The women of jazz who fought racism and sexism to open doors for their sisters

The women of jazz who fought racism and sexism to open doors for their sisters

This story was written in celebration of International Jazz Day on April 30, the culmination of Jazz Appreciation Month, which this year was dedicated to “Women’s Impact and Contributions in Jazz.”

Five years ago, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama hosted the International Jazz Day All-Star Gala Concert in a pavilion on the South Lawn of the White House. The IJD program also included events all over Washington, D.C., and I presented a panel on “Women In Jazz” with singers Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington at the National Museum of Women in the Arts that was covered by Billboard.

For the panel, I prepared a brief introductory overview of the history of women in jazz, and that spurred me to look deeper into this topic. I thought it would be fitting to celebrate here the trail-blazing female jazz instrumentalists—many of them overlooked and forgotten—who battled both racism and sexism to play the music they loved.

For decades, these women had to deal with the hardships of life on the road, long absences from home and family, performing in less than respectable bars and nightclubs, and dealing with an exploitative male-dominated and segregated music industry. Many female jazz musicians ended up choosing just to perform locally or put their musical careers on hold to take more secure jobs and raise their families.

Women instrumentalists also had to deal with the often hostile attitude of male musicians and jazz critics who had trouble taking them seriously. That was reflected in a 1938 Downbeat magazine article titled “Why Women Musicians Are Inferior.” The otherwise distinguished New Yorker jazz writer Whitney Balliett wrote in a 1964 feature about pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams that she’s the exception to other women jazz musicians whose short-lived careers he attributed to “the female’s lack of the physical equipment and poise needed to blow, beat and slap instruments like the trumpet, bass and drums.”

Well the best rebuttal to such sexist comments is to go to the video. This clip features some highlights from director Judy Chaikin’s highly recommended 2011 documentary The Girls in the Band about the struggles female jazz musicians had to face. At the 3:51 mark there’s a clip from the 1950s TV show Stars of Jazz in which the patronizing  host Gene Norman asks pianist Marian McPartland if she ever thought it was a handicap “trying to make a profession of being a jazz pianist as a woman.”

For many years, women in jazz enjoyed the most success in certain circumscribed roles—as singers and/or pianists.

That’s reflected in the representation of women recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Awards, the nation’s highest jazz honor which was introduced in 1982. (Note: The award is intended as a fellowship 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 recognized as advocates for the music. Sixteen of them are exclusively singers and/or pianists, three are primarily recognized as a arrangers and composers, and only two are non-pianist instrumentalists (trombonist Melba Liston and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington).

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

Here is her 1935 recording of “The Stuff Is Here And It’s Mellow”—the rhythm section features drummer Gene Krupa of Benny Goodman’s  band.

Brown is credited as being an early influence on Dave Brubeck, who played during intermissions of her shows. Brubeck later paid tribute to her with a solo piano composition “Sweet Cleo Brown.”

LIL HARDIN ARMSTRONG

The tradition of female jazz pianists is a rich one that 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 would later go on to perform with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band starting in the ‘60s.

Piano was the respectable instrument of choice for young women, and sometimes their formal musical training surpassed that of many male musicians. Such was the case with Lil Hardin Armstrong, who exemplified the adage “Behind every great man is a great woman.”

She graduated from Fisk University in Nashville, and moved with her family to Chicago. She was performing with cornetist King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, when he sent for a young cornetist from New Orleans named Louis Armstrong to join his band. She gave Armstrong a makeover to make him not look so “country.”

Armstrong and Hardin got married in 1924. She assisted Armstrong in learning classical music, encouraged him to be more assertive, and eventually pushed him to leave Oliver’s band later that year. She was the pianist on the first recording sessions of Armstrong’s Hot Five. She helped write down the arrangements and composed such tunes as “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” Armstrong’s Hot Five/Hot Seven sessions (with Earl “Fatha” Hines later filling the piano chair) are considered 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 age 73 while playing “St. Louis Blues” at a tribute concert to Armstrong in Chicago in August 1971, a month after the jazz legend’s death.

