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).