Women in jazz
New York — From the early days of the Kid Orys and Jelly Roll Mortons right on up to the Chick Coreas and Pat Metheneys of today, jazz music has been primarily the property of men. But now growing numbers of female instrumentalists, proud of women's unsung role in jazz history, are working hard to excel and make their mark in the highly competitive world of club, studio and concert jazz work.
Of course, there have always been a few well-known women pianists, and lots of female jazz singers -- great ones like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Anita O'Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Betty Carter.Yet to see a woman stand up on the stage and play a saxophone or a trumpet or the bass fiddle was unusual , to say the least.
One such rarity is saxophonist Ann Patterson, who leads a highly successful all-woman big band, ''Maiden Voyage,'' on the West Coast. She loves her work, but admits, ''It's taken time because we had to prove ourselves. Men assume a lady musician is not such a good musician unless she proves herself.''
''Maiden Voyage'' has certainly proven itself, with its clean, tight ensemble work, and some outstanding soloists. ''I consciously wanted to make a statement to the musical community here in L.A.,'' says Ann.
A yearly event in Kansas City is responsible for showcasing many of today's female jazz musicians: the Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival, founded five years ago by Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg. This one event has done more than any other to get women jazz musicians together, drawing them from all over the world to attend concerts and take part in jam sessions. Unlike some women's music festivals it is open to men as well; they express support for the women.
One of the festival's avid participants is pianist Marian McPartland, a woman who has watched the jazz scene change and has moved right along with it. Born in England, Marian was always interested in jazz, and pursued it to the United States, where she still lives and performs. For the past two years, she has hosted a jazz piano series on National Public Radio. She laughs now when she remembers what was said about her long ago in Down Beat Magazine: ''Marian McPartland has three strikes against her -- she's white, she's British, and she's a woman.'' But this didn't ruffle McPartland at all.
''No. I had so many other things bothering me at the time, like trying to play better. My only problems were with myself.''
Another veteran jazz pianist, Barbara Carroll, remembers an amusing situation early in her career, when women were virtually unknown on the bandstand:
''I had a pianist friend here in New York, when I first came here to live. If he had a job he couldn't do because he was already booked that night, he would tell the guys in the band, 'I can't do the job but I have a friend who's very good' -- he would never say 'he' or 'she' -- just, 'My friend Bobbie Carroll can play the job.' Comes eight o'clock and I arrive. The band leader, after he picks himself up off the floor, says 'Who are you?' and I say, 'I'm Bobbie Carroll, the piano player,' so by that time of course it's too late for him to send me home. So I got a lot of work that way.''
While the more seasoned women jazz musicians seem to take a lot in stride, some of the younger ones admit they are bitter about the way male musicians continue to treat them. But the older players counter with the argument that the better you get, the more respect you get. And as women musicians continue to demonstrate their seriousness, barriers continue to fall.
Collectively, women's experience in jazz -- while modest in terms of numbers of players -- goes back a long way. According to Rosetta Reitz, jazz historian, author, record and concert producer, ''Women have been playing jazz since before the name was formed.''
One of the earliest all-woman jazz bands, which Rosetta discovered in her extensive research on women in jazz, was the Ladies Society Jass Orchestra, a group that played functions, church affairs, and concerts near the Chatham, Mass., circa 1888. In the early days women were important to jazz in other parts of the country, too.
''In the 1920s Chicago was a friendly city to women jazz musicians,'' says Rosetta. ''There were two extraordinarily important women piano players at that time: Lil Armstrong, whose name was then Lil Hardin, and Lovie Austin.''
Lil Hardin Armstrong, better known as Louis Armstrong's wife, was one of the people who cut the now-legendary ''Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five'' records. She also worked with the great trumpeter Joe ''King'' Oliver in his Creole Jazz Band in 1921.
''She was the only one in that band who could write the music down,'' says Rosetta. ''And her influence on Louis was powerful -- she encouraged him to take lessons from a classical trumpet teacher.''
Lovie Austin was always the leader of her own groups, including Lovie Austin and her Serenaders. She recorded with Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey, and Alberta Hunter, wrote and arranged music, and worked the after hours spots. And she was one of numerous versatile women who played in the movie house pits.
