Including Jazzwomen: Past, Present, Future

There’s nothing unusual about women being musicians. In the ’40s, when I came to New York, Billie Rogers, who played trumpet in Woody Herman’s band, and Dardanelle, the pianist and singer, and I were just musicians. Nobody ever wrote about “a girl guitar player.” I got my jobs because I played and sang, not for that.     — Mary Osborne

As a young musician, it never occurred to me that gender would be of any consequence in my musical development. Only recently did I learn what it means to discover female role models working at the highest levels in one’s professional field. Earlier this year I viewed a panel discussion that was held in 2011 among members of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm,[1] America’s first integrated all-female band from the 1940s. [2] Inspired by their stories and cantankerous dialogue, I began to delve into their catalog and quickly realized that there was a wealth of accomplished jazzwomen who were unknown to me. That realization spurred a month-long project in which I researched a different jazzwoman each day, mining the web and reading about their lives, listening to their music if I could locate recordings, ordering books and records when accessible information was scant, and writing short vignettes on what I learned and thought or felt in the process.

Through my research, I developed a list which continues to grow of over two hundred jazzwomen, both contemporary and historical. As I shared these discoveries with colleagues, some of whom are jazz historians in their own right, I was surprised to learn that they, too, were unaware of the majority of these women and their work. It became clear that these stories needed to be made more accessible and further integrated into discussions on jazz history and participation, with the hope that they would make their way into mainstream jazz historiography as it evolves. However, I struggled to find the right way to frame the conversation authentically, with regard to the subjects and my own experience which has been markedly un-gendered. I wanted to write about these women in a way that acknowledges the aspects of their contributions that are unique without diminishing their agency as contributors to the art form by highlighting their “otherness.”

In Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, Ruth Solie discusses Martha Minow’s idea that “different treatment stigmatizes, and…similar treatment stigmatizes by disregarding difference.” [3] This appears to be a tacit theme among contemporary writing about women in jazz. How can we find a balance between different and similar treatment? Many jazzwomen identify simply as musicians, their gender being purely incidental. [4] This perspective seems to resonate with contemporary musicians of any gender, begging the question: How can we shift jazz historiography and discourse in a way that supports a gender-neutral culture in the performing community? Furthermore, how can we, as members of the community, support the normalization of un-gendered participation in jazz?

Upon surveying scholarly texts and journalistic prose on the topic, it appears that the majority of writing and discourse around gender in jazz performance centers on the exclusion of women. It is a well-documented fact that jazz has been a male-dominated art form since its inception, and many authors and interviewees have presented theories as to why this may be the case. However, in recent years, female participation in jazz appears to have increased exponentially as has documentation of prominent women of jazz history who had previously been overlooked. Such authors as Linda Dahl, Sally Placksin, Sherrie Tucker, and Nichole Rustin have paved the way for a new conversation about gender in jazz, and We Have Voice, a diverse collective of musicians, performers, scholars, and thinkers, adopted a Code of Conduct in order to promote awareness and inclusion in the jazz community and beyond. [5] Regardless of these efforts to move the jazz culture toward normalization of gender perception and reception, the over-arching conversation about gender and jazz remains rooted in discussions about exclusion or as Rustin and Tucker put it, “a critique of a hostile field.” [6] 

To be fair, these critiques are not unfounded. In his seminal article, “Constructing the Jazz Tradition,” Scott DeVeaux points out that early jazz histories were based in criticism and cites Frederic Ramsay’s 1939 book, Jazzmen, as a landmark text. [7] The title alone sets the tone for jazz to be historically preserved as a male-centric art form. Paul Tanner and Maurice Gerow’s A Study of Jazz (3rd Edition), originally written in 1964 with the third edition printed in 1978, encapsulates the status quo of mainstream jazz historiography. Several jazzwomen are mentioned in passing but the various lists of “artists of note” are exclusively male. There is no discussion of gender dynamics, other than a note in the preface explaining that while they have used the generic pronoun “he,” it is intended to refer to both men and women. [8] Perhaps the most “hostile” source I discovered was Grover Sales’ 1984 book, Jazz: America’s Classical Music in which the preface opens with the following disclaimer:

