Women in Jazz: Part 1 | Music Matters

Jazz has a long-held reputation as a boys’ club. Both on stage and in the audience, the stereotype goes, women—particularly women instrumentalists—are far and few between. Even today there is a palpable indifference, if not outright hostility, toward women jazz musicians. This is not for lack of talented women composers and improvisers.

The gals take center stage:
Mary Osborne (l.) and Vi Redd

Jazz is a practice-based discipline: ideas are transmitted less through academic study (though this is an increasingly important component) and more through small groups “sitting in” at bars and jazz clubs, a quintessentially American grassroots pedagogy. As a result, the discipline itself is subject to the values held collectively by its practitioners: for lack of counter­vailing efforts toward inclusivity, passive misogyny prevails as an emergent property.

In the United States—the birthplace of jazz—it is well within the scope of libraries’ cultural influence as well as the domain of responsibility to ensure our jazz collections are balanced and inclusive. By collecting and promoting music by women in jazz, we can be a part of that countervailing force of inclusivity. To this end, I’d like to devote my next three columns to sharing a few amazing women jazz musicians and key recordings, so you can guarantee your library’s jazz collection isn’t a “boys only” club. (See also the DVD Lady Be Good: Instrumental Women in Jazz, LJ 2/1/17.)

Lil Hardin Armstrong

Although not nearly so well-known as her trumpet-playing husband, Louis, Lil Hardin Armstrong (1898–1971) was a jazz innovator in her own right. She was pianist for King Oliver’s Creole Jazz band when Louis joined, and she later persuaded him to leave and pursue a career as a leader. She, too, enjoyed a productive career as a bandleader and composer, penning the jazz standard “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” along with many other compositions. Though sadly out of print, The Chronological Lil Hardin Armstrong and Her Swing Orchestra 1936–1940 (Classics, 1991) is recommended. There’s also The Music of Lil Hardin Armstrong, recorded by pianist/­vocalist Lillette Jenkins (Chiaroscuro, 1988). If your library subscribes to hoopla, check out Chicago: The Living Legends (Fantasy, Inc., 1993).

Mary Lou Williams

Pianist Mary Lou Williams (1910–81) is among the best-known jazz composers of any era. Her vigorous “stride” style of playing was comparable to that of Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. Her album Black Christ of the Andes (Folkways, 1964) is nothing short of a masterpiece (and one of my favorite jazz albums). I also recommend the earlier Zodiac Suite (Folkways, 1945), a 12-movement work that includes a different song for each astrological sign. Her late-career Live at the Cookery (Chiaroscuro, 1975) is an indispensable recording that spans the early history of jazz, from hymns, blues, and ragtime through swing, stride, and bop. Her posthumous album A Grand Night for Swinging (Highnote, 2008) is available on hoopla.

Mary Osborne

If you strike up a conversation with a jazz enthusiast about the early days of electric guitar, chances are they’ll name-drop two of its first innovators: Charlie Christian and Les Paul. But they might not have heard of Mary Osborne (1921–92), although they’ve almost definitely heard her play. Bridging the gap between ­Christian’s and Paul’s respective stylings, Osborne only recorded a handful of times as a bandleader. She can be found on recordings by Ethel Waters, Coleman Hawkins, Mary Lou Williams, Billie Holiday, and more. Her 1959 album A Girl and Her Guitar (Warwick) was reissued in 2015 on the UK label él Records.

Melba Liston

Trombonist Melba Liston (1926–99) played alongside Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, Dexter Gordon, and many others. Her album Melba Liston and Her ’Bones (­Metrojazz, 1958) was reissued in 2006 on the Fresh Sound label. Like Osborne, she did not record prolifically as a leader, however, her trombone solos appear on Dizzy Gillespie’s rendition of Debussy’s “My Reverie” on his album World Statesman (Norgran, 1956; reissued as a part of the 1995 Verve records compilation Birks Works: The Verve Big Band Sessions, also available on hoopla) and on Dexter Gordon’s tune “Mischievous Lady,” which can be found on the 1998 Classics records compilation Dexter Gordon: 1943–1947. Liston’s Randy Weston duo album Volcano Blues (Antilles, 1993) is available on hoopla.

Vi Redd

Alto saxophone player and vocalist Elvira “Vi” Redd (born 1928), like Osborne and Liston, is known primarily for her collaborations with other artists. Those include Count Basie, Dexter Gordon, Roy Ayers, and Marian McPartland. Redd’s own album Lady Soul (WEA, 1973) is a real gem that was thankfully remastered and reissued on Rhino Records in 2013. Lady Soul is also available on hoopla, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

In my next column we’ll explore mid-1970s jazz-funk and beyond. There’s some really groovy stuff ahead!

Steve Kemple is a Music Reference Librarian at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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