Women in Jazz, Part 1: Early Innovators

Karl Ackermann By

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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.



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