The term jazzman is used interchangeably with jazz musician with no offense intended or implied to women, in jazz or out. Jazz in its early days developed a male-dominated community whose players were steeped in a super-macho ethic reflected in their stance, attitude, slang, in the titles of jazz compositions, and in the nature of the music itself. With rare exceptions, women’s role in jazz, until quite recently, was restricted to the piano and, most of all, to singing. The increasing role of women in jazz during the past decade as bandleaders, composers, guitarists, and horn players is but one of the welcome byproducts of the current liberation movement… [9]

It is staggering to note how brilliantly misinformed Mr. Sales must have been to make a statement like that two years after Sally Placksin published American Women in Jazz 1900 to the present, a well-researched collection profiling over sixty jazzwomen, lauded by such luminaries as Count Basie and Milt Hinton. [10] Perhaps it is also serendipitous that Linda Dahl’s Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen was also released in 1984. In addition to an impressive collection of biographical information and an extensive discography, Dahl includes chapters such as “Equal time: Beyond the Fraternity, Toward Community” and “Building a Support System,” which further contextualize female participation and give voice to a budding movement toward the normalization gender in jazz. [11] In 1995, Leslie Gourse published Madam Jazz “the most comprehensive list ever assembled of women currently playing instruments professionally.” Gourse provides a balanced look at the bright future of female instrumentalists with an acknowledgment of the reality that chauvinism is (and was) alive and well. [12] By 1999, little had changed in mainstream jazz historiography as evidenced by the continued absence of many prominent jazzwomen from the jazz sections of the Reader’s Guide to Music History, Theory, and Criticism. [13]

The turn of the 21st century brought an abundance of writing on women in jazz. Authors began to include more context and to consider the broader implications of gendered participation. Sherrie Tucker is one of the most prolific contributors to the subject, publishing a succession of inciteful, forward-thinking texts. In her 1999 article, “Telling Performances: Jazz History Remembered and Remade by the Women in the Band,” Tucker offers the argument that the oral histories of jazzwomen are just as integral as recorded music in developing a more complete understanding of jazz history:

I would also like to suggest that scholars seeking more complex historical frameworks should take a listen to oral histories of women jazz musicians. The kind of listening I am advocating would not be limited to merely skimming jazzwomen’s stories for data to add to the existing historical record, nor would it be geared solely to create separate women-in-jazz histories. Rather, I believe that through serious study of jazzwomen’s oral histories, scholars might learn new narrative strategies for imagining and telling jazz histories in which women and men are both present. Because women who played instruments other than piano were seldom the “favored artists” of the “superior genres,” and because they were hardly ever recorded, they have had little access to the deceptive “coherence” of mainstream histories. Therefore, they are uniquely positioned to suggest new frameworks for telling and interpreting jazz history. [14]

I would argue that the point made above applies to the oral histories of all jazz musicians and really to any oral tradition. Recording technology is a relatively recent innovation and only became widely accessible in the last few years. If we only recognize as pillars of jazz history (or any history) those who were able to have their music immortalized in recorded form, we miss a multitude of contributions to the art form, and we miss out on the stories that contextualize the experiences of these people. It is important to consider a wide array of sources in the development of any historiography and it is our job as torchbearers to consider these sources in conjunction with each other with the understanding that history will always be rewritten as new information is unearthed.