''They were very demanding jobs,'' says Rosetta of movie house work, ''because not only did the pianists have to follow the action in the silent films, but they had to play the live stage shows, too. They had to play for the comedians, the jugglers, the magicians, for the blues singers. And they had to know classical repertoire. They were very accomplished artists, those women who played in the pits, but they have gone unacknowledged. ''It's a shame.''
As the years went by, the face of jazz changed, and with it, the small growing role of women in jazz.
''In the '30s, when the swing era began, we started to get some women's groups, some good women's groups. And in the '40s we had a lot of them, for the same reason that we had Rosie the Riveter -- the men were away, and the women were permitted to play! The best all-woman group in the '40s was the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.''
Today the trend is away from the all-woman groups, toward a general blending of men and women in jazz. Women can be found, to some extent, in all styles of jazz, from jazz/rock and fusion to bebop and mainstream to avant-garde. But will the continuing and increasing presence of women in jazz change the quality of the music?
''Absolutely,'' replies Rosetta Reitz. ''Women have a different sensibility than men. I think that women, given a chance to find their own voices, will come up with something different. I don't know what that'll be. We haven't yet had a female voice in jazz, because those women who have been successful have not wanted to identify with their womanliness. They've preferred rather to identify with the male voice that comes from jazz. And it's understandable, because it's a very positive voice. I think it'll be a very long time before we hear what the female sensibility in jazz is.''
Will it be possible some day to tell the difference between a male and female instrumentalist on a record?
''I hope so. But don't read me wrong -- I don't necessarily equate female with soft. I think of (saxophonists) Johnny Hodges, or Ben Webster -- they had the sweetest sound, very gentle and soft. But the new sound hasn't evolved yet. I think the sound will be a more androgynous sound than a 'male' or 'female' sound.''
Although not generally acknowledged, the historical influence of some women musicians on their male colleagues is documented. Rosetta tells the story of Mazie Mullen, a superb movie house pianist in New York City during the 1920s:
''A little fat boy used to sit and watch her play every single day. He'd sit in the first row and lean over the rail and watch her fingers with his eyes bulging out. Well, how could you not notice a little boy who comes and sits there every day for hours? He used to skip school to come and watch Mazie Mullen play. Naturally Mazie started talking to him and let him sit next to her on the piano bench. She ended up teaching him everything she knew. That little boy was 'Fats' Waller.''
Even though it still seems strange to some people to see a woman playing a saxophone, Rosetta contends that such instrumentalists did exist in the past, and without a whole lot of fuss, either. They played in circuses and carnivals, or traveled with family bands.
''These women were't looked upon as very important people, ''says Rosetta.
But one of these ended up being coach to her brother, who became one of the best known saxophonists in the history of jazz:
''Irma Young played saxophone in the Young Carnival Family Band, and Lester Young learned from his sister.''
Trombonist/arranger Melba Liston, who started out in the 1930s, stands out as one of the few women to win recognition on an instrument hardly ever associated with her sex. Not only that, she became one of the top big band arrangers, doing charts for every band she ever played in, including Dizzie Gillespie's and Quincy Jones's bands. Still active in jazz, she lives in New York and heads a nine-piece group that includes several women.
How do married women jazz musicians manage to combine a career with home and family? Some, like organist Shirley Scott, make compromises. For awhile she left her two children with her mother, but now, she prefers to play near Philadelphia , her home.
''I don't travel that much because I have two girls in school,'' she says.
But Marian McPartland states flatly, ''I don't think musicians should be married.'' She believes life on the road, with its inevitable separations, places too much burden on the couples involved.
Yet there are couples who make a go of it. For instance, Barbara Carroll is married to her manager, Bert Block. Her late first husband, Joe Shulman, was her bass player.
Rosetta Reitz believes jazz today simply reflects the general trend of the times, with women becoming involved in many areas that previously were all-male. Female enrollment in jazz programs and schools is increasing each year -- but in jazz, as in other fields, women haven't yet caught up.
Many women jazz musicians eagerly await the day when they will no long be a novelty. As Carol Comer of the Women's Jazz Festival says, ''We'll be happy when we can finally call the festival the 'Kansas City Jazz Festival' instead of the 'Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival.' ''