Women in Jazz History

A self-described periodic reader has written in with a question:

As a jazz fan I was asked an innocent question recently by a younger female colleague. She observed that, “Other than singers, jazz seems to be a mostly male endeavor. Why is that?” Although I was immediately able to come up with a dozen names of contemporary female performers who I think make significant contributions, and also to point to the historical influence of one or two others (Lil Hardin’s influence on Louis Armstrong comes to mind) I really couldn’t give her a comprehensive answer about the historical role of women in jazz. I went to my bookshelves and the internet but couldn’t find any good sources to share with her. I wonder if you can give me any guidance?

I am not a great jazz historian, nor a feminist, but the names of several older female jazz instrumentalists do come to mind. To start, I would mention trumpeters Clora Bryant and Norma Carson, saxophonist Vi Redd and trombonists Melba Liston, Janice Robinson, and Lillian Briggs. Also drummers Elaine Leighton and Dottie Dodgion, harpist Dorothy Ashby, and vibraphonist Margie Hyams.

Of course there are many female pianists – Toshiko Akiyoshi (also a composer and bandleader), Beryl Booker, Patti Bown, Barbara Carroll, Dorothy Donegan, Jutta Hipp, Marian McPartland, Shirley Scott (organ, too), and Mary Lou Williams, to name a few. And the piano-playing singers (some with greater pianistic prowess than others) including Shirley Horn, Nellie Lutcher, Hazel Scott…perhaps even Nina Simone and Carmen McRae should be included.

These are just a few of the women who have made significant contributions. As for the historical role of women in jazz, here are a few books that might shed some light:

Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s (Paperback) by Sherrie Tucker
Stormy Weather : The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women (Paperback) by Linda Dahl
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism : Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (Vintage) (Paperback) by Angela Y. Davis

Also check out these chapters:
“Telling Performances: Jazz History Remembered and Remade by the Women in the Band” – Sherri Tucker in Unequal Sisters: A Mulicultural Reader in U.S. Women’s History (Paperback) by Vicki L. Ruiz (Editor), Ellen Carol Dubois (Editor)
“Melba Liston” and “Clora Bryant” in Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles by multiple editors/contributors including Clora Bryant.

It should be noted that many of the female instrumentalists today (Maria Schneider, Laurie Frink, Ingrid Jensen, Lesa Terry, Regina Carter, Carolina Strassmayer, Stacy Rowles, Terri Lynne Carrington…) generally eschew the “women in jazz” approach — it smacks to much of the “she’s good…for a woman” attitude. They are more likely to suggest that you judge the music, not the musician. They may have drawn some measure of strength from knowing of women who came before them, but their creative inspirations are genderless.

I hope that some of my more academic friends and colleagues will have recommendations and/or comments to add. (For your convenience, there is an Email Me link on the left side of your screen, second box from the top. I hope to hear from you.)