Tucker’s book, Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s is rich with examples of her chosen subject as a microcosm for issues “beyond the bandstand” including civil rights, the interrelatedness of music and politics, and challenging the dominant discourse. [15] In “Uplifts and Downbeats: What If Jazz History Included the Prairie View Co-Eds?”, Tucker presents a compelling argument to consider such bands as the Co-eds as an integral part, not just of jazz history, but also African American socioeconomic development. [16] In 2003, Tucker wrote the “Women in Jazz” article in Grove Music Online in which she pointedly observes, “The press continues to respond to the existence of female musicians as though they were just now appearing on the scene.” [17]

Then in 2008, Tucker published a collaborative collection of essays with Nichole Rustin titled, Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies. This is a key source in moving the conversation away from lamenting over a lack of scholarship on gender in jazz and toward normalization in discourse and practice while acknowledging the role of gender dynamics. They write, “We began talking up the idea of the anthology, recognizing that we were in a moment when the approach was no longer a critique of a hostile field but of exciting theoretical engagement, and it seemed important to provide a collection that could mark this moment and help us to move to the next, whatever that is.” [18] In Big Ears, Tucker and Rustin present a nuanced view of gender in jazz, in which normalization may not look so much like homogenization, but simply inclusion with awareness of the broader context. Taking further steps toward awareness and inclusion, Judy Chaikin released the award-winning documentary film The Girls in the Band in 2011. Chaikin shares accounts and experiences of professional swing-era jazzwomen who were largely unrecognized through interviews with the musicians themselves and historical footage. The film explores issues of race and gender through the lens of the lived experiences of jazzwomen. [19]

Continuing the trajectory set by Tucker, Rustin, and Chaikin’s work, there seems to be a burgeoning sea-change in coverage of gender and jazz in the mainstream media. 2017 was hailed as “A Year of Reckoning” for women in Jazz by New York Times Columnist Giovanni Russonello. The tone of the article is triumphant rather than indignant, and it does not present the women it profiles as novelties. Russonello discusses several groundbreaking new albums by female jazz artists, while still placing it all in the context of a historical climate of sexism that continues, but is beginning to change. He does mention examples that underscore the work which remains to be done toward equality and normalization but ends the article by insinuating that it may be bringing women onto the stage that keeps audiences engaged, or engages new listeners with jazz. He makes this statement about two notable performances by female musicians he experienced in fall 2017, which seems to summarize the shifting perception presented: “There’s nothing to suggest that these two musicians expressed themselves in any particular way because of their gender. But what we know is that until recently they might not have been in a position to stand up onstage alone, addressing the audience with generosity and informality, empowering the room, imagining the music as a space of open unity.” [20]

It is now 2018 and discourse and practices around gender in jazz and the performing arts is tangibly shifting. Catalyzed by the “me too” movement and espousing a “devoutly intersectional-feminist point of view,” the We Have Voice Collective published an open letter for community members to sign and a code of conduct outlining guidelines for creating safe(r) spaces. This represents an awakening in our culture and seems to put into practice those principles described by Rustin and Tucker in Big Ears ten years earlier. In the article, “Women Fighting Sexism in Jazz Have a Voice…” Russonello does an admirable job of presenting the tenants of We Have Voice authentically and in the spirit of the subject matter demonstrating that there are those in the media who are making an effort to allow the discourse to evolve with its subject. [5]

When I began this project, I had no idea how impactful it would be to discover this sisterhood that spans generations and transcends genre, age, race, and class. There is something viscerally moving about hearing Vi Burnside “boot it” through a chorus of Sweet Georgia Brown on her tenor saxophone with that band full of swingin’ ladies accompanying her. Or to watch Terry Pollard seamlessly trade phrases on vibes with Terry Gibbs. Or to hear Mary Lou Williams effortlessly improvise a stride piano masterpiece without realizing she was being recorded. In his book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle calls this “ignition.” [21] That moment when someone to whom you relate achieves something and you think “that could be me.” This is why we need role models of all kinds to “ignite” the drive to create. Greatness can be expressed in so many forms. For this reason, it is important that the stories and music of these musicians and those to come are made accessible in a way that is balanced and aware. As a whole, this blog will serve as a platform to provide glimpses into the lives and work of the women who have inspired me as yet another contribution to the living history of jazz. The hope is that each vignette will provide a springboard to further research or an opening to a rabbit-hole of unknown musical discovery. Speaking of which, here is a playlist that features some of my favorite musical discoveries from the many rabbit-holes I visited on the journey thus far.

Fortunately, the discourse on jazz music and the people who make it is becoming increasingly inclusive, but we still have a long way to go. It takes work to change the conversation at its roots, and it will take continued work to keep it moving forward, but this work has implications that extend beyond the jazz community. In acknowledging and celebrating the incredibly diverse population that has and continues to contribute to jazz, we are in turn, acknowledging and celebrating the diversity of humanity — and that is unquestionably a worthwhile endeavor.


[1] Sally Placksin and Cathy Hughs, moderators, Women in Jazz: International Sweethearts of Rhythm. (Panel discussion at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. April 10, 2011). https://youtu.be/_Cjmg8Jepvw

[2] John McDonough, America’s ‘Sweethearts’: An All-Girl Band that Broke Racial Boundaries. (NPR. March 22, 2011). https://www.npr.org/2011/03/22/134766828/americas-sweethearts-an-all-girl-band-that-broke-racial-boundaries

[3] Ruth Solie, Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993).

[4] This perspective mentioned by subjects in: Art Napoleon, 1978. Liner notes for Forty Years of Women in Jazz. (Jazz Records, Inc. CD9/10, 1989). Mary Lou Williams, Liner notes for Jazzwomen: a Feminist Retrospective (1923–57), (1977, Stash 109). As well as, Linda Dahl, Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984). Judy Chaikin dir. The Girls in the Band. (2011; Topanga, CA: Artist Tribe/One Step). And, Chris Becker, Freedom of Expression: Interviews with Women in Jazz. (Houston: Beckeresque Press, 2015).

[5] Giovanni Russonello, “Women Fighting Sexism in Jazz Have a Voice, and Now, a Code of Conduct.” (The New York Times, 2018). https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/30/arts/music/we-have-voice-jazz-women-metoo.html

[6] Nichole Rustin and Sherrie Tucker, Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 3.

[7] Scott DeVeaux, “Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography.” (Black American Literature Forum, no. 3 (1991)): 525-560. Referencing Frederic Ramsay, Jazzmen. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and company, 1939).

[8] Paul Tanner and Maurice Gerow, A Study of Jazz, 3rd Edition. (Dubuque: WM. C. Brown Company Publishers, 1978).

[9] Grover Sales, Jazz: America’s Classical Music. (New York: Da Capo Press, 1984), preface.

[10]  Sally Placksin, American Women in Jazz 1900 to the Present. (New York: Seaview Books, 1982). Praise on the back jacket: “I am so happy to see so many of my old friends and so many other great women in jazz finally get the recognition they deserve. It’s been a long time coming and this is the first book that really tells the story like it is and like it was.” —  Count Basie “Congratulations to Sally Placksin on this important contribution. In my fifty-odd years in jazz, I have had the pleasure of working with the majority of these American heroines and appreciating their talent. The refreshing and inspiring historical images on these pages should definitely be recommended reading for all students and fans of jazz.” — Milt Hinton

[11] Linda Dahl, Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).

[12] Leslie Gourse, Madame Jazz: Contemporary Women Instrumentalists. (New York:  Oxford, 1995).

[13]  Murray Steib, Reader’s Guide to Music History, Theory, Criticism. (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999).

[14] Tucker, Sherrie. “Telling Performances: Jazz History Remembered and Remade by the Women in the Band.” The Oral History Review, no. 1 (1999): 67-84.

[15]  Sherrie Tucker, Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).

[16] Sherrie Tucker, “Uplift and Downbeats: What If Jazz History Included the Prairie View Co-Eds?,” (The Journal of Texas Music History 2, no. 2 (2002): 30–38).

[17] Sherrie Tucker, “Women in jazz.” (In Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press, 2003).

[18]  Nichole Rustin and Sherrie Tucker, Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 3.

[19] Judy Chaikin, dir. The Girls in the Band. (2011; Topanga, CA: Artist Tribe/One Step). 

[20]  Giovanni Russonello, “For Women in Jazz, a Year of Reckoning and Recognition.” (The New York Times. December 1, 2017).

[21] Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code. (New York: Bantam Dell, 2009).

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