Name the top three most important women in jazz. I’m guessing you came up with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and then a third who was most likely also a singer. If you’re really the adventurous type, maybe you thought of a woman pianist/vocalist like Carmen McRae or Nina Simone. Generally, the history of women in jazz is told through the prominent singers and the occasional pianists, and not much else. Just take a look at this CD titled Women in Jazz from Putumayo. Every artist is a singer, and while I love all the artists on there, women have been doing a lot more for jazz throughout the years.
In fact, during the 1940’s when the men went off to war, many women played in various big bands of the time. Trumpeter Billie Rogers and vibraphonist Marjorie Hyams both played for Woody Herman’s band. There were even some all girl bands like Ina Rae Hutton and her Mellodears and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. And of course, there are many pianists including Lil Hardin Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, and Marian McPartland.
The problem with women in jazz isn’t that there haven’t been any women playing jazz or that there aren’t any playing today. A little look through the Jazz Grrls website shows a huge list of women jazz musicians on every instrument. The problem is that their stories aren’t told. Also, the music industry is more interested in what they think they can sell than in actual talent. Plus, the world of jazz has long been a boys only club where being a great female jazz musician means you “play like a guy.” While I’d like to say this attitude is receding, that doesn’t appear to be the case. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is all men, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center series only features female singers. . .not a single female jazz instrumentalist. The Kennedy Center has a woman in jazz series featuring all singers and pianists. Only the Smithsonian Institute’s Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) includes a tribute to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
On a personal note, I am now on a mission to find great, danceable music by women saxophonists, trumpeters, drummers, and the like. I can be righteous and indignant all I want, but that doesn’t change anything. I hope you’ll join me, share your own finds, and help to change the narrative that we are telling about the role of women in jazz.