Women in Jazz: A Lineage of Leaders

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From the early jazz ambassadors to the musical leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, join us in celebrating some of the black female musicians who helped to shape their times.

Off the back of our Pioneer Profile focussing on Lil Hardin Armstrong, we wanted to honour some of the Black Female Pioneers whose contributions to Jazz still resonate today. From the early ambassadors to the musical leaders of the 60s Civil Rights Movement, join us in celebrating some of the black female musicians who helped to shape the musical expression of their time.

Often underappreciated, since the dawn of Jazz women have been a big part of its history. Their voices, ideas and unique ability to create era defining work played a huge role in shaping the genre as we know it and should not be forgotten! Whether they have been overshadowed by their male counterparts, or seen as only a complementary element, women in Jazz have more often than not been a footnote in the history books. 

Ma Rainey (1886 – 1939)

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was one of the earliest black female professional blues singers and one of the first generation of blues singers to ever record. The “Mother of the Blues”, she bridged earlier vaudeville and the authentic expression of southern blues, influencing a generation of blues singers to follow in her footsteps. Known for her powerful vocal abilities, energetic disposition, majestic phrasing, and a “moaning” style of singing, her qualities are most evident in her early recordings “Bo-Weevil Blues” and “Moonshine Blues”.

Rainey recorded with Thomas DorseyLouis Armstrong, and she toured and recorded with the Georgia Jazz Band. She toured until 1935, when she largely retired from performing and continued as a theatre impresario in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia until her death three years later.

Ma Rainey & Louis Armstrong “Countin’ The Blues” in 1924

Bessie Smith (1894 – 1937)

“Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith started her career in 1912 performing in minstrel shows as a dancer, when she was just 16. In just over ten years, she was signed by Columbia Records and had recorded with Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Fletcher Henderson and James P. Johnson.

Smith’s work challenged elitist norms by encouraging working-class women to embrace their right to drink, party, and satisfy their inner desires as a means of coping with stress and dissatisfaction in their daily lives. Smith advocated for a wider vision of African American womanhood beyond domesticity, piety, and conformity; she sought empowerment and happiness through independence, sassiness, and sexual freedom.

“I don’t want no drummer. I set the tempo.”

Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith performing St.Louis Blues (1929).

“Sweet Emma” Barrett (1897 – 1983)

“Sweet Emma” Barrett was a self-taught jazz pianist and singer who worked with the Original Tuxedo Orchestra between 1923 and 1936; first under Papa Celestin, then William Ridgely. She also worked with Armand PironJohn Robichaux and Sidney Desvigne.

She was nicknamed “Bell Gal” because she often wore a red skull cap and garters with Christmas bells that jingled in time with her music. She was featured on the cover of Glamour magazine and written about in publications in the U.S. and Europe. She toured with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band domestically and internationally, including a stint at Disneyland in 1963.

“Sweet Emma” plays the world famous Preservation Hall in 1970.

Mary Lou Williams (1910 – 1981)

Often described as the first leading female jazz composer and pianist, Mary Lou Williams performed with and composed for many of the great jazz artists of the 1940s and ’50s. A child prodigy, she was known as the “Little Piano Girl” at the age of 10. In 1945, Williams premiered the Zodiac Suite, which was actually reimagined by NYJO Alumna Laura Jurd for our Jazz Orchestra last November as part of the Venus Unwrapped season at Kings Place.

A prolific creator, Williams wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements and recorded over one hundred records in 78, 45, and LP versions. Rarely mentioned alongside jazz’s greatest artists, her career included writing compositions used by Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, as well as mentoring musicians such as Thelonious MonkCharlie ParkerMiles DavisTadd DameronBud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie.

“Anything you are shows up in your music – jazz is whatever you are, playing yourself, being yourself, letting your thoughts come through.”

Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams plays Montreux Jazz Festival, 1978.

Dorothy Donegan (1922 – 1998)

Primarily known for performing in the stride piano and boogie-woogie style, Dorothy Donegan also played bebop, swing jazz, and classical music in a career that spanned over six decades. Her first six albums proved to be largely ignored comparative to her notoriety as a live performer. It was not until the 1980s that her records finally garnered the recognition they deserved.

In an article written for the The New York Times, journalist Ben Ratliff argued: “her flamboyance helped her find work in a field that was largely hostile to women. To a certain extent, it was also her downfall; her concerts were often criticised for having an excess of personality.” Donegan was firm in her view that sexism, along with her insistence on being paid the same rates as male musicians, were forces that served to limit her exposure and career opportunities.

