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Women in Jazz, Part 1: Early Innovators


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Jazz is a self-taught art, and I was a loner.
—Mary Lou Williams
"Lil Hardin [Armstrong]...often imagined herself standing...at the bottom of a ladder, holding it steady for Louis as he rose to stardom." (Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound, 2012). "The all-female band is an anomaly in music, one that must constantly prove itself as a 'band,' and not just 'girls playing music together.'" (Mary Ann Clawson, 1999). Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times." (Björk, 2015).

Recent media projects such as Director Judy Chaikin's Girls in the Band (Virgil Films and Entertainment, 2015), Freedom of Expression (Beckeresque Press, 2015) by Chris Becker, and the Enstice/Stockhouse collaboration Jazzwomen (Indiana University Press, 2004) have done little to alleviate the marginalization of women in jazz. From the time of the early pioneers of the genre, to the current community of artists, women—other than vocalists—have been underrepresented. Modern era female instrumental jazz artists/composers have emerged as influential leaders but names like Carla Bley, Maria Schneider, Geri Allen, Regina Carter, Nicole Mitchell, Mary Halvorson, and Kris Davis are part of a relatively small contingent of well-known names. It's a phenomenon not unique to music but it one where many artists have failed to achieve recognition based only on sexual stereotypes. Women's roles in the music that was a precursor to jazz indicates that they have always had a central—if concealed—place in developing the genre.


In the ancient West African lands that gave us the foundations of jazz, the role of women in music was significant. In the early West African griottes, who performed as musical sages, poets and minstrels, we can see parallels to early black jazz musicians in America: revered for their talent but often treated with fear and suspicion when not performing. In Africa—as in America—gender biases often relegated griottes to lesser instrumental roles and vocals. Their male counterparts (griots) traditionally played the twenty-one-string kora and griottes, by many oral accounts, did not. However, the prestigious Museum of African Art in Belgrade, Serbia suggests that griottes not only played the kora but also the balafon, an ancient predecessor of the European xylophone, and the ngoni, a five or six-string lute that evolved into the banjo.

In her 2003 Carnegie Mellon University paper Experience West African Drumming: A Study of West African Dance-Drumming and Women Drummers, Leslie Marie Mullins explains that drumming was specifically the territory of male musicians in West Africa. Mullins reveals that several myths were employed to keep women and drums far apart. Among them, Ghanaian women were thought (by males) to lack the physical strength for the strenuous activity of drumming, and they were taught that drumming would lead to infertility. Despite formal restrictions on women drummers, they participated in less established ways. In African Music (Horizons de France, 1969) Cameroonian writer and composer Francis Bebey cites the example of village women pounding human-sized pestles into oversize mortars and using the rhythm as accompaniment to their work songs.

Less than three-hundred years after the invention of the djembe drum in the then massive Mali Empire of West Africa, the first slaves arrived in the Jamestown, Virginia colony. The culture and tradition they brought with them could only be carried internally. Depending on slaves' destinations, the playing of music was restricted (New Orleans), or banned (South Carolina). The slaves represented a variety of cultural groups with diverse musical backgrounds. They did not arrive directly from West Africa but from the dozen colonized islands of the Caribbean where their own musical traditions were further influenced by the British, French, Dutch and Portuguese colonizers. In John W. Blassingame's The Slave Community (Oxford University Press, 1972) the author says "Slaves spent their Sundays...strumming the banjo, singing, dancing...fiddling. They often organized dances and parties to which all the slaves in the neighborhood were invited." The author does not explain how the slave came by these instruments but they may have been passed down, or sold to the slaves by the plantation masters. Where instruments were not permitted, the slaves found internal resources, such as the body slap, to celebrate. Blassingame quotes the personal journal of an observer in the late 1770s, saying "These dances were individual dances, consisting of the shuffling of the feet, swinging of the arms and shoulders in a peculiar rhythm of time developed into what is known today as the Double Shuffle, Heel and Toe, Buck and Wing, Juba, etc. The slaves became proficient in such dances, and could play a tune with the feet, dancing largely to an inward music, a music that was felt, but not heard." Blassingame makes no gender distinctions in plantation music where the slaves' repertoire was confined to muffled rhythm of feet and hands.

