How Well-behaved and Rebel Women Made Jazz History
Women hold up half the sky. – Chinese proverb
This paper sets out to name some important women who made significant contributions to jazz before 1945, including their specialties (trumpeter, vocalist, bandleader, composer, etc.) and the bands and/or musicians with whom they were associated. Using feminist theory, this paper tells these women’s stories, and discusses obstacles women had to overcome to become part of the jazz world, such as sexism, racism and other issues. It may discuss contributions history overlooked. It is in no way intended to disparage men.
A neglected history
Women sang the blues. They played piano. They composed music. They played the saxophone. They held up half the sky. Yet finding women in jazz history prior to 1945 is like hunting for gold. Worth the reward, it requires tracking down clues (often looking beyond the typical “music manuscripts to archives such as visual arts, literary references, wills, and tax records”) and looking at history from a new angle. That’s because history places jazz, its origins and accomplishments, squarely on the shoulders of men, summed up in this statement: “The pioneers of jazz” include “preeminent soloist Louis Armstrong and composer Duke Ellington.”
Indeed, when most people think of jazz – ragtime, blues, the music of the Congo Square in New Orleans, Creoles of Color, New Orleans Jazz and all the styles and innovations in between – seldom do even the better known names like Gertrude “Ma Rainey,” Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Mary Lou Williams or even Louis Armstrong’s wife Lil’ Hardin Armstrong come to mind first. Instead, it is those of Joplin, Armstrong, Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Beiderbecke and others.
Yet, as Armstrong’s own story illustrates, women in jazz did hold up half the sky even though history omits the other half. For example, Lil Hardin Armstrong helped her husband in numerous ways, and in fact, he joined her band Lil’s Hot Shots in 1925 before starting his own bands. To tease out the other half of the jazz story, then, we must look at jazz through the lens of gender. One of the first people to explore jazz in this way was Susan Cavin, who in 1975 published the scholarly article, “Missing Women: On the Voodoo Trail to Jazz.” In this article, Cavin pointed out that women had always “played roles in jazz history other than that of classical blues singers” and they deserved more attention. Her work was a call to action.
Authors and educators Britain Scott and Christiane Harrassowitz echoed these sentiments in 2004 when they wrote an article for music educators advocating for updated music curriculum. Scott and Harrassowitz stated that: “the absence of women in the standard music histories is not due to their absence in the musical past.” On the contrary, women have participated in every facet of music, including America’s true art form, jazz. In her exhaustive study, A Feminist Perspective on New Orleans Jazz Women, Sherrie Tucker of the University of Kansas states: “We now know that women participated on every instrument, in every genre, in every period of jazz history. We also know that they often participated differently, or in different areas, than are ordinarily considered historically important, such as in family bands, all-woman bands, or as dancers or teachers, and that these areas typically became minimized in jazz histories.”
Like many art forms, jazz is an amalgamation of people, techniques, styles, technology, time and cultural influences, including women. Its ingredients include elements of folk music (polyrhythm, call and response, cyclic form, blues notes and timber variation); popular music (minstrelsy and dance); and art music (represented by brass bands). Like the makings of a great soup, these ingredients were combined into ragtime, various local traditions (New Orleans Jazz and Chicago Jazz) cool jazz and hot jazz, swing and swing bands, bop (topsy) and many more into modern jazz. As Tucker, Scott and Harrassowitz point out, women played a role in these movements too.
Yet women jazz instrumentalists faced barriers such as sexism, racism, classism, and ethnocentrism, which largely kept their performances out of the public spotlight and their contributions from being recorded. Scott and Harrassowitz assert that women are absent from standard music histories because their “participation was typically limited by social and political conditions, educational and mentoring deficits, and moral codes that likened women’s musical performance to prostitution.” Often when women are featured in jazz chronicles, it is in the roles of singer or pianist, because women were more accepted in these roles. Examples include Ella Fitzgerald (who began her career as a Canary Girl), and Lil Hardin Armstrong and Marian McPartland (who had to ‘do gender’ in order to be instrumentalists.)
In some ways women’s exclusion from jazz is ironic given that jazz arose primarily as a way to transcend social injustice. It was brewed from a “rich and complicated African American experience, drawing on musical traditions from Africa, Europe and the Caribbean” in which women played a part. One might think, then, that jazz would include women equally along with men. Yet, like much of history, the record on jazzwomen is mostly silent.
