Women have made immense contributions in the development of man throughout history more than it is acknowledged. It is vital to appreciate their accomplishments despite the challenges they faced. Historical literature has always been written subjectively making it hard to trace accomplishments of significant women. The search for women in jazz prior to 1945 is not an exception. The search is a painful experience but worth its reward. The history and development of jazz music has been attributed to a significant extent to men. Most texts name Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong as the pioneers of jazz music. However, this paper interrogates history from a feminist perspective. It will canvas the contributions of Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, and Mary Lou Williams. It is vital to discuss the achievements of these women and the obstacles they faced, such as racism and sexism, in order to arrive at a more objective developmental analysis of jazz music.
Billie Holiday, also known as ‘Lady Day’, was born in 1915. She was an incredible singer and songwriter. Some of her songs have become jazz standards. She was a vocalist and a significant one at it. She has been credited by critics as having contributed immensely in the direction the pop vocals followed after. She is an inspiration to numerous female musicians around the globe. In fact, her influence in jazz music is seminal. She had a musical partner called Lester Young. He is the one who nicknamed her ‘Lady Day’. Her, song the Strange Fruit, is perhaps the most renowned one. The song made some critics refer to her as the best singer of the 18th century. However, her life was not without difficulties. She was raped by a neighbor in late 1926. She was later to be placed under protective custody to receive the requisite treatment. After her release, and having nothing to do, she become a prostitute at barely 14 in Harlem.
Bessie Smith was a popular musician of the 1930s. Along with jazz legend Louis Armstrong, they are referred to as the trendsetters of their time. She had an extremely significant influence on the development of jazz music. She was a vocalist. She partnered with Armstrong in most of her acts. She was born in the late 1800s. The exact date of her birth has never been ascertained. She learnt how to play a guitar from her brother Andrew. When they were young they sang on the streets to earn money. Their family was poor and could not afford to cater for most of their needs. She finally made her breakthrough around 1913 under the mentorship of Rainey. She rose to become the highest paid musicians of African American ancestry. This earned her the nickname “Queen of the Blues”.
Big Mama Thornton was born in 1926. She was a celebrated singer of the 18th and 19th century but her successes were soon overlooked when Elvis Presley became popular. The rhythm and blues singer is credited to having made outstanding accomplishments in the growth and development of jazz music. One of her singles ‘Hound Dog’ stayed at the number one for weeks in the Billboard charts. She was a singer, a composer, a drummer and a harmonica player. In fact, she is reported to have had the skills and abilities to play any instrument during a performance without having rehearsed for it. She was also a vocalist.
Mary Lou Williams was a prolific songwriter who was born in 1910. She wrote more than 100 songs most of which were featured in her albums. This American jazz legend was a composer, a pianist and an arranger. She was taught and mentored in music by Thelonious Monk. Her songs were sung by Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Other associated acts include Miles Davies and Charlie parker among others.
Women made significant contributions to jazz music to a much greater extent than this paper can articulate. Many worked as arrangers, composers, pianists, or guitarists. Their names may not have become popular but this does not lessen their contributions. Armstrong appreciates this by singing that women held half the sky. The life Lil Armstrong best illustrates this argument. She surrendered her dreams and joined her husband’s band. She is credited in ensuring that the fortunes of the band turned around. Susan Cavin is also a forgotten legend in jazz history. She played a role much more than many blues singers of her time.
Women in jazz, just like any other areas in history, faced barriers and tough hurdles. Challenges such as classism, racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism were real. Though only a few incidents were ever brought to the spotlight, let alone recorded, one must be cognizant of these challenges. It is vital to understand the historical context of societies that these women grew up in order to arrive at a much more objective analysis. Indeed, their contribution was limited as participation depended heavily on religious, political, cultural, and social conditions. Furthermore, moral codes of the time likened women’s participation, training and mentoring of music performance to immoral acts such as adultery and prostitution. In some societies, women were mostly accepted for less influential roles. When a woman was featured in jazz chronicle, she was most likely to appear as a pianist or a singer. Celebrated jazz musician Ella Fitzgerald is reported to have started her musical career as a Canary girl. It is ironic that women faced discrimination in an industry that is alleged to have arisen principally to fight social injustice. The instrument designed to end injustice was turned into a vessel to propagate the same injustice.
The neglect of women in jazz by history is not a unique phenomenon. Recent progressive writers have argued that history is usually silent on women, unless they commit extra-ordinary acts, which are considered unlawful or immoral. Later generations will then read about them in court records. While it can be argued the most of the challenges that faced musicians were the same like racial stereotyping, women suffered the most. They were denied the opportunity to play certain instruments because of their gender irrespective of their talent. For example, Dolly Douroux was forbidden by her husband to engage in any jazz activities. To other women, the coveted cornet was off limits as only men