                                                  VALAIDA SNOW

Like many female jazz artists, Valaida Snow came from a musical family, and began stealing the show at age 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 nicknamed “Little Louis,” and Armstrong himself called her “the second best trumpet player” in the world after himself. W.C. Handy, the Father of the Blues, named her the “Queen of the Trumpet.”

Snow never made a commercial recording as a trumpeter in the U.S., but she did record dozens of sides in European studios, including what became her signature song, “High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm.” 

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

She never recovered physically or emotionally from the experience, and failed to regain her former success. She died in 1956 in relative obscurity.

                      

MARY LOU WILLIAMS

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

Williams soon found herself in demand as an arranger and composer by some of the top bandleaders of the Swing Era, 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 earned a reputation as the “Mother of Bebop.” Her apartment became a meeting place for musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Pianists Bud Powell and and Thelonious Monk brought their compositions to her to review. She began writing bebop tunes herself, including “In The Land of Oo-Bla-Dee” for Gillespie’s band. 

In 1945, she also wrote the extended 12-part “Zodiac Suite,” one of the first modern jazz symphonic compositions. Here is Part 4 “Cancer” of the “Zodiac Suite” featuring tenor saxophone legend Ben Webster.   

In 1954, she converted to Catholicism and took a hiatus from performing for several years, establishing the Bel Canto Foundation to help musicians struggling with addiction. When she returned to performing, she began writing jazz-influenced sacred music, including a mass, “Music for Peace,” later known as “Mary Lou’s Mass” when it was choreographed by Alvin Ailey for his dance troupe.

She even performed a two-piano concert in 1977 at Carnegie Hall with free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor in 1977. 

MELBA LISTON

In her career, trombonist Melba Liston had to persevere and overcome many of the obstacles faced by women jazz instrumentalists, paving the way for women in jazz roles other than vocalist or pianist. Interviewed by writer Linda Dahl for the book Stormy Weather, a history of women in jazz, Liston observed, “I had to prove myself like Jackie Robinson.”

Liston, who grew up mostly in Los Angeles, was one of a handful of female musicians to perform with all-male bands in the 1940s. She performed with tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon’s small combos, Gerald Wilson’s big band, 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 sit well with some of the other band members who wanted to see one of their  friends join the band. Liston recalled in Dahl’s book that the band members told Dizzy: “You sent all the way to California for a bitch.”

But Gillespie had asked Liston to bring along at least two of her arrangements, which he asked the band to play. 

“And of course they got about two measures and fell out and got all confused and stuff,” Liston recalled, “And Dizzy said, ‘Now who’s the bitch. Dizzy was really something. So after that I was everybody’s sister, mama, auntie.”

But experiences like touring the Jim Crow South with Billie Holiday in 1949 and working for little money, proved disheartening. She took the first of several hiatuses in her musical career in the 1950s to take a clerical job for several years with the Los Angeles Board of Education.

She would later come back to Join Gillespie’s band on State Department-sponsored tours in 1956 and 1957 and formed her own all-female quintet. She then performed for several years with Quincy Jones’ touring band. 

Here’s Liston performing with Quincy Jones’ band in Switzerland in 1960.

Liston became a sought-after arranger, even working for a while for Motown Records. But she was best known for her on-and-off partnership for nearly 40 years with pianist Randy Weston, arranging compositions (mostly his own) on many of his albums.

THE INTERNATIONAL SWEETHEARTS OF RHYTHM

This all-women swing band was in a league of their own. It was the first integrated all-women band in the U.S. Pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines called them the “first freedom riders” because they broke the Jim Crow laws by touring the South by bus and performing onstage together. They also had a secret weapon to fool the local sheriffs: The white members of the band used makeup to darken their complexions to pass as black.