In her book Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich explains that history records have long neglected women, unless they misbehaved by breaking social norms (in which case their names might appear in legal and court records which is often the only way later generations find them). While Ulrich’s book chronicles the lives and contributions of female writers (from Christine de Pizan in 1405 to Virginia Woolf in the 1920s) her work speaks poignantly for the unheralded women in jazz, as summarized in her opening paragraph: “The settings in which they worked were radically different. The problems they faced were surprisingly – disturbingly – the same.”
While both men and women faced racial stereotyping, such as what occurred in the performances of “black-face minstrelsy,” women faced obstacles which precluded them from playing certain instruments despite their talent, certainly dampening opportunities. For example, the coveted cornet was seen as outside the realm of women in the 1920s so very few women played it. Still other social norms ended or stalled careers: after she married and had children, talented and popular Dolly Douroux was no longer allowed by her husband to be involved in jazz (until later).
The cultural influences of the early twentieth century that erected these barriers can be better understood by viewing them in the context of a brief historical timeline. Starting at around 1900 and moving to 1945, we see that jazz developed within the context of various political, economic and societal events, which influenced people and the music. The timeline moves through World War I (1914-1917), the depression (beginning in 1929), and into World War II (1939-45). There are waves of immigration, Jim Crow, the Great Migration from South to North, prohibition, the Ku Klux Klan marches, and solo air flight. Many important historical events that later brought more equality for all, including women, had not yet occurred, such as the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. Thus the events of the times collided to create the societal norms that defined “ideas about how masculinity and femininity shaped people’s lives;” for example, dictating “which sounds, instruments and musical activities” were considered appropriate for women. Jazz for the most part was considered inappropriate for women. In addition, women had few legal rights, including the privilege to vote; few women received an education, so very few women could read; thus women were deemed incapable of playing musical instruments. Most women did not work outside the home; thus they could not gain economic independence. These factors worked together to exclude women from the most prestigious elements of the jazz scene, and thus from historical records (which, as Tucker points out, often only recorded what was deemed important).
Mary Lou Williams is an example of a woman who, despite all these obstacles, transcended many boundaries in the jazz world. Like Woolf, who had no formal education, Williams was not educated and could not read sheet music. She “learned to play piano by listening to local great Earl Hines and records by Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson.” Like other women, Williams’s jazz talents were largely overlooked until unlikely events took place, which provided her with the opportunity to participate more fully. In fact, even though she could play the piano very well, it wasn’t until the regular male pianist couldn’t play at an event, that Williams got her chance.
Williams’s story also serves as an example of how sexism often discounted women’s accomplishments. In a review of Williams’s work, Tucker states that much of what has been written about Williams is “evidence for demonstrating the sexism of mainstream jazz historiography.” Tucker states that despite the fact that Williams was an “important composer, arranger, pianist, educator, and jazz innovator whose career spanned sixty years, who penned over one hundred compositions and arrangements and who appeared on over one hundred recordings,” many sources use “tokenizing representations when describing Williams” such as: “The Little Piano Girl….” “The Maternal Care Giver of Troubled Young Men…. “Selfless accompanist to ‘real jazz history’” and “not thinking of herself as a woman.”
Scott and Harrassowitz state that other women who were popular during their time faced race issues, especially in jazz and blues. For example, they say, women like Mama Thornton and Bessie Smith were popular “in part,” because “they fit common cultural stereotypes of Mammies, Aunt Jemimas, and Jezebels.” Billie Holiday struggled with “sexual abuse and drug addiction…related to sexism and racism.”
Yet despite these obstacles women made significant contributions to jazz including lesser known blues singers like Ann Cook, Lizzie Miles, Edna Hicks, Mary Mack (McBride) and Esther Bigeou. Ann Cook, a blues singer in the New Orleans brothels of Storyville (zoned for prostitution) went on to sing in the choir at Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church No. 2. Antonia Gonzales “advertised herself ‘as the only cornet-playing madam in Storyville,’ and often played duets with such renowned pianists as Mamie Desdunes.” Other jazz pianists which are often overlooked include Rosalind Johnson, Camilla Todd and Wilhelmina Bart.