Benjamin Latrobe was a British architect who emigrated to the U.S. and has been called "the father of American architecture," having designed the White House, the U.S. Capitol building and major projects throughout the eastern half of the country. His extensive diaries were a combination of architectural notebooks, travel journals, and social observation. The diaries were combined and published in 1903, eighty-three years after his death in New Orleans. Among his notes were comments on those of Sunday slave activities in Congo Square (now part of Louis Armstrong Park). In his description of the slaves' musical celebration he notes that women had an active, possibly equal role to their male counterparts as singers, dancers, and musicians: "a ring of a dozen women walked, by way of dancing, round the music in the center. But the instruments were of different construction. One which from the color of the wood seemed new, consisted of a block cut into something of the form of a cricket bat, with a long and deep mortise down the center. This thing made a considerable noise, being beaten lustily on the side by a short stick. In the same orchestra was a square drum, looking like a stool, which made an abominable, loud noise; also, a calabash [a gourd], with a round hole in it, the hole studded with brass nails, which was beaten by a woman with two short sticks." Within a decade of the American Civil War, political tensions had escalated to a point where slaves' musical freedom was abolished in all public settings.

Post Emancipation

The spirituals that came out of slave territories did not fade away after the Civil War though their emphasis focused on the religious rather than to the coded messages sometimes embedded in the lyrics. In those messages, slaves often dropped hints of escape routes, rebellions and news of family members but by the 1870s the songs were Christian gospel hymns and reflections on the hardships of slavery. Groups such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1871-present) and their off-shoot quartet later infused spirituals with the rhythmic beat of blues and jazz. A photograph of the 1882 version of the group shows six women and four men. Members of the late 1880s group such as Sadie Chandler Cole, Josephine Moore, Minnie Butler and Ella Sheppard were all accomplished pianists and performed instrumentally. The group gave black performers a national stage that would have been unthinkable ten years before emancipation. White audiences, accustomed to white performers in black-face, found "actual black performers" as "odd" according to the book The Singing Tours of the Fisk Jubilee Singers: 1871-1874 (by L.D. Silveri, Greenwood Press, 1989). The early Fisk group performed for President Ulysses S. Grant and throughout England and France.

At the turn of the nineteenth century Creole musicians in New Orleans were concocting an amalgam of musical styles as diverse as their gumbo. They borrowed the swamp blues, zydeco and Cajun styles though they may have gone by other names, or no names. Marching band music from Europe, the Cuban habanera, slave spirituals and the field songs of West Africa were all in the mix of new music not confined to theaters or concert halls. Krewe parades, second lines and funeral marches became the everyday venues for the earliest form of jazz, soon followed by the more formally organized ragtime. Folk ragtime—a type of traditional ragtime—was thought to have originated with informally trained African American pianists with a basic understanding of syncopated music. It was popular simultaneously to the cakewalk and the more widespread style of ragtime. Historically, ragtime is most often associated with a small group of male composers, Scott Joplin being the most recognizable but there were several accomplished women composers in the genre.


May Aufderheide was one of the best-known early women ragtime composers. While she was a talented composer and pianist, her success may well have been aided by her affluent father who opened his own music publishing house to issue Aufderheide's music. Aufderheide—who was white—had her most successful piece "Dusty" published in 1908; the sheet music reflecting white insensitivity with its cover portraying a cartoonish blackface character. While Aufderheide was one of the better-known ragtime composers at the turn of the twentieth century, she was not the most prolific. Henrietta Blanke, Sadie Koninsky, Anita Owen and Charlotte Blake were each credited with dozens of compositions but also composed "jazz" waltzes similar to the "Missouri Waltz," "Jug Band Waltz" and the "Mississippi Waltz," all popular in the ragtime era. Sophie Tucker's Five Kings of Syncopation are widely believed the first popular all-female dance band. Tucker, a Russian immigrant, performed in 1907 in blackface and affecting a Southern accent. The prevailing attitude in the white press reporting of blacks and ragtime is framed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of August 6, 1911 which describes the relationship: "It was typically negroid in the years prior to the Civil War. It bears radical resemblance to the fantastic waywardness of Creole song. Now the most significant fact about this music is that it has become typically American. It has outgrown its negroid limitations..." Not surprisingly, less is known of ragtime composers of color, but a few left their mark. The child of a Louisiana plantation overseer, Geraldine Dobyns composed only three rags but her first, "Possum Rag," is still performed.

