Jazz and Gender Equality: Trumpeting Women Instrumentalists
Jazz: Definition and Early History
Jazz can be hard to define because it spans from Ragtime waltzes to 2000s-era fusion. Jazz is a primarily American musical art form which originated at the beginning of the 20th century in African American communities in the Southern United States from a confluence of African and European music traditions. The style's West African pedigree is evident in its use of blue notes, improvisation, polyrhythms, syncopation, and the swung note.
From its early development until the present, jazz has also incorporated music from 19th and 20th century American popular music. The word jazz began as a West Coast slang term of uncertain derivation and was first used to refer to music in Chicago in about 1915.
Jazz and Women
In the early days of jazz, scorn was poured on the very possibility of women as instrumentalists. In February 1938, an editorial appeared in the American jazz magazine Down Beat under the headline Why Women Musicians Are Inferior.“The woman musician never was born capable of sending anyone further than the nearest exit.” To just this article Peggy Gilbert, herself a jazz musician, playing saxophones, clarinet, violin, and vibes, and contractor for women musicians, responded in April 1938 with her own article. Much to her chagrin, however, the magazine published her article under the headline, "How Can You Blow a Horn with A Brassiere?"
Stepping up into the professional jazz world was a difficult feat for many women since it represented breaking taboos on female public performance. The piano was one exception. Piano skills were historically considered appropriate (and often desirable) for women in both African-American and Euro-American contexts. However, playing professionally - especially in a jazz group - was still not approved or acceptable for middle class black and white American women. This did not stop many female pianists and composers who participated in the ragtime craze of the early 1900s. Women pianists, and sometimes brass, reeds and rhythm players, also worked often in family bands in circuses, carnivals and tent shows. Female instrumentalists usually formed all-women jazz bands or played in family-based groups, rather than in mixed sex groups, including Bobbie Howell's American Syncopators and Bobbie Grice's Fourteen Bricktops.
In the 1920s, while African-American female vocalists were cutting what are now known as the "classic blues" recordings, often collaborating with (usually, but not always, male) jazz instrumentalists, many female pianists busily participated in other hubs of jazz development. There were a growing number of women jazz pianists -- Sweet Emma Barrett, Billie Pierce, Jeanette Kimball, and Lovie Austin among them. The most famous to emerge from that era was the legendary Mary Lou Williams. She was embraced by the jazz establishment as "one of the guys" and her harmonic and melodic abilities were so advanced, she had a marked influence on many of the early bebop giants, including Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.
World War II
The shift in perception about gender roles during World War II meant greater freedom for women instrumentalists. As the draft eroded memberships of men's bands, all-woman bands enjoyed increased prestigious bookings in major ballrooms and theaters, and in new circuits of military entertainment. The celebrated International Sweethearts of Rhythm played for the segregated black US troops in Europe. Notably, the Sweethearts, along with several other African-American all-female bands, sometimes covertly broke the color line by hiring white women. White all-woman bands of the 1940s included Ada Leonard's "All-American" Girls. Some female players filled vacancies in men's bands: Woody Herman hired trumpet player Billie Rogers and vibist Marjorie Hyams; Gerald Wilson hired trombonist Melba Liston; Lionel Hampton hired saxophonist Elsie Smith; and Benny Carter hired trumpet player Jean Starr.
The onset of television saw more white women instrumentalists employed in television bands led by Ina Ray Hutton and Ada Leonard. Women involved in jazz activities of the transformative 1960s include pianist/harpist/percussionist/composer Alice McLeod Coltrane, and pianist/organist Amina Claudine Myers.
Women's Movement 1960s
The emergence of the women's liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s brought new interest and audiences for women instrumentalists. The first Women's Jazz Festival was held in Kansas City in 1978, followed by the first annual New York Women's Jazz Festival. All-woman groups founded in the 1970s include Sisters in Jazz (New York, 1974-1977) and Maiden Voyage (Los Angeles, 1979-present).