Music Essay | posted 01.07.2019
Women Of Jazz
We Insist Female
Women in jazz are still not a matter of course. That has to change. For in the past, female musicians have had a decisive influence on jazz and the future is also in their hands.
Text Lars Fleischmann
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A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout jazz. We are haunted dby the ghost of Gender Equality. At the end of 2018, the Union Deutscher Jazzmusiker (UDJ) adopted a »Joint Statement on Equality for Women in Jazz«. Better late than never, one might think. In addition to the demands for a gender-neutral language, for a fair distribution of functions and offices and for a gender-balanced pedagogy, the declaration states that even today there is still a lot of trouble: "The jazz scene in Germany is still decisively influenced by men. According to the Jazz Study 2016, women make up only one fifth of all female jazz musicians in Germany. When looking at the distribution among the various instrument groups, it is also noticeable that only 12% of instrumentalists, but 86% of singers are female«.

Unbelievable conditions that prevail here in Germany, but also in the rest of the world. Institutional unequal treatment leads, for example, to four public broadcasting big bands with a total of two (!) female instrumentalists. That makes about 3% of the ensemble members. So it’s time for a jazz version of the legendary essay by art historian Linda Nochlin, which was published in 1971 under the name »Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?« Here Nochlin examines not the individual obstacles to the rise of female artists, but the institutional ones. The fundamental basis for an investigation of this kind is certainly a list of female musicians who »made it«, who were able to gain national or international attention and significance.

The history of jazz is by no means a solely male-dominated one, even though it was dominated by men. Especially for the early years of jazz, the historical facts are extremely sparse. Only a few names of female artists have been handed down, which is partly due to the fact that many marching bands (from which the first jazz combos were formed) had an “all-male-policy”. Nevertheless, on closer inspection, it quickly becomes clear that there were female actors despite this. A prominent example is certainly Lil Hardin Armstrong, the wife of Louis Armstrong, who played the piano as part of the Hot Five. She is also considered (according to her biographer) to be one of the most important players behind the scenes of New Orleans Jazz.

The history of jazz is by no means a solely male-dominated one, even though it was dominated by men.

Other important female figures from the early days of jazz however have forgotten historiography. Even a Lil Hardin Armstrong is only known to people with deeper insight – despite all the attributed meaning. Only the two singers Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday could become big stars around the year 1935. A closer look is nevertheless worth it. While Blanche Calloway was the bandleader (probably the first) of several swing formations from 1926, the career of Mary Lou Williams began in the same year. Williams can be considered a child prodigy. At the age of three she learned to play the piano, at six she performed for the first time and at 16 she toured with her husband »Bearcat« Williams. But it almost didn’t get that far, because the other members of the Vaudeville group Syncopaters thought it wrong, even injustice, that a woman was playing in the band. _»Music is craft! And Craftsmanship is Male« _. According to the legend, the decisive argument for her employment was her hard, very male keystroke. Until her death in 1981, she not only composed over 300 music pieces (interpreted by all the greats of jazz history), but is also considered the »mother of be-bop«, as she supported many artists in Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s – also financially.