In 1914, Harlemite, Ethel Hill was leading the Hill Astoria Ladies' Orchestra at Barron's Astoria Café, a prestigious, and private, club in Harlem. At the same time, the best-known black-American ragtime bandleader, James Reese Europe, created James Reese Europe's Ladies Orchestra in 1914. Reese quickly changed the band's billing to indicate that the orchestra was now under the direction of Marie Lucas according to D. Antoinette Handy's Black Women In American Bands and Orchestras (Scarecrow Press, 1998). Linda Dahl, in Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen (Limelight Editions, 1989) noted that Lucas was trained as a trombonist, pianist and arranger. Her father had led the Lafayette Ladies Orchestra and when he passed around 1915, Lucas assumed leadership. The band's reputation was such that Lucas was able to recruit players throughout the east and from as far as Cuba. Both Dahl and Handy highlight Louisville, Kentucky born Leora Meaux, a classically trained cornet, trumpet, and saxophonist. She had established herself in several all-women bands including Hallie Anderson's Lafayette Theatre "Lady Band" in 1919; her own group, the Vampires around 1927, the Lafayette Theatre House Orchestra, the Negro Women's Orchestral and Civic Association and later in her career played with Lil Armstrong's orchestra. Fletcher Henderson had met Meaux when both played the riverboat circuit and they later married.

Early Jazz

A significant number of female pioneers of jazz had their moment in the sun but have faded from memory. Gertie Wells and her all-black Syncopated Orchestra were playing the Washington D.C. circuit in the early 1920s and Wells is credited with helping Duke Ellington rise to prominence. According to Dahl, Wells was considered the best pianist in Washington. Chicago composer and bandleader Cora "Lovie" Austin has, along with Lil Hardin Armstrong, often been cited as one of the two best women jazz pianists, of the 1920s. Initially known for accompanying top blues singers such as Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter, Austin was a sought-after session player. She led her own band, the Blues Serenaders, featuring Kid Ory on trombone and Johnny Dodds on clarinet. In the 1930s Austin accepted a position as musical director for the Monogram Theater in Chicago and remained there for two decades. When she was still Billie Goodson, the New Orleans pianist who later married into the name Billie Pierce, was an indomitable musical force. Her large Pensacola, Florida family included six piano-playing sisters and though Pierce could not read music but made a quick study of her music-filled environment at home and in New Orleans. Dahl explains that Pierce had surreptitiously filled in for the pianist in blues legend Bessie Smith's for two weeks, at the age of ten. By fifteen, she was traveling in bands playing ragtime and at the outset of the Great Depression, Pierce was playing on the riverboat circuit. Returning to New Orleans, Pierce became a regular performer at clubs in and around the French Quarter. Along with her husband, De De Pierce, she led the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in the 1960s. Sweet Emma Barrett's career followed a somewhat parallel track as both she and Pierce had played with Original Tuxedo Orchestra and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Another self-taught pianist, Barrett did not have the opportunity to record until the 1960s, shortly after which she suffered a stroke that limited her activity. Trumpeter Valaida Snow was a native of Tennessee but grew up on the road with her performing family. While just in her mid-teens she had learned to play cello, bass, banjo, violin, mandolin, harp, accordion, clarinet, and saxophone but it was her trumpet playing that was so impressive that it drew comparisons to Louis Armstrong. Armstrong himself called Snow the "second best" trumpeter in jazz, he being the first. Snow was touring Denmark during the German occupation of that country and claimed to have been arrested by the Nazis but other reports suggest she was arrested for theft and possession of illegal drugs. Whichever the case, Snow's career was effectively off the tracks after this event and until her death in 1956.

