Over the course of mylifeinjazz I have had frequent cause to note that jazz has, for most of its history been dominated by men. From King Oliver and Louis Armstrong through the swing era, the bebop masters, cool jazz hard bop, free jazz “third stream” and jazz rock. The vast majority of jazz greats are and have been men.
It could be argued that traditional jazz culture has had a strong male flavour covering a range of elements including language and argot, dress codes, competitiveness, unsocial hours, male club owners, bookers, record company bosses. and of course, old-fashioned sexism. For much of jazz’s history women musicians have had to struggle to get their voices heard and status recognised.
There are a number of important outliers going way back. Women form a majority among great jazz vocalists, think of the holy trinity of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McCrae. Billie Holliday left an incomparable mark from her earliest appearances. Anita O’Day, Blossom Dearie, Dinah Washington, Cleo Laine, Sheila Jordan, Cassandra Wison, Norma Winstone and of course Nina Simone remain instantly recognisable jazz stylists and innovators. Sheila, Cassandra, and Norma continue performing to this day.
In The U.S., Mary Lou Williams is increasingly recognized as a great composer and pianist, although too often overlooked in her lifetime. Trombonist Melba Liston, and organist Shirley Scott had distinguished jazz careers. The luminous pianist Joanne Brackeen, the first female members of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers continues to perform.
In the U.K. Kathy Stobart, whose jazz classes I attended in the 1970’s was a trailblazer playing saxophone in a variety of settings. Barbara Thompson had a deservedly high profile as a bandleader, recording and touring prodigiously for over 30 years before her Parkinsons condition forced her to retire from music.
Women have played a disproportionate role as backers, and promoters of their male jazz musician partners. Where would Stan Tracey have been without his wife Jackie? Or Dollie & Jackie Mclean, Lucille & Sonny Rollins, , Laurie and Art Pepper, Maxine and Dexter Gordon, Keiko and Elvin Jones, Hazel and Harry Miller? Many of these women were the business brains behind their partners’ often chaotic lifestyles, dealing with club owners, agents, and record company executives, planning tours, and hiring musicians. I plan to return to the hidden influence of jazz wives and partners in a future episode.
I have very fond memories of numerous nights at Ronnie Scott’s hearing the incomparable Betty Carter with the latest iterations of her tyro trios weaving her complex improvisations around show tunes and original material.
Over the last 20 or so years women jazz musicians have been increasingly successful in challenging male dominance and pushing through the gendered glass ceilings in jazz, not just on the band stand but as producers, promoters, and spokespeople for their music. Drummer Terri Lyn Carrington has performed a huge service to our music in researching and publishing New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets by Women Composers a timely response to the totally male-dominated volumes of the various Real Books and Fake Books which appear ubiquitously within every jazz musician’s collection. Her recently released New Standards album is devoted to showcasing tunes by women composers.
While it is encouraging to note the increasing profile of female musicians in jazz in recent years it is harder to identify particular causes. One contributory factor is the growing influence of jazz conservatoires in launching the careers of contemporary jazz musicians. The vast majority of leading female players on both sides of the Atlantic will have graduated from music schools, with many going on to hold teaching positions too. They will have experienced greater equality in the practice room and lecture hall and at jam sessions which in turn enhanced their opportunities as professional musicians in getting hired and leading their own formations. And my sense is that female bandleaders are more likely to recruit women to join them.
I have just been reading the second volume of Jeremy Pelt’s book Griot a series of structured interviews with three generations of black jazz musicians working in the States. Jeremy Pelt is a renowned trumpeter now in his mid-40’s. In their different ways interviewees Brandee Younger (harp), Esperanza Spalding (voice and bass) and Lakecia Benjamin (now a rising star saxophonist). Younger and Benjamin cite the particular importance of mentors from earlier generations; Jackie Mclean for Younger and Clark Terry for Benjamin. Spalding studied at Berklee, didn’t find the atmosphere conducive and looked outside that academic setting for her role models and influences.
Lakecia Benjamin, who has just been appointed Jazz Scholar by the Library of Congress records the following powerful statement when looking back to her entry into the jazz world in her home city of New York, the jazz corner of the world,
“I learned quicky to be humble. Be humble and learn. I’m here to get what I can get. So, I think being in them jams really showed me what it took to have authority in who you are. Sometimes I was the only girl horn there, it was just me and a bunch of guys and everybody was ready to play. People come from another state to your state, they made that decision themselves, they’re not playing around. They’re coming from far, they’re coming ‘cos they love it. And they come to take your job. So, it showed me about the hunger and passion that I would need. I’m in my city but I never felt comfortable”.
And jazz is, hopefully, mirroring wider societal trends where in recent decades women have become better represented in many professions, including, to some degree in symphony orchestras and among instrumental virtuosi within classical music.
The PlaylistMy playlist features a selection of tracks from contemporary women in jazz, two of whom, the exceptional tenor player Nicole Glover and vibist Sasha Berliner are featured on this video from Emmett’s place in 2021 performing with Emmett Cohen’s trio.
Glover is also a member of Artemis the all-female band, you’ll find a couple of selections from their recent albumin In Real Time – artemisband.com.
Ending with a plaintive quote from the great Sheila Jordan,
“For most of my career I’ve been singing for snacks.”