Understanding Women's Influence On Jazz Usually when we think of women in jazz, we think of singers like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald. But female jazz players cannot be overlooked: Women have played almost every instrument, in every style, during every era of the music's history. For more, NPR's Tony Cox talks with jazz historian Linda Dahl.
NPR logo

Understanding Women's Influence On Jazz

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92923209/92923196" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Understanding Women's Influence On Jazz

Understanding Women's Influence On Jazz

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92923209/92923196" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

TONY COX, host:

Now, usually when we think of women and jazz, we think of singers like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.

(Soundbite of song "Love For Sale")

Ms. ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) Love for sale. Appetizing young love for sale. Love that's fresh...

COX: But we can't forget the female jazz players. Women have played on almost every instrument, in every style, during every era of the music's history. All month, we've been paying homage to jazz, America's original art form. And today, we continue with a look at some of the leading ladies of jazz and their contributions to the genre. Linda Dahl is a jazz historian. She has written several books including "Morning Glory," a biography of Mary Lou Williams and "Stormy Weather," the music and lives of a century of jazz women. Linda, welcome to News & Notes.

Ms. LINDA DAHL (Jazz Historian): Hello, Tony. Good to be here.

COX: How hard was it for women to gain respect in the genre that has been dominated by men.

Ms. DAHL: Well, when I think about, I immediately I'm just amazed at how many women managed to make careers and stay in the business because it's a very - it's just a litany of reasons why it's difficult for women historically and possibly today as well to be in jazz. You know, everything from the fact that there are any number of instruments that are considered, at some level, appropriate for men but not for women to play. And you can see this in the kind - even in schools, historically, with the kinds of instruments that girls would be encouraged to play, or boys, all the way to the sort of community that is necessary for jazz musicians to flourish. Kind of like ball players. So therefore, I think when we do see the women who've succeeded, we often see a lot of encouragement from family or teachers. Something of that nature behind them.

TONY COX: Now, we have a number of clips we're going to try to get in on the short amount of time that we have today. So let's start with the first one looking back at some early pioneering female jazz musicians, the band leaders and the composers. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of International Sweethearts of Rhythm music)

Ms. DAHL: Well, that's an interesting story, you know. International in that this band, which was started in sort of orphan school in Piney Woods, eventually fairly quickly became, a number of ethnicities went into the band. Everything from Native American to Asian, African American of course, and then Caucasian players. It was the first integrated all-women's big band, and one of the first in the country. And they were helped by wonderful arrangers like Jesse Stone and he helped grow their own arrangers and composers in the band that some marvelous soloists came in like Tiny Davis, the trumpet player, and others. So, they had that swinging sound, very tight arrangements, and in the 40s, they were extremely popular with audiences.

COX: Now, let's go from the band to the individual, talking about people like, let's say Clora Bryant, who was one of the early female instrumentalists who was a trumpet player. Here's Clora Bryant.

(Soundbite of Clora Bryant music)

COX: No, I said, was a trumpet player. Let me correct myself. She is a trumpet player because she's very much with us. What about her influence?

Ms. DAHL: Well now, Clora was one of a number of wonderful trumpet players. Right before her, I want to mention the great Valaida Snow, who was just a character unto herself, who was called the Little Louis, and today I think, Laurie Frink is another one. Clora was - again, here was somebody whose father really encouraged her, whose school had a rich band and chorale programs, whose brother gave her his trumpet when he went off to war. And she herself just had the drive and the discipline to do the work and then thus, she became accepted by the musicians. Dizzy Gillespie was one of her mentors. But I wanna say that Clora said something kind of funny. She said it wasn't the men she had to worry about. It was the wives who viewed her as competition very often.

COX: All right, you know, we were going to try it again in to Mary Lou Williams but our time is going to run short on this so we're going to skip past her. That's hard to do but we have to, in the interest of time, to talk about some of the vocalists. Because the vocalist females probably had the highest exposure and name recognition. I think you might agree with that. And here's someone who comes to mind immediately. Sarah Vaughan, "In a Sentimental Mood."

(Soundbite of song "In a Sentimental Mood")

Ms. SARAH VAUGHAN (Jazz Singer): (Singing) In a sentimental mood, I can see the stars come through my room while your loving attitude is like a flame that lights the gloom.

COX: Sarah Vaughan. What a great voice. And that, you know, there are so many others. Nancy Wilson, Carmen McRae, the list goes - Diana Washington. The list goes on, and on, and on. Talk about their influence in jazz history, particularly as it relates to females.

Ms. DAHL: Yeah, I think what they did, as you said, there are so many we could spend all day on it. But they came out of a tradition, a great number of them, of where there was music all around. In the church - Diana Washington had a very churchy sound, I think we'd agree. And then, you know, so that they laid down this tradition of soulfulness and a quality of performance that was - came out of vaudeville and later on, which really required you to really be up there with great intonation and diction, and so today we see people like Diane Reeves, and Karen Allison, and Cassandra Wilson, Liz Wright, on an on, who sort of have - can benefit from the fabulous predecessors in jazz singing world.

COX: Can you talk at all about how jazz singers, women in particular, have expanded beyond the American borders? And are singing and are coming from other places around the world.

Ms. DAHL: Oh, well, yeah. They're all over the place, I mean, like many of us, you know, I think a lot of us listen to music from around the world now and we find that people are gathering different strands, if you will, of world traditions. Be it Arabic or Indian or African or Latin. The Brazilian thing is always alive and well, and so I think that all singers, I would - it's fair to say that most all of the singers regardless of where they' re from, are listening to each other. Of course we have the internet. And they - the boundaries have changed tremendously, which is only a good thing going forward with the music.

COX: Here's my final question. We have about 40 seconds or so for your answer. I know it's quick, but...

Ms. DAHL: I'll try.

COX: I guess the ultimate question is this. Is the playing field level now?

Ms. DAHL: You'd really need - I'm going to cop out and say you need to talk the musicians. But it's my feeling tracking this a little bit, that no, it is not quite level. Perhaps it never will be but I will say this. Women have more confidence in themselves, more ability to reach out and try to do the things that they want to do. So in that sense, it's very optimistic time for women musicians.

COX: Linda, thank you very much for joining us.

Ms. DAHL: You're welcome.

COX: Jazz historian Linda Dahl. She is the author of several books, most recently "Haunted Heart: A Biography of Susannah McCorkle." She was at our New York studios.

(Soundbite of song "Superstition")

Ms. SUSANNAH MCCORKLE : (Singing) Good things in your past when you believe in things you don't understand and you suffer.

COX: Next, on News and Notes, the iPhone giveth and the iPhone taketh away. We'll look at the costs and benefits of the latest version with Mario Armstrong, and Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nina Freeland joins us to continue our look at women in jazz.

(Soundbite of song "Superstition")

Ms. MCCORKLE: (Singing) Wash your face and hands, rid me of the problem.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.