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Jazz Profiles from NPR
Women In Jazz, Part 1 | Part 2
Produced by Margaret Howze

Carline Ray  

Women have been involved with jazz since its inception, but all too often their acheivements are not as well-known or trumpeted, so to speak, as those of their male counterparts. Of course we have Billie, Ella, and Sarah, but there are so many more -- singers, instrumentalists and composers -- that have made a worthy pantheon.

Carline Ray

Hear guitarist Carline Ray, pianist Marian McPartland, and pianist Billy Taylor give their impressions of women's early struggles in jazz

When we think of women in jazz, we automatically think of singers, but there have been a number of female instrumentalists dating all the way back to the early 1920s. Musicologist Ingrid Monson points out that the piano, one of the earliest instruments that women played in jazz, allowed female artists a degree of social acceptance.

Listen to Ingrid Monson and writer Sally Placksin talk about women playing jazz piano

In jazz's early years, female instrumentalists usually formed all-women jazz bands or played in family-based groups. Stepping up into the professional jazz world was a difficult feat for many women, but an interesting twist, according to author Sherrie Tucker, author of Swing Shift: All-Girl Bands of the 1940s, jazz provided better working opportunities for many African-American women.

Trumpeter Dolly Jones, later known as Dolly Hutchinson, was one of the earliest jazz women to record. Valaida Snow, once known as "the Queen of the Trumpet" was another female pioneer of the trumpet and her playing was was often compared to that of the great Louis Armstrong.


A woman even helped shape Satchmo's early career. Pianist Lil Hardin played in King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, a group Armstrong joined in 1922. He and Hardin began a romance and eventually married and it was Hardin who encouraged Armstrong to embark on a solo career.

Listen to Lil Hardin, from a 1959 interview, recall how she arrived at her heavy-handed piano style

In the 1920s and '30s, there were a growing number of women jazz pianists -- Sweet Emma Barrett, Billie Pierce, Jeanette Kimball, and Lovie Austin among them. The most famous to emerge from that era was the legendary Mary Lou Williams. Her talent was so strong, she was embraced by the jazz establishment as "one of the guys" and her harmonic and melodic abilities were so advanced, she had a marked influence on many of the early bebop giants, including Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.


But Mary Lou Williams' acceptance as a female jazz instrumentalist was unfortunately an exception to the rule. There were many outstanding women jazz players such as trumpeter Clora Bryant and saxophonist Vi Redd who never received the kind of recognition that Williams had.

Listen to Mary Lou Williams, in a 1973 interview, describe how she felt out of sync with other female jazz artists

During the later years of World War II, when many male jazz musicians had been drafted into the military, a number of all-women jazz bands began to become popular. These bands were racially segregated at first, mainly due to the division in their audiences -- white Americans were mostly listening to Ina Rae Hutton and her Melodears, while blacks were digging the sounds of The Darlings of Rhythm and the Prairie View Co-Eds. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was the best known of the all-women jazz bands.

Listen to writer Sally Placksin talk about the emergence of all-women big bands during World War II

Even though many women jazz artists were held to the era's rigid standards of glamour -- strapless gowns, high-heeled shoes -- they gradually began to be hired in many of the big bands, including those led by Woody Herman and Gerald Wilson. Once WWII ended though, many women instrumentalist were let go as GI jazz musicians returned to reclaim their jobs. The few women who remained in the mostly male bands often faced harsh criticism and sexual harassment from their bandmates.


When bebop emerged in the mid-1940s, many jazz players held informal jam sessions, engaging in heated "cutting contests" and sharing information about music and job opportunities. These jam sessions were frequently crucial to a jazz player's career development, but they proved equally risky for women musicians.

Listen to trumpeter Clora Bryant recall her "cutting contest" days

Women leading smaller jazz groups slowly became more common. Some of the famous women small combo leaders were Barbara Carroll, Hazel Scott, Nellie Lutcher, Hadda Brooks, and Marian McPartland. In our next show, we'll continue to look at the integral role women have played in the development of jazz.


View the Women In Jazz, Part 1 show playlist


More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site --

ListenListen to a Morning Edition interview with Sherrie Tucker and Clora Bryant all-girl bands of the 1940s

ListenListen to the NPR 100 feature on Billie Holiday's "Fine and Mellow"

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Sarah Vaughan's album The Quintessence

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Ella Fitzgerald's Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie


More InfoBrowse the PBS Ken Burns JAZZ Web page on women in jazz