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Jazz is a trend in music that is difficult to define. Its roots go to the Ragtime waltzes and continue in modern fusions. It is considered primarily American music style which emerged in African American communities at the beginning of the twentieth century. This period is also known as “Roaring Twenties” or the “Jazz Age” (Bingham 6). This period is characterized with the increased freedom of women in education, work, and lifestyles in general.
The ladies of new generation enjoyed listening to and dancing to jazz (Bingham 11). In America of the 1920a and 1930s, women were active contributors in the field of arts. As for music, there were composers, lyricists, and performers (Bingham 42).
A particular role in artistic process belonged to national minorities, especially African Americans. In the 1920s, a form of African-American music known as “blues” gained popularity. Simultaneously, the jazz bands “inspired by the Dixieland performers of New Orleans” (Bingham 55) also became famous. Since there were both male and female jazz performers, it may seem that the way of women to jazz was easy. However, they faced many barriers to recognition.
Jazz: Female History
The 1920s are considered a period crucial for the feminist movement. Women felt freedom and wanted to make use of it. They were starting jobs other than housework, changing their appearance, and looking for other ways of self-expression. It was probably the best time for the female jazz artists to appear. Although women were quickly gaining their positions in various fields of life, their way to jazz stage was not so smooth.
The broad audience is familiar with the names of outstanding blues and jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, etc. Nevertheless, the names of female jazz instrumentalists are not often mentioned. Kristin McGee (2010) traces the way of women into the traditionally male world of jazz. She analyses and compares female representation in jazz performance to other gender-structured popular culture issues.
The author admits the feminization of mass culture in America (McGee 19). Its initial stage was characterized with the popularization of “all-girl bands in vaudeville, variety, and film theaters” (McGee 19). The variety shows of that time contained comedians, dancers, blues singers, and jazz bands. The feature of that time was not only the increase of female artists but also the growth of the number of middle-class women attending performances (McGee 21).
The female roles in vaudeville, cabaret, and silent film of the early twentieth century were voiceless. Burlesque and sexualized performances were typical. However, with the popularization of all-girl jazz bands, the press-releases started mentioning the band’s names. The concept of race cannot be left aside in the context of all-girl bands. McGee states that there were racial barriers connected with greater advantages and opportunities to white jazz groups (13).
For example, the all-white band Ingenues were one of the “first nationally successful vaudeville all-girl bands and also the first female jazz band to perform throughout the world” (McGee 36). They were starring in different film performances, had tours abroad to Europe, Australia, Asia and other places, and had rather successful careers. At the same time, Harlem Playgirls, the all-black band, did not have such possibilities and participated mainly in vaudeville performances.
The media landscape of the 1930s was transforming very quickly. New media allowed reproducing both image and sound. It stimulated the development of “a more heavily feminized and gendered instrumental style” also known as “girls’ orchestra” (McGee 67). One of the best known all-girl groups of the period is Phil Spitalny’s Musical Queens (McGee 71). Spitalny’s group provided support for classically minded instrumentalists together with popular music players.
The 1940s came out with a name of outstanding jazz pianist and vocalist Hazel Scott (McGee 113). Her performances made gendered and racial boundaries obscure and not significant. According to McGee, “The reception of her heavily mediated performances…betrayed the convoluted cultural landscape of racial segregation, gendered prohibitions, and the pervasive American fascination with black sexuality and expressive culture” (132).
Another well-known female musician with a successful career in the 1940s was Mary Lou Williams (Gioia 166). She had studied piano, composition, and harmony, but in fact, she started the career only after marrying a saxophonist. The recognition did not come fast, but she was considered “a major talent in the male-dominated world of jazz” (Gioia 167). On the whole, vocalist’s career was more acceptable for a woman than the instrumentalists’.
The development of television became another step towards female representation in the world of music. It gave birth to various TV shows such as Ina Ray Hutton Show. Being a singer and musician herself, Inna Ray Hutton made all-girl format show and invited female musicians. Among her guests, there were Hazel Scott, Peggy Lee, and Lena Horne. The show of this kind contributed to the popularization of all-girl jazz bands among the vast audience (McGee 215).
Modern Jazz Era
The way of female jazz artists to the stage was not easy. However, it was worth it. Today the world of music cannot be imagined without the names of outstanding jazz performers. The jazz world would be different without Ella Fitzgerald and her ballads and swing music. Sarah Vaughan, a representative of traditional pop music, who sang cool jazz, comes next. Nina Simon is famous due to her interpretations of folk music, rhythm, and blues. The name of Diana Washington is associated with vocal jazz and traditional pop music. Nancy Willson combined jazz, cabaret, and pop music as well in her career. The list can be continued since the number of talented and bright women in jazz is impressive.
In modern times, female jazz performers are equal members of the world of music. They are represented not only by vocalists but by composers and instrumentalists as well. Female instrumentalist in jazz is considered an avant-garde (Mitchell).
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The music of those unique women tells amazing stories trough the sounds of their instruments. They are Myra Melford, an inventive virtuosic pianist, and composer; Manata Roberts, a creative and original saxophonist and composer; Lauren Newton & Joëlle Léandre, vocalist with unique voice and bassist; Dee Alexander, a vocalist called “Chicago treasure,” and many others (Mitchell). Their popularity is the proof of a regular place of women on jazz stage.
Female jazz representation may be even greater that male now. During preparation of the book, Speak Jazzmen Michelone noticed that the majority of the interviews she collected were of female jazz musicians (5). It prompted the creation of another book, Jazz is a Woman, which portraits the way to music of many female musicians and vocalists. They recall their memories on the way they came to jazz, their first obstacles and achievements.
For example, Jamie Baum admits the influence of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong whose concerts she visited as a child (Michelone 7). Denis Donatelli started playing piano at the age of three, but she first heard jazz music as a teenager. She admits that jazz touched her “unlike any other genre of music (Michelone 21). She likes the creativeness and freedom of Jazz. On the whole, Michelone present interviews with more than fifty female jazz singers, instrumentalists, and composers.
It has been a long time before jazz gained its status. For years, it was a “limbo between art and popular music” (Dunbar 262). Moreover, the women had problems with joining this style in roles other that singer or keyboard. The roots of jazz go even deeper than ragtime. It was inspired by West African influences which came to America with slaves and later accommodated and transformed (Dunbar 264). At first, it was exclusively male, but like in many other spheres, women joined the style. Women on stage started as silent dancers, then as singers with all-girl bands. Jazz was an integral part of Women’s Liberation Movement.
Later they won the right for solo performances. They brought something special to the jazz stage. Their performances were sincere and touching. As time passed, female jazz musicians proved they could not only sing but also play musical instruments. It was not easy to find a place among male instrumentalists, but the desire, passion for music and outstanding talent made the way. At present, women are not equal with men when it goes about jazz; they are even more popular.
Bingham, Jane. The Great Depression: The Jazz Age, Prohibition, and Economic Decline 1921-1937. Chelsea House, 2011.
Dunbar, Julie C. Women, Music, Culture: An Introduction. Routledge, 2011.
Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. Oxford University Press, 2011.
McGee, Ktistin A. Some Like It Hot: Jazz Woman in Film and Television. Wesleyan University Press, 2010.
Michelone, Guido. Jazz Is a Woman. EDUCatt, 2010.
Mitchell, Nicole. “Artist’s Choice: Women in the Avant-Garde.” Jazz Times. 2012. Web.