Dorothy Donegan & Cab Calloway in the 1944 musical-comedy “Sensations of 1945”.

Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959)

Born Eleanora Fagan, Billie took her stage name from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and Clarence Holiday, her probable father. She was also nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and long-serving collaborator, Lester Young. Holiday’s innovative vocal approaches had a huge influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered phrasing and tempo techniques that changed the way vocalists sounded forever.

In a life that was full of many highs and just as many lows, Billie will always be remembered for her 1939 recording of the Abel Meeropol song “Strange Fruit”. A protest song that raised awareness of the lynching of Black Americans, it has since been referred to as the flame that lit the fuse for the civil rights movement. Billie Holiday’s haunting voice; distinguished by its melancholic, fragile delivery; mirrored a tormented but profound existence that continues to touch many to this day.

“If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.”

Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday – “Strange Fruit” Live 1959 [Reelin’ In The Years Archives].

Dorothy Ashby (1932 – 1986)

Dorothy Ashby is one of the unjustly underappreciated jazz greats of the 1950s. Ashby established the harp as an improvising jazz instrument, doing away with any idea that the harp was a novelty or background orchestral instrument and proving it could play a role in bebop as adeptly as anything else.

As a black female musician in a male dominated industry, she was aware of her disadvantages from the start. In an interview with W. Royal Stokes for his book Living the Jazz Life, she stated, “It’s been maybe a triple burden in that not a lot of women are becoming known as jazz players. There is also the connection with black women. The audiences I was trying to reach were not interested in the harp, period — classical or otherwise — and they were certainly not interested in seeing a black woman playing the harp.” Ashby successfully navigated these disadvantages and subsequently changed the perception of the harp forever.

“Pawky” is the opening track from the amazing 1958 LP, “Hip Harp” .

Nina Simone (1933 – 2003)

Singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and civil rights activist; Nina Simone’s music spanned a range of musical styles and approaches. Classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel and pop were all just different tools for Nina to build her next masterpiece with.

Simone is regarded as one of the most influential recording artists of the 20th century. She was a pioneering musician like few who came before or after, with a career punctuated by fits of outrage, improvisational genius, timeless original composition and an amazing ability to reframe both American standards and popular hits of the day in equal measure. Songs such as “Mississippi Goddam” for example, broke the mould for an established black musical entertainer to ignore industry norms and produce direct social commentary in her music.

“She is loved or feared, adored or disliked, but few who have met her music or glimpsed her soul react with moderation”

Maya Angelou
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” live at Montreux Jazz Festival, 1976.

Shirley Horn (1934 – 2005)

Horn formed her first jazz piano trio when she was 20. After being influenced by Erroll GarnerOscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal she left her classical roots behind to follow her heart (jazz). Her velvety vocals and precise piano playing saw Shirley Horn collaborate with many jazz greats in her career, including Miles DavisDizzy GillespieToots ThielemansRon CarterCarmen McRaeWynton Marsalis and many others.

Horn was nominated for nine Grammy Awards during her career, winning for Best Jazz Vocal Performance at the 41st award show for I Remember Miles, a tribute to her friend and mentor, Miles Davis. Officially recognized by the 109th US Congress for “her many achievements and contributions to the world of jazz and American culture”, Horn was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the Berklee College of Music in 2002.

Shirley Horns talks about mentor, Miles Davis in “The Miles Davis Story”.

Alice Coltrane (1937 – 2007)

Also known by her adopted Sanskrit name Turiyasangitananda or Turiya, Alice Coltrane was a multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, composer and one of the few harpists in the history of jazz. Given to her by her husband John Coltrane just before he died of cancer in 1967, she didn’t play the harp for a year, and in 1968, self-taught harp instrumentals featured heavily in the first records she released as a bandleader.

Alice’s music gained a devoted audience in the 70s, hugely influenced by the Hindu culture she embraced as her own. Her sound took jazz to a more mystical realm, combining devotional Vedic hymns and the African-American struggle of her days to create her own genre: Spiritual Jazz.

“Women have been held back and limited throughout the centuries. Creation could not have been rendered, not even considered, let alone be brought into manifestation without woman. She is principal, a powerful energy. She is first.”

Alice Coltrane

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