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How the Other Half Swings

How the Other Half Swings
Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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Suffice it to say that once we solve the mystery of why women are so underrepresented in virtually every genre of music, we’ll be able to solve the puzzle of why women date unemployed losers when there are unattached Geniuses patiently biding their time in celibacy
If there has been a frequent criticism of the Genius Guide, besides the fact that it's hard to tell what the hell I'm going on about most of the time, it would be that I have largely ignored the contributions of women to Our Music. One would think, from the body of my work to this point, that Jazz is an exclusively male club. I've profiled everyone from Duke Ellington to Dave Douglas, discussed the who, what, and why of Jazz, and yet the only mentions of women have been repeated impolite jokes at the expense of Bessie Smith and my leering asides regarding voluptuous actresses Christina Hendricks and Kat Dennings.

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Women have been involved in Our Music almost since the very beginning. While there is no alternate universe theory of a woman inventing Jazz instead of Buddy Bolden, it doesn't take long into its development for women to begin making noteworthy contributions. Perhaps the first female of note was Lil Hardin, a pianist noted for playing with Louis "Pops" Armstrong, whom she later married, and Joe "King" Oliver, whom she did not. Renowned not only as a performer, Hardin also penned such Jazz hits as "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" and "Just for a Thrill."

A contemporary of Hardin's, the aforementioned Bessie Smith, also blazed a trail for women. Learning her stage persona at the feet of the great Ma Rainey, Smith began her recording career in 1923 after signing with Columbia Records. She became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day, traveling in her own custom railroad car that rode the rails propelled by nothing but the kinetic rhythms of Jazz. She would influence such later luminaries as Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin (who was instrumental in purchasing a headstone for Smith's unmarked grave in 1970).

One of the most intriguing names of this era is Valaida Snow, whom Louis "Still Pops" Armstrong called the second-best trumpet player besides himself. In fact, she was given the sobriquet "Little Louis" by professional nicknamers. Snow made a name for herself in the Thirties, touring the world and garnering praise wherever she went. She would be arrested in 1941 in Nazi-occupied Denmark and be held until 1942. She never emotionally recovered from the experience, according to Jazz historian Scott Yanow. Unable to regain her former success, she died backstage during a performance in 1956.

Moving on to cheerier things.

Even from the start, women were not just involved with Our Music as performers. A goodly number were also songwriters, in addition to the aforementioned Lil Hardin. Dorothy Fields was a lyricist responsible, with Jerome Kern, for the great standard "The Way You Look Tonight." Ann Ronnell and Irene Higginbotham also contributed to the Jazz canon during this period, during which Our Music gained legitimacy even among the kind of people who listened to music by dead European guys.

The Thirties and Forties were, arguably, the peak of Jazz as popular music. Big Band ruled the bandstands of the period, and women were represented as singers, musicians and bandleaders. Martha Tilton achieved fame with Benny Goodman's band, while the Andrews Sisters sold over seventy-five million albums (seventy-five million and twelve, or something like that. The research is sketchy). All female bands were also a thing, as they had been since the early days of territory bands, but particularly during World War II when so many men were called away. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were notable not only as being one of the most successful of the time, but also the first integrated all-female band in the U.S. and the first band to attract the rare male groupie.

Billie Holiday reigned supreme as one of the top voices in Jazz for three decades. Born in 1915 as Eleanora Fagan, she began her career singing in Harlem nightclubs as a teenager. She took her stage name from actress Billie Dove and musician Clarence Holiday (who may have been her father). She began recording in 1935 and continued until the very end, after years of hard living decimated her health and her voice. Dubbed "Lady Day" by friend and musical partner Lester "Prez" Young during a wholesale round of Jazz nicknaming, she performed with some of the very top nicknames of the day (including William "Count" Basie and Kenneth "Red" Norvo).

Moving into the Fifties, one of the top female musicians to emerge in this era was trombonist Melba Liston. Born in Kansas City, she began performing with some of the top names in the nascent BeBop scene in the mid-Forties. She recorded with Dexter Gordon, and played with Dizzy Gillespie's big band. She later recorded with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and formed an all-female quartet. She also spent much of her career teaching and arranging. Liston was not related to popular boxer of the era, Sonny Liston, but it is believed by many that she would have also lost had she faced a young Muhammed Ali. This was no reflection on her, though, because Ali.