Before she helped guide the fledgling career of her brother, Cab Calloway, Blanche Calloway had established herself as a prominent composer, bandleader and singer out of Baltimore. The Henry Louis Gates edited Harlem Renaissance Lives from the African American National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2009) describes a classically trained pianist who left college in 1921 to take a role in Shuffle Along, a musical by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle which featured an all-black cast. Calloway became a staple of the Chicago and New York jazz scenes, recording with Louis Armstrong in the mid-1920s and led a band for Andy Kirk. Her Blanche Calloway and Her Joy Boys became her most popular band and included saxophonist Ben Webster. Cab Calloway's signature "Hi De Ho" chant likely was created by his sister, though he took the credit. In later years Calloway became a disc jockey and then Program Director for WMBM in Florida where she remained for twenty years.

The granddaughter of slaves, Lillian (Lil) Hardin was an accomplished pianist, composer, arranger, singer, and bandleader before she became the second of four Louis Armstrong wives. She studied music at Fisk University, and in 1917, at the Chicago College of Music, finally earning her PhD from the New York College of Music in 1929. Bandleader Lawrence Duhé heard Hardin playing as a sheet music demonstrator in 1918 and asked her to join his band playing at Chicago's De Luxe Café and shortly afterward at the city's Dreamland Ballroom. King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (essentially, the same group Duhé had led) later moved into Dreamland with Oliver convincing Hardin to remain in his version of the band. With Oliver's band Hardin met Armstrong in 1921 and they married in 1924. Hardin left Oliver's band shortly after he moved it to Los Angeles in 1921. Returning to Chicago, she resumed playing at Dreamland then rejoined Oliver when he returned to Chicago in 1922. In Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism (Thomas Brothers, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015), the author suggests that the classically-trained Hardin simply played to make a living and had little interest in jazz music at the time. She claimed not to recognize Armstrong as being more, or less talented than other trumpeters. Brother's reports it was only when Oliver himself told Hardin that Armstrong was the more talented player between the two trumpeters, that Hardin's interest peaked. With Hardin's encouragement Armstrong left Oliver to form his Hot Five and Hot Seven groups with Hardin on piano and occasional vocals. The first groups to be under Armstrong's name, the Hot Fives included Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, and Johnny St. Cyr on guitar and banjo. The Hot Seven added tuba player Pete Briggs and Johnny Dodds brother, Baby Dodds on drums. Hardin wrote and arranged some of the music and even designed and tailored the trumpeter's suits. Armstrong's reputation as a philanderer was not exaggerated. Despite Hardin's critical role in making Armstrong a star, he continued to have affairs and then replaced Hardin with pianist Earl Hines. By the late 1920s the marriage was effectively over and Hardin launched her own band with another talented and popular cornetist, Freddie Keppard. Out of sentimentality, marketing savvy, or both, Hardin continued to bill herself as Armstrong's wife into the 1930s. She led an all-women orchestra and a big band that broadcast on NBC radio. She recorded as both a pianist and vocalist for the Decca label and performed with well-known artists such as Red Allen, Joe Williams, and Oscar Brown Jr.. By the 1940s Hardin was performing more often as a soloist but left music briefly to attend tailoring school where, as a class project, she handmade a tuxedo for Armstrong. In 1971 Armstrong died and Hardin performed on a television memorial program for the trumpeter. She suffered a heart attack at the piano and died in route to a hospital.

No early jazz woman was more influential than Mary Lou Williams, and her impact spanned generations and musical styles. A prodigy and self-taught pianist, she was performing at seven, a side player for blues legend Mimi Smith and playing with an early Ellington group in her teens. She played with McKinney's Cotton Pickers, one of the most popular black bands in the 1920s; the prestigious group attracted notable guests with stars such as Coleman Hawkins and Fats Waller sometimes sitting in with the band. She was a tireless and voracious student of the piano whose interests and expertise grew through stride, to bebop, to improvisation. Williams wrote hundreds of compositions including those for Ellington and Benny Goodman and taught Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and others. Called the "First Lady of Jazz," Dahl observes that Williams knew the isolation in that title citing the pianist as saying "Jazz is a self-taught art, and I was a loner." Williams played in Ellington's orchestra and with the Twelve Clouds of Joy, and a band that included Art Blakey. She had her own radio show and played a regular gig at New York's Café Society Downtown. After a lengthy European sabbatical in the 1950s, where she immersed herself in understanding her newly chosen religion, Williams returned to the U.S. in 1957, joining Gillespie onstage at the Newport Jazz Festival. In her book American Women in Jazz (Wideview Books, 1982), Sally Placksin notes that Williams founded her own May Records label in 1963 and brought Lil Hardin, Billie Pierce and Lovie Austin back into the studio to record.