Let’s get back to the two aforementioned Grand Dames, Fitzgerald and Holiday. In 1935, drummer and composer Chick Webb searched for a singer and discovered the 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald at a talent competition in New York. An incomparable career began, with accolades at all levels. She is regarded as one of the inventors of scat singing and improvised on well-known and existing songs, which turned many of her interpretations into references and still today – from Beyoncé to Fatima – is regarded by many singers as a role model. While Fitzgerald with her youthful and discreet manner could be regarded as a »nerd«, Billie Holiday can be described as a »troublemaker«. Meanwhile one should exercise caution with the term, because her childhood was »not easy«, as it is said, if one does not want to say that she was marked by poverty, rape and prostitution. To put all this behind her, she started singing inspired by Bessie Smith (another such female artist; called: The Empress of Blues). Her idiosyncratic style, which was something very special, not despite, but because of his naive, untrained nature and the untrained voice, quickly helped her to fame. What Billie Holiday lacked in training she made up for with soul, dedication and – you could call it that – the inherent pain of life. She tried to numb this pain all her life with alcohol and heroin, which failed as expected and destroyed the voice and soon led to death in 1959. Meanwhile she influenced not only Janis Joplin, but also Nina Simone. Not only politically active in the civil rights movement, but also recognized as a singer and pianist, Simone is today one of the most famous artists of her time. That was not always the case. It was not until the nineties that she gained her world fame, until then she was considered by many (white) men in the boardrooms to be too idiosyncratic, stubborn and difficult. Early on, Nina Simone orientated herself away from the USA, out into the wide world, to France and also Africa. Here she was celebrated, revered and honored.

This shows the imbalance, that there was no lack of »voices« (means singers, of course), but the instrumentalists are in short supply. On the surface, two known exceptions »of all things« agreed on the same instrument: the harp. Both Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane took care of the classical, European and »white« instrument. This should not astonish, since the traditional jazz instruments (from trumpet to percussion), and thus also positions in bands, were mostly reserved for men. For Alice Coltrane this is only conditionally true; she enjoyed an education at jazz piano and especially her later works (many published under the spiritual name Turyasangitananda) are characterized by organ and e-organ sounds. Dorothy Ashby, on the other hand, had a reliable relationship to the harp and specialized to such an extent that she must still be regarded as the most important harpist in modern jazz today.

the new generations of women in jazz are part of a scene that has largely abandoned male dominance.

This brief historical outline has only been able to show a few musical positions. Interestingly, all of them were Afro-American. In the USA, jazz was still considered a dirty child for a long time, who had just been avoided by »white« Americans. That was only to really change with fusion and smooth-jazz at the end of the 1970s. As is well known, things looked different in Europe. Here, musicians like Irène Schweizer, who had shaped the up-and-coming Free Jazz movement on piano (and drums as well) since the early 1960s, Joëlle Léandre on double bass and Maggie Nichols as a vocalist could take on leading roles. Above all as members of the Feminist Improvising Group, which was formed in the late 1970s, feminist criticism of patriarchal structures in general and jazz in particular could be associated with musical-cultural expression.

But what does it look like today, must be asked at this point. Especially from the current jazz hub London come many female musicians who have caused a sensation lately. Be it the tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia, the trumpeter and Kokoroko bandleader Sheila Maurice-Grey, the guitarist Shirley Tetteh (all three are also members of Nèrija) or the trumpeter and flugelhorn player Yazz Ahmed; all are united by the fact that they not only perform as outstanding musicians and instrumentalists, but also contribute their intercultural, migrant identity to jazz playing in addition to their female position. Afro-Atlantic, Arabic or Nigerian AND female – both are represented with pride. They are, as it were, children of an (East) London scene that has largely abandoned male dominance.

But a lot is also happening on the European continent: the two Austrians Muriel Grossmann and Katharina Ernst are only two of the artists who have to be named. While Grossmann as a tenor saxophonist in be-bop and hard-bop of a John Coltrane has already caused quite an echo, Ernst as a solo drummer stands for an unacademic avant-garde sound that skilfully combines electroacoustic influences and jazz. Of course, this cannot be more than a small insight into the history of jazz from a »female perspective«, but on closer inspection a number of structural obstacles can be identified and named which have ensured and continue to ensure that female jazz musicians (above all instrumentalists) neither possess the (supposed) impact nor are able to live from monetary means to the same extent as their male colleagues. Accordingly, the demands of the Union Deutscher Jazzmusiker (UDJ) can only be interpreted as minimum demands; this does little for the »mothers« of jazz today. An occupation with their work, however, should be a must for every jazz listener.


You can find the Vinyl records of Women In Jazz in our HHV Records webshop

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