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    Women in Jazz

    jaazzBy Melanie Berzon

    As Bird said, “Now’s The Time”…to honor our Jazz Sisters!

    We at KCSM, The Bay Area’s Jazz Station, do just that on a regular basis throughout our broadcast day. Nevertheless, for the past 20 years, on March 8th, International Women’s Day, we’ve featured women instrumentalists, vocalists, composers, arrangers, managers, producers, promoters and businesswomen all day and all night.

    But why highlight women? Well, in the best of all possible worlds, we wouldn’t have to. However, Women in Jazz are still one of this country’s best-kept secrets. Despite the progress that’s been made, women’s visibility on the bandstand, at jazz festivals and on the airwaves (particularly non-vocalists) still doesn’t do justice to the vast array of female talent that exists.


    The history of Women in Jazz, no matter how hidden, is a rich and extensive one. In fact, ever since 1619, when the first black woman, an indentured slave named Isabelle, was brought to America, women have participated in the creation and evolution of black music, out of which jazz was born.

    Truth is, women have been making and playing jazz since the black all-women brass bands of the early nineteenth century played in Congo Square in New Orleans and the women’s big band has a long and illustrious history in the annals of jazz.

    In fact, the first “Ladies Orchestra” as they were called back then, was formed in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in 1884. The Roaring 20s gave birth to bands like the Parisian Redheads, later known as the Bricktops. The Swing era produced bands like the all black Dixie Sweethearts and the Harlem Playgirls. Ina Rae Hutton and her Melodears, a somewhat integrated band, actually had to fudge the identities of their women of color band members, and pass them off as white, due to segregation.

    With many men overseas, the war years afforded womens’ big bands the opportunity to proliferate, and that they did. One of the better-known groups was the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, under the baton of Anna Mae Winburn.

    Sally Placksin, in her book American Women in Jazz, writes: “Despite the prevalence of all-woman bands, …the individual ‘woman as musician’ remained a subordinate and practically nonexistent consideration compared with the overall look of a band and with the strong commercial appeal of a sexy, usually nonplaying leader up front ‘selling’ the show. Photographs of the day offer blatant proof of the emphasis on appearance, glamour, and sex appeal, particularly when it came to vocalists and leaders. Instrumentalists, though, were by no means exempt. Maintaining the ‘feminine’ image was so important that in one band the brass and reed sections applied Mercurochrome to their lips, because lipstick would have come off while they were playing.”

    Well, the end of the war, the return of the male troops and changing tastes put an end to all that nonsense. And in the late 40s, women’s big bands began to disappear. But women never go away for very long. By the 1970s, with the 2nd wave of feminism, groups like Maiden Voyage, Alive and The Jazz Sisters were back on the scene.

    Today, orchestras like the The Montclair Womens’ Big Band and Diva continue this resurgence. They and others like them honor the past by carrying on the tradition of their musical foremothers; acknowledge the present by putting their own modern day stamp on the music; promote the visibility of women musicians by providing them with opportunities to perform and network; and inspire the future, by being role models and encouraging young girls to follow in their footsteps.

    So, have things changed? You betcha!

    Consider this: In 1958, photographer Art Kane had an idea. How about a group photo of a whole bunch of talented jazz musicians? The editors at Esquire Magazine went for it and the photo that turned into the documentary “A Great Day in Harlem” was born. Fifty-seven musicians were gathered together on the steps of that brownstone in Harlem that day. Basie, Dizzy and even Monk dragged their bodies out of bed and somehow got themselves to a 10AM early morning photo shoot. Of those 57 musicians, guess how many were women?

    Three! That’s right…3! Mary Lou Williams, Marion McPartland and Maxine Sullivan were the only women there, representing the talented pianists and vocalists of the day. But what about Saxophonist Vi Redd, who played with Max Roach? And Guitarist Mary Osborne, who performed with Coleman Hawkins? And Trumpeter Clora Bryant, who spent time with the Lionel Hampton Band? And Vibraphonist Marjorie Hyams, who played with Woody Herman? And Trombonist Melba Liston, who recorded with Dizzy Gillespie? And Drummer Dottie Dodgion, who played with Benny Goodman?

    The history of Women in Jazz was not a history we knew very much about until about 40 years ago. We weren’t taught it in school. We didn’t read about it books. We couldn’t view it on TV or in the movies. And we couldn’t listen to it on records or the radio.

    Many of us growing up in the 50s and 60s saw limited images of what’s possible for Women in Jazz. Oh sure, we saw vocalists. We might have even seen pianists and an occasional guitarist. But by and large, the women bassists, drummers, vibraphonists, brass and reed players were obscured from our view. But thanks to the efforts of pioneering women like Sally Placksin, Linda Dahl and Rosetta Reitz, all that has changed.

    But by how much? Is there more we can do to ensure the visibility of our jazz sisters and foster future generations of female jazz talent?

    Here are some suggestions:

    Remind our jazz festivals to include women in their lineups.

    Purchase women’s recordings.

    Attend women’s gigs.

    Hire women for your celebrations and events.

    Lend a helping hand to the educational projects women are involved with.

    Women are the unsung heroines of Jazz. They continue to make their voices heard to this day. Our foremothers have done their part. Now it’s our turn!

    Melanie Berzon is the Operations Director at KCSM Radio, 91.1FM, and is the host of “Jazz in the Afternoon.”

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