At this point, someone will probably ask, "Why haven't you mentioned Mary Lou Williams, the great pianist, composer and arranger who worked with such luminaries as Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and so many others?" There, I've mentioned her. Are you happy now?

Moving forward.

None of the women I've mentioned thus far had an easy road when it came to breaking into the male-dominated music business. Some, particularly the in-demand "girl singers" of the Big Band era, may have had a slightly easier path, but all faced at least some measure of misogyny and hardship. Especially since much of a Jazz musician's life is spent on the road, there were the inevitable trials of being a woman surrounded by men who acted like they'd never seen a damned washing machine before.

If this were most articles of its kind, it might throw together a paragraph mentioning such luminaries as Marian McPartland, Carla Bley, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and Shirley Horn with some vague mention of more recent successes like drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and violinist Regina Carter. Then, it would wrap up neatly with optimistic talk of the increased number of women studying Our Music at Berklee. It might even throw in a follow-up paragraph or two detailing current faves like Karrin Allyson or Jane Monheit before ending with some upbeat platitudes of the "you go, girl" variety.

But then, this wouldn't be the Genius Guide to Jazz. I take more pride in my work than that, even if it means editing out the stuff I had already written on Karrin Allyson and Jane Monheit. Unfortunately, I out-clevered myself and used up some important names in that last paragraph trying to prove I didn't need them in order to write a decent article about women in Jazz.

I particularly didn't mean to gloss over Toshiko Akiyoshi, the Japanese pianist who has proven that Jazz talent can come from anywhere. A fourteen-time Grammy nominee, the first female to win Downbeat's Best Arranger and Composer Awards, and an NEA Jazz Master honoree, Akiyoshi has the sort of serious Jazz cred that's impressive without having to point out she's a woman. Born in Manchuria in 1929 to Japanese emigrants, the family returned to Japan after World War II which is where she was introduced to Jazz. Akiyoshi would be discovered there in 1952, when a touring Oscar Peterson happened upon her playing in a club and convinced producer Norman Granz to record her. She has gone on to record over 50 albums in her lustrous career, and would have been the lead character in a popular manga series Super Piano Princess if only someone in Japan had thought of it before I did.

Some mention should be made of women in non-performing roles. Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, known as the "BeBop baroness," was a proponent and patron of the Bop scene. She is notable also for the fact that Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk both died in her presence (New Jersey state police have since cleared her of any charges). Then, there is Sue Mingus, the widow of Charles Mingus who is the keeper of her husband's legacy. After his death in 1979, she formed three bands (the Mingus Dynasty septet, the Mingus Big Band and the Mingus Orchestra) to keep his music alive. She cannot be blamed for the failure of the 1980s sitcom A Mingus Among Us because, to be honest, all 1980s sitcoms kind of sucked.

Of the more current vintage, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Esperanza Spalding. The first Jazz artist in Grammy history to win the Best New Artist award, Spalding has had an auspicious start to her career. The bassist, composer and vocalist added three more Grammys to her tally, while her hair has garnered three nominations itself. Spalding has recorded five albums of her own to date, and has guested on several others. She is most likely one of the names that comes up most often when you talk to someone who has only a passing familiarity with Jazz.

And, of course, there is a whole crop of fresh talent sprouting in Our Music all over the country. In Los Angeles, pianist Connie Han seems intent on building a second Han Dynasty. Saxophonist Alisha Pattillo is currently lighting up Houston, Texas. Fellow reed player Sharel Cassity, in New York City, has played with quite a few big names in several genres. Also in NYC, trumpeter Carol Morgan has six CDs as a leader under her belt. Our pros at AAJ will be getting suitable Jazz nicknames out to them as soon as possible, but the first wag to suggest "Hopalong" for Ms. Cassity gets rabbit punched. I'm serious.

Even with the gains made in the past few decades, with more women studying Jazz and making a career of it, it is still mostly a boys' club. "But why?" you ask. Women are certainly more in touch with their emotions, and Jazz is arguably the most purely emotional of music. The answer goes deeper than mere misogyny, deeper even than Your Own Personal Genius can divine. Suffice it to say that once we solve the mystery of why women are so underrepresented in virtually every genre of music, we'll be able to solve the puzzle of why women date unemployed losers when there are unattached Geniuses patiently biding their time in celibacy.

I could go on and on about the subject, but it's nearly time for me to get out to the ballyard for the evening's Salem Red Sox game where there's also some important beer yet to be drank. Till next time, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.

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