Hey, jazz lovers! Let’s sit back and enjoy some smooth trombone playing by Melba Liston. Or the sultry, hot sax of Vi Redd. Or let’s spend some time listening to Mary Lou Williams on piano or Tashiko Akiyoshi’s thundering big band. Maybe we could spend a minute with Louis Armstrong’s talented wife Lil Hardin Armstrong and Lil’s Hot Shots. What? You say you have you never heard of these jazz greats? Me neither and I consider myself fairly well-listened. Then I watched Judy Chaikin’s documentary The Girls in the Band, and I realized I had been cheated out of some of the best sounds in jazz I’d never heard.
(Go here for the trailer and some historic video.)
These women among many, many others, are jazz musicians of enormous talent, of captivating and unique style, courage and sheer grit. They endured racism as well as sexism. They scrambled after the few opportunities that came their way, endured humiliating rejection, but persevered to play in a field that rarely if ever welcomed them. They blossomed during the war years when male jazz musicians were scarce, but by the fifties they’d all but disappeared.
Yes, here is another arena where women wanted in, but couldn’t get past the male gatekeepers. Some played in all-girl big bands. Some broke in to play in sections of male big bands. Some were arrangers and composers. Their recordings are few and hard to find. Yet, they paved the way for a flourishing group of young women who are taking their places in the world of jazz today.
Some Women Jazz Musicians Were Famous
Or course, we all know the female vocalists – Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn. They were welcomed into the spotlight by enterprising male bandleaders who knew their value. A few pianists gained entry because piano playing was “lady like”, but as one trumpet player said, “as soon as you put the horn up to your mouth” doors closed. Perspiring drummers didn’t stand a chance. Precious few made it to the stage.
Because getting through the door was so difficult, these women had to be very, very talented and able to play toe-to-toe and riff-for-riff with the best male performers. Sometimes they were tested in the hope that they would fail and could then be fired. But remember how very, very talented they were.
Like all these historic stories of bias, this one is hard to swallow. An entire world of greatness has been erased from general knowledge. I watched this documentary with tears in my eyes. It was hard to imagine that I’d missed these incredible performers and hadn’t even known to raise my voice to praise them, or support them by buying their recordings.
If you do anything with an all-consuming passion and pursue it because you must, you have everything in common with these jazz greats. We all know who we are.
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