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Teri Harllee King

Teri aka JazzWench designs fine jewelry by day and reports on women in jazz by night.

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Women have been vitally active in jazz from its inception, nationally and internationally, making inspired contributions in both performance and composition. While many of their accomplishments were overlooked at the time by music critics and historians, a new body of research and writing that began in the 1980's continues today to shed light on the historical role of women jazz artists.

When we think of women in jazz it is usually the vocalists that most easily come to mind: Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughn. However, women have also been present in the jazz scene as gifted instrumentalists: Ernestine “Tiny” Davis, Clora Bryant, Ernie Mae Crafton Miller, Marian McPartland, Mary Lou Williams.

Many have fought the same barriers of racism as their male counterparts, as well as the additional barrier of sexism both within and without the ranks of the music profession. There was a proliferation of working women instrumentalists in the 1940's, as American men were called off to war and women were sought out to fill their places in the Big Band and Swing era in the United States. Women, who before and after this era, found it nearly impossible to find steady work as musicians solely because of their gender, and had been limited to instruments considered feminine, enjoyed an unprecedented level of employment and musical expression. Although gender was no longer the barrier it had previously been, racism continued to raise its ugly head in the experience of many of these women jazz artists. The great vocalist Billie Holiday often had to perform on a separate stage from the white musicians who accompanied her. Like Billy, other women jazz artists were not allowed front entrance to or lodging in the very hotels whose ballrooms they performed in, and often had to wear heavy white pancake make-up on stage when performing with Caucasian musicians. Still, despite the hurdles presented them, there was, and is, much joy in the making of this wonderful form of music we call jazz, and you will find a history rich with the gifts women have been driven to share.

Women are entering the field of jazz in large numbers again today. In this column we will explore the contributions of women instrumentalists and vocalists to the jazz genre. We'll talk about the women jazz performers who blazed the trail, those who are currently on the scene, and women whose talent deserves wider acclaim. I look forward to bringing this information to you and welcome additional suggestions and information from you.

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