And there are others: Despite the sexism which prevented most women from moving beyond vocals, Dolly Douroux played piano, bass, drums, trumpet and guitar and also played with bands led by Peter Bocage, Luis Papa Tio, Lorenzo Tio Jr. and Alphonse Picou. Yvonne Fasnacht played clarinet and alto saxophone (typically considered men’s instruments) and traveled with all-women bands and formed her own “gender integrated” Dixieland band. Neliska Baby Briscoe was a dancer who performed in Joe Tobichaux’s Rhythm Boys and played in the Harlem Playgirls, a Minneapolis-based African American all-woman band.
Yet, even in the 1990s women still had a longs ways to go to become visible in jazz history. According to journalist Peter Watrous, an example occurred in 1996 when Janice McNeil decided to create “an exhibition that celebrated the position of women in the jazz world.” As McNeil “began researching the Smithsonian’s jazz holdings, (she) …found virtually no material (on women): no oral histories, no instruments, no recordings,” Watrous states. Like Cavin, McNeil set out to change the record, creating “Sung and Unsung/Jazz Women,” a symposium which was held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1996.
When asked about the exhibit, McNeil pointed to some of the obstacles women faced in the jazz world that led to their exclusion from its history. She said that women had been “marginalized” and often had “had to fight hard for chances to perform,” and had often “been ignored by record companies and jazz critics.” When Watrous interviewed Bertha Hope, “a pianist with the group Jazzberry Jam,” Hope said: “women would like to do what men do, but end up having to take care of the children and the family.” Douvoux and others faced this obstacle too, back in their day.
Today, many of the stories of jazzwomen are heard alongside jazzmen because of women like Tucker and Cavin, who “urged historians to examine their ‘benign neglect’ of women that contributed to the wide-spread belief that only men were important to jazz history.” As testament to their work, and to others, today, the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival carries Williams name and inspires women across the globe. “For… musicians, Mary Lou Williams has served as their inspiration to leave their mark on every aspect of jazz, just as she did. Dubbed the ‘First Lady of Jazz Piano,’ she wrote music for Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, performed with Ben Webster and Lester Young, and was a mentor to Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and many others. As a pianist, composer, arranger, teacher, mentor, and humanitarian, Williams defied gender, race, and category with her inexhaustible gifts.”
And like many well-behaved women who defied the norms, Williams and others made history.
Scott, Britain and Christiane Harrassowitz. “Beyond Boyz: Women’s Music in Relation to History and Culture,” Music Educators Journal. Vol. 90. No. 4 (Mar., 2004), pp. 50-56. Sage Publications Inc. Accessed October 2, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3399999.
Tucker, Sherrie. “A Feminist Perspective on New Orleans Jazzwomen.” Study conducted by the Center for Research, University of Kansas for the National Parks Service, Lawrence, KS. (Sept. 30, 2004.) pp. 1-363.
Tucker, Sherrie. “Rocking the Cradle of Jazz. These are the women who changed the face of music,” Ms. Magazine. (Winter 2004). Accessed October 2, 2012. http://www.msmagazine.com/winter2004/jazz.asp.
Tucker, Sherrie. “Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams” by Tammy Kernodle. (review). Project Muse. Reprinted from: Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture. Vol. 11, 2007. pp. 95-100. Accessed October 2, 2012. http://music.jhu.edu.login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/women_and_music/v01
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History. New York: Vintage, 2007.
Watrous, Peter. “Searching for Women in the History of Jazz” The New York Times. October 19, 1996, Saturday, Late Edition. Section 1; page 14/ column 5; Cultural Desk. Accessed October 2, 2012
DeVeaux, Scott and Gary Giddins. Jazz. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009.
Lee, Nancy Ann, “Swing Shift: All-Girl Bands of the 1940s” By Sherrie Tucker, Jazz Times Review, July/August 2000.
Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky. New York: Vintage Books. 2009.
Smith, Dinitia. “When Women Called the Tunes; Rediscovering the Players Who Kept Things Swinging After the Men Went to War.” The New York Times. August 10, 2000.
Kennedy Center, “Women in Jazz. Understanding Jazz.” By Sherrie Tucker. Accessed October 2, 2012. http://www.kennedy-center.org/programs/jazz/ambassadors/Lesson8.htm.
PBS. “Women in Jazz. History in the key of jazz. Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns: Jazz in Time.” By Sherrie Tucker. Accessed October 2, 2012. http://www.pbs.org/jazz/time/time_women.htm