A significant part of Williams and Hardin's real-world schooling was their experiences with territory bands of the 1920s. if women were objectified on the established, brick and mortar circuits, it was overall less taxing than what they experienced in the world of backwater one-night-stands. Williams, for all intent and purposes, led her own territory band but with the name "Six Men and a Girl." As instrumentalists, women often found their ability to contribute stifled by the male musicians. Critics were quick to pan women's talents while bemoaning their presence as nothing more than dubiously placed promotional props. Often, women's talents could only be realistically displayed through "all-girl" territory bands. Several such bands successfully made names for themselves throughout the southern and middle plains states. The Harlem Playgirls, The Dixie Sweethearts, the Darlings of Rhythm, and Gertrude Long and Her Rambling Night Hawks, all these African American female bands developed substantial followings coming out of the territories.

Female artists were crucial to developing Armstrong, Ellington, Monk and others though even the best known of them performed in the shadows for much of their own careers. In Part 2 of Women in Jazz we move into the modern era of jazz and look at some under-recognized names such as harpist Dorothy Ashby, pianist Beryl Booker, and composer Julia Perry and more popular artists like trombonist Melba Liston, pianists Shirley Horn and Marian McPartland, saxophonist Vi Redd, and Alice Coltrane.

Selected Discography

Blanche Calloway & Her Joy Boys 1925-35
(Mélodie Jazz Classic, 1996)

Calloway's recording career was not prolific but the French label and distributor Mélodie wisely included her in their mid-1990s Classics Chronological Series. Twenty-five tracks, of varying sound quality, span a decade of Calloway's career. The raucous nature of her performances caused U.S. labels to shy away recording Calloway but those powerful and gutsy concerts are part of her charm and distinctiveness. The selection of tunes is classic and players such as Cozy Cole, Ben Webster and Louis Armstrong are among those who appear of some tracks.

Lil Hardin Armstrong and her Swing Orchestra 1936-1940
(Mélodie Jazz Classics, 1996)

From the same label and series Hardin is showcased in her post-Armstrong days. Though she didn't record with a group called the "Swing Orchestra" Mélodie may have taken small license with the title. With saxophonist Chu Berry and clarinetist Buster Bailey's along, the album covers some familiar territory but doesn't include tune such as "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" and "Don't Jive Me" for which Hardin was best known. That said, Hardin, like Calloway, often took a surprisingly freewheeling, bare-knuckles approach and many of these tune reflect the confidence she had as a performer.

Mary Lou Williams: A Grand Night for Swinging
(HighNote Records, 2008)

Swinging, yes. But in the twilight of her career, 1976, Williams music reflect her spiritual side as well. With bassist Ronnie Boykins and drummer Roy Haynes, the album, recorded live in Buffalo, NY, is not without sound issues but it is interesting to hear Williams smoothly transition from bebop to hymns seamlessly. More interesting still, is the concluding interview with Williams that provides some nicely drawn-out insights.


  • Mary Lou Williams photo © William P. Gottlieb. All Rights Reserved.
  • "Lil Hardin [Armstrong]...often imagined herself standing...at the bottom of a ladder, holding it steady for Louis as he rose to stardom." (Margaret Moos Pick, Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound, 2012).
  • "Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times." (Björk in Pitchfork, by Jessica Hopper, 2015).
  • "If you're a guy and you have a band, if it's a band of women, it's a girl group" (p. 112). Constructing Brotherhood: Class, Gender, and Fraternalism (Princeton Legacy Library) Jul 14, 2014 by Mary Ann Clawson.

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