The band was mostly unknown to white America but enjoyed a huge following among African Americans. That’s because they only performed at venues such as the Apollo Theater in Harlem and the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., that were predominantly for Black audiences. 

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

In 1941, the band turned into a professional act, broke its connections with the 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 Latina, Asian, Puerto Rican, and Native American members.

Vocalist 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’s a brief history of the band that was prepared by the Piney Woods School in 2011 for Jazz Appreciation Month.

And boy could these ladies swing:

After World War II ended and male musicians returned, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm found it harder to get bookings and disbanded in 1949.

Trumpeter and vocalist Ernestine “Tiny” Davis was one of the big band’s top soloists. Louis Armstrong even tried to hire Davis for his band for much more money, but she wouldn’t leave the all-women band.

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

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

CLORA BRYANT

Clora Bryant called herself a “trumpetiste” and came of age in the 1940s when she fell in love with the new bebop style, and was the only female trumpeter to play with both Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Trumpeter Gillespie considered her his protege, and gave her one of his mouthpieces. Interviewed in the documentary Trumpetistically, Clora Davis, Gillespie said: “She has the feeling of the trumpet. The feeling, not just the notes.” 

She had earlier been a member of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm in its latter years and later joined another all-women band, the Queens of Swing.   

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

In 1988, Bryant wrote a letter to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, saying she hoped to become “the first lady horn player to be invited to your country to perform.” A year later she became the first female jazz musician to tour the Soviet Union.

TERRY POLLARD

Pianist and vibraphonist Terry Pollard was active on the Detroit jazz scene, but was another of those female jazz artists who was overlooked. She enjoyed her biggest 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 a year later won Downbeat magazine’s New Artist award. But shortly after releasing her first album as a leader in 1956, she basically retired from a full-time music career to raise her family and mostly performed in the Detroit area.

Pollard was an inspiration to young Detroit-area musicians. Pianist Geri Allen, profiled recently in DK by Denise Oliver Velez, said in an NPR interview that it was “a breakthrough moment for me” when she heard Pollard playing with Gibbs. Allen said she was impressed “seeing her and how fierce she was. She commanded the bandstand in a way that I will never forget.”

Pollard put together an all-female septet to perform alongside trumpeter Clark Terry’s all-male septet on the 1954 album produced by the noted jazz writer Leonard Feather: Cats vs. Chicks:  A Jazz Battle of the Sexes.

Appropriately on the Irving Berlin tune, “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” from the musical Annie Get Your Gun, the soloists from each band square off. The male musicians all had long, successful careers; nearly all the women did not.

Pollard gave a truly remarkable performance when she appeared with Gibbs on The Tonight Show hosted by Steve Allen in 1956. Just consider the historical context—this appearance was only a year after Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

On the first tune, “Gibberish,” Pollard mostly accompanies Gibbs on vibes. But watch what happens on the second tune, “Now’s the Time,” at the 2:30 mark when the two play a duet on the vibraphone with Allen sitting in on piano. And then at 3:39, Pollard playfully pushes Gibbs to the side so she can play by herself.

So let’s pay tribute to these jazz women who blazed a trail for their sisters to follow.

As the women’s movement took hold in society in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, women in jazz began playing a more visible role. Women’s jazz festivals sprung up in Kansas CIty, New York, and in Washington, D.C., at the Kennedy Center. And more opportunities emerged as jazz education programs were established at universities across the country.

The April 30 International Jazz Day All-Star Global Concert featured female jazz artists from around the world:  saxophonist Melissa Aldana (Chile), trumpeter Ingrid Jensen (Canada), pianists  Amina Figarova (Azerbaijan) and Junko Onishi (Japan), and vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Andra Day, Veronica Swift, and Roberta Gambarini (Italy).

Everyone is welcome to post comments and clips of their favorite women jazz artists past and present.

Editor’s note, May 4, 2021: This story and lead image have been edited to conform with the Daily Kos stylebook.

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