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Women in Jazz History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Jazz is a definitive American musical genre, but it is often associated with male performers. What role have women played historically in this art form? In this lesson, we'll explore the history of women in jazz and discuss key figures.

Women and Jazz

In the world of jazz music, there is a common trend of assigning royal titles to major figures. You've probably heard of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, or Benny Goodman, King of Swing. Jazz is a form of musical expression born in the United States, originally amongst African American communities, that emphasizes freedom of form, improvisation, and virtuosic skill. However, this motif of freedom and equality has not always been the reality, and history tends to remember a disproportionate number of male versus female musicians. But, was this reality? Were there really only a few women involved in the history of jazz music? Let's put it this way: where would any royal court be without its queens?

Female Singers

Let's start by looking at one of the most obvious areas where we find substantial female contributors in the history of jazz. Across time, many female musicians have made names for themselves as vocalists within various jazz ensembles. One of the first names to become an internationally-recognized standard was Billie Holiday, serving under the royal title of Lady Day. Holiday was one of the foremost figures in jazz in the 1930s, setting standards for virtuosic skill with her definitive improvised vocals. Later, another African American female vocalist named Sarah Vaughn would help redefine jazz music in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Perhaps the definitive female vocalist of jazz history, however is the Queen herself, the First Lady of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald's renditions of popular jazz tunes are generally considered the international standard, the bar by which all other vocalists are measured.

Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald

Female Instrumentalists

These female vocalists left a visible, or should I say auditory, impact on jazz, and are remembered for it. However, history does not always remember the many female instrumentalists who helped define the genre. There are a few major names. Dolly Jones was one of the first female trumpeters to achieve national recognition for her skills and the first to be professionally recorded. Vi Redd was a saxophonist who is generally considered to be a pioneer in breaking gender stereotypes. The top of the pyramid, however, many argue belongs to Mary Lou Williams. Williams was a pianist of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Not only was she an exceptionally gifted performer, but she wrote hundreds of songs for such prominent figures as Duke Ellington, and helped train Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and others. An entire generation of jazz music can be traced to this single figure.

Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams

Rules and Exceptions

The women we've talked about so far achieved national, and international fame. However, it should be noted that all were constantly fighting against gender (and racial) stereotypes, and more often represent the exception rather than the rule. Across jazz history, female musicians had a variety of experiences, and not all resulted in worldwide recognition.

Early Jazz

The earliest female figures in jazz music were generally pianists. This stemmed from the fact that the piano was an instrument deemed acceptable for women in the late 19th century, and many women performed in churches. In the South, it was amongst gospel-influenced African Americans that jazz first appeared, and so women often found roles as pianists.

Throughout the next few decades, jazz grew, and many women took part in that. The 1920s, defined by the new woman of the post-suffrage world, provided an environment for experimentation and more females appeared as vocalists and instrumentalists. Only a few achieved national fame, but particularly around Harlem there were opportunities.

Jazz After the 1920s

The Great Depression of the 1930s represented a national shift, as women lost opportunities so that more men could find work. Some women formed their own all-female jazz bands, which became popular in many areas. For others, the role of pianist in otherwise all-male bands was still generally available.

Then came World War II. The men went off to war, and opened the floodgates for all-female jazz bands. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm became the definitive jazz band of the era, widely embraced by a nation that saw female participation in mainstream culture as part of a supportive wartime community. It should be noted that these musicians were still held to strict standards of feminine behavior and beauty as a condition of their fame.

A lead singer of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and their producer
International Sweethearts of Rhythm

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