Mary Osborne

Today I’m delving into the catalog of jazz guitarist, Mary Osborne. What a player! Her unique sound is hot and bouncy, but also full of substance. I think my favorite thing about her is her sense of time — whether playing a ballad or a burner, her feel has forward momentum but still sounds relaxed. The very definition of swing in my book. She was also a fantastic singer, to boot!

Born into a musical family in Minot, North Dakota, Osborne started strumming a ukulele at about age four, studied violin in school, and at age ten she was playing banjo in her father’s family band. But it was the guitar that held her fascination most, and soon she became accomplished enough at that instrument to begin touring with a trio out of Bismarck. [1]

When she was 17, she had an experience that would change her life. She heard the Al Trent Sextet featuring Charlie Christian. She said she initially thought Christian’s sound was a tenor saxophone until she saw the amp he was using. She said, “I was so inspired, all I wanted to do was imitate him.” She was also a big fan of Django Reinhardt and noticed that Christian was playing Django’s changes to Honeysuckle Rose. So she went up and asked him about it after the show, to which he replied, “Anyone who knows those were Django’s chords has to be a guitar player.” After that conversation, Charlie Christian invited her to jam with him and was generous enough to give her some feedback and ideas about her playing. He also told her where she could go pick up a Gibson ES-150 like he played, which she went out and bought the very next day. Christian and Osborne became friends, and she always considered him a mentor — a fact which is undeniable from her playing. [2]

I love this video because it features Osborne’s tasteful treatment of the beautiful ballad, “The Man I love,” and then she swings it in double time, taking flight with an excellent solo. In addition, its narrated by the great pianist Marian McPartland with Billie Holiday in the foreground digging the sounds:

Although Christian’s influence on Osborne is undeniable, she still had her own unique voice and went on to have a very rich career, performing and recording with the likes of Mary Lou Williams, Stuff Smith, Mel Torme, Clark Terry, Tyree Glenn, Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster, Mercer Ellington, Mary Lou Williams and Coleman Hawkins among others. She also toured with Joe Venuti, filling the role the great Eddie Lang after he passed away. Before hearing her play, Venuti was skeptical and a notorious practical joker, so he put her through the wringer before he would hire her but she proved that she was up for the challenge. You can read more about that story here.

However well-meaning, the press often emphasizes the novelty of a “girl guitar player” or a “female horn player.” But as Osborne said, ”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.” [3] Jim Carlton of Vintage Guitar Magazine beautifully summarizes Osborne’s impact on jazz history:

Osborne’s legacy comprises more than her body of work. Her memory serves as a monument of artistic and personal integrity. Her tenacity and talent manifested into an unusually high degree of artistic development. And she exuded the dignity and courage of one who refused to abide [sic] sexism and racism in an era when such attitudes were all too common. She was a cultural and musical pioneer who will forever remain in the pantheon of our greatest jazz artists. [2]

I am so grateful to learn about this legendary woman. Here is a playlist of her music, for your enjoyment!


(Re)Sources

[1] Curt Eriksmoen. “North Dakotan Became Known for Guitar Skills.” Bismarck Tribune. Nov. 7, 2013. (https://bismarcktribune.com/news/columnists/curt-eriksmoen/north-dakotan-became-known-for-guitar-skills/article_9f088dde-4e27-11e3-9196-001a4bcf887a.html)

[2] Jim Carlton. “Mary Osborne, Charlie’s Angel.” Vintage Guitar Magazine. February 2011. (http://www.vintageguitar.com/8559/mary-osborne/)

[3] John S. Wilson. “A Rare Club Date for Mary Osborne.” The New York Times. July 17, 1981. (https://www.nytimes.com/1981/07/17/arts/a-rare-club-date-for-mary-osborne.html)

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