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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.

Ancestry

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.

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