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

Melba Liston  

The first part of NPR's Jazz Profiles series on the role of women in jazz looked back on the early, pioneering female jazz musicians like pianists Mary Lou Williams and Lil Hardin and trumpter Dolly Jones. In this second part, the focus is on prominent female artists of more recent vintage.

Melba Liston

Hear writer Sally Placksin, saxophonist Vi Redd, bandleader and arranger Maria Schneider, and drummer Dottie Dodgion discuss women in jazz

Nearly a century after the birth of jazz and the rise of the women's rights movement, female jazz artists are still likely to get skeptical looks if they're playing instruments like the saxophone, the trumpet, or the drums.

Legendary trombonist Melba Liston, who played with pianist Randy Weston and Dizzy Gillespie, withstood misogynistic attitudes from men throughout most of career, despite her top-notch playing and arranging skills.

"(Melba) certainly had to endure a lot of attitude on the bandstand...but she was really very vocal about saying that women players would have to prove themselves 100 times more than any man would."

-- writer Sally Placksin  

In addition to Weston and Gillespie, Liston played with other greats like Dexter Gordon and Count Basie, and composed or arranged songs for everyone from Quincy Jones to Motown Records. But the sad fact remains: she's virtually unknown to a wider public. An accumulation of experiences like Liston's eventually inspired the first Women's Jazz Festival in 1978.

Listen to soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom and bassist Carline Ray recall attending the first Women's Jazz Festival


More of these festivals started to spring up and they began to play a significant role in helping many female artists gain wider exposure, but there was resistance to the concept along the way. Cobi Narita (left), producer of New York's first "Salute to Women in Jazz," experienced some of the bumps in the road.

Listen to Cobi Narita recall when her festival was nearly shut down

But as with the all-women jazz bands of old, all-women festivals have their pros and cons. It is encouraging to see women get more recognition for their music, but all-women events, like The Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, can serve to reduce great jazz players as merely anomolies, possibly marginalizing their careers.

Listen to bandleader and arranger Maria Schneider discuss audience reaction to her mixed-gender band at an all-women festival

Cindy Blackman  

The question whether gender influences how musicians approach instruments like the drums, trumpet, and saxophone is the subject of on-going debate in the jazz community. Historically, many female jazz artists subdued their playing, because it wasn't considered ladylike for them to play with a more boisterous and aggressive sound. On the other hand, musicologist Ingrid Monson notes that often this inherent subtlety is better suited to a particular piece of music.

Cindy Blackman

"Drums and upright bass, trombone -- you think 'man.' And then here comes someone like Cindy Blackman or Terry Lynn Carrington, well, you know what? There's no question once they sit down behind that kit."

-- violinist Regina Carter  

With an increasing number of formal jazz schools like Berklee College of Music and the New School in Manhattan, opportunities for female jazz artists are on the rise. The schools show increased enrollments from women in jazz studies, proving once again that jazz is no longer "the boy's club."

Listen to female jazz students from New York's New School talk about playing in a male-dominated genre


View the Women In Jazz, Part 2 show playlist


More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org

MoreRead the NPR Jazz CD review of Maria Schneider's Allégresse (2000)

MoreRead the NPR Jazz CD review of Regina Carter's Motor City Moments (2000)

ListenBrowse the online show summary of Ingrid Jensen's appearance on Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center

ListenBrowse the online show summary of Jane Ira Bloom's appearance on Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center

ListenBrowse the online show summary of Regina Carter's appearance on Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center


More InfoBrowse the Kennedy Center's Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival Web pages