Women in Jazz: Part 2 | Music Matters

Back in May we began the first of a three-part series about women in jazz (LJ 5/1/17, p. 49; ow.ly/dZ5k30cKbr8). This month, let’s pick up where we left off, looking at women jazz instrumentalists and composers from the 1960s and 1970s.

Harping on it

When you contemplate jazz, chances are the first instruments that come to mind are the saxophone, upright bass, piano, and drums. Thoughts of trumpet, guitar, and even flute might spring up. But chances are you aren’t thinking about the harp. Allow me to introduce Dorothy Ashby (1930–86), who proved that the harp can not only be taken seriously as a jazz instrument, but it can swing! Throughout her career, she recorded material ranging from traditional jazz to bebop and soul. Yes, on the harp. I’m slightly obsessed.

Afro Harping (Cadet, 1968; available on hoopla [ow.ly/WS3m30cK7Cj]) is steeped in soul and funk, and the tripped-out The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby (Cadet, 1970), wherein she sings and plays the Japanese koto, is straight from another planet. For a solid overview of her career, check out the compilation Jazz Harp Essentials (Stardust Records, 2012), available on Freegal.

Another jazz harpist with far-out sensibilities, multi-instrumentalist Alice Coltrane (1937–2007) picked up husband John’s late-career pre­occupation with exploring spiritual transcendence through music. After John’s untimely death in 1967, Alice delved headlong into a musical and spiritual journey of her own that would spawn a series of albums that set the bar for psychedelic jazz.

In Journey in Satchidananda (Impulse!, 1971; available on hoopla [ow.ly/yjpG30cK7YJ]), she expanded the traditional jazz palette to include instruments such as the oud and tamboura (creating a sitar-like drone heard throughout the album). Coltrane’s arrangements create a strange, shifting landscape of which saxophonist Pharoah Sanders takes full advantage. Earlier this year, the Luka Bop label released the compilation World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane ­Turiyasangitananda (also available on Freegal), which compiles her self-released cassette tapes from the mid-1980s and 1990s.

Setting their own course

Prolific composer, bandleader, and pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi (b. 1929) has recorded a staggering number of records over a 50-plus-year career. She was the first woman to be distinguished with the Best Arranger and Composer award in Down Beat magazine’s readers’ poll, and she has received numerous Grammy nominations. While her craft is thoroughly steeped in American jazz tradition, many of her compositions are informed by her Japanese heritage. I recommend her 1975 big band album The Long Yellow Road (BMG) and her 1991 Carnegie Hall Concert (BMG). Hoopla has a few compilation albums documenting her duos and trios (ow.ly/­JMXd30cK8st) that are worth a listen.

NPR aficionados will recognize the name Marian McPartland (1918–2013), famous for her nationally syndicated ­Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz radio program from 1978 to 2011. The weekly show’s format featured McPartland at the piano, playing alongside and interviewing musical guests. Throughout her lifetime, McPartland won numerous awards for the show, with several of the episodes released as stand-alone albums.

Her 1978 interview/duet with pianist Bill Evans is well known and highly recommended (Jazz Alliance, 1978). But McPartland was also a top-notch player and composer, ­radio fame notwithstanding, and she released a number of excellent albums over her long career. Take a look at Reprise by her Hickory House Trio (Reprise, 1999), recorded live at the legendary New York City Birdland jazz club in 1996.

A jazz flautist who veered toward fusion and R&B, Bobbi Humphrey (b. 1950) offered groove-inflected jams that swirl with the energy of 1970s funk. I’m fond of her 1973 album Blacks and Blues (Blue Note; available on hoopla [ow.ly/rUAi30cK8Z5]), particularly for its searing opening cut, the social justice anthem “Chicago, Damn.” Her other Blue Note releases, Satin Doll and Fancy Dancer (both 1975), are also worth seeking. Satin Doll concludes with a terrific jazz cover of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”

These artists are just the tip of the iceberg. As the jazz world begins to confront openly its long-held biases against women (see the hubbub surrounding pianist/producer Robert Glasper’s inelegant comments earlier this year), it’s hopeful that more women will emerge and be recognized at the forefront of jazz innovation. In the third and final installment of this series, we’ll look at some women who are already there, making music today.

Steve Kemple is Manager of the Price Hill Branch, Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

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