisted of jazz artists from all over the world: saxophonist Melissa Aldana (Chile), trumpeter Ingrid Jensen (Canada), pianist Amina Figarova (Azerbaijan) and Junko Onishi (Japan) ) and the singers Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Andra Day, Veronica Swift and Roberta Gambarini (Italy).

Everyone is invited to post comments and clips from their favorite jazz artists from the past and present.

Editor's Note, May 4, 2021: This story and main image have been edited to match the Daily Kos style book.

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