Mar 24, 2017
It shouldn’t take Women’s History Month for us to appreciate and enjoy the music of female jazz musicians. Particularly in the last two decades, women have moved from “female performer” to “performer” in their own right, as both leaders and side players.
Women were there at the birth of jazz, and singers like Bessie Smith, and pianists like Lil Hardin Armstrong (who wrote “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue”) and Lovie Austin were leaders in their own right before the end of the Roaring Twenties. Valaida Snow was a top trumpet player during this time.
During WWII, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were way more than a novelty act, playing hot jazz and swing as well as any man. The names of Anna Mae Winburn, Closa Bryant, Carline Ray Russell (mother of singer Catherine Russell) and more deserve to be held in far higher esteem than they are today. Check out the film “International Sweethearts of Rhythm” to see and hear them in their prime.
The great female singers of jazz’s gold age – Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Carmen McRae and Ella Fitzgerald – helped define the Great American Songbook, just as Nina Simone, Betty Carter and Shirley Horn helped deconstruct it. Melba Williams was a first-call trombonist for Randy Weston and Dizzy Gillespie. The likes of Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, and Shirley Scott, and later Carla Bley and Alice Coltrane showed that women could swing, but also be adventurous and part of the avant-garde.
It would be foolish to think that sexism does not exist in the world of jazz, just as racism and homophobia are still issues preventing artists from taking the bandstand and doing their best. But violinist Regina Carter; bassists Linda Oh and Esperanza Spalding; pianists Kris Davis, Helen Sung, Hiromi and Toshiko Akiyoshi; drummers Terri Lynn Carrington, Cindy Blackman Santana and Alison Miller; guitarist Mary Halvorsen, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen (pictured); her sister trombonist Christine Jensen; and big band leader Maria Schneider are all at, or near the top of their game today. Singers like Diana Krall and Karen Allyson are accomplished pianists as well as vocalists. Stacey Kent plays guitar on her many recordings. Cassandra Wilson plays any number of instruments in her various bands.
Apologies to all those who I failed to mention. Podcast 565 features an hour plus of music from some of my favorite women in jazz – enjoy!
Kris Davis Trio – “Waiting for You to Grow”
Cassandra Wilson – “Billie’s Blues”
Linda Oh – “Shutterspeed Dreams”
Rene Marie – “Stronger Than You Think”
Ingrid Jensen – “Ninety-One”
Mary Halverson Octet – “Spirit Splitter (no. 54)
Helen Sung - “Alphabet Street”
Cyrille Aimee – “There’s a Lull in My Life”
Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra – “Blue Yonder”
Marilyn Crispell and Gerry Hemingway – “Table of Changes”
Yelena Eckemoff – “Rising From Within”
Esperanza Spalding – “Unconditional Love (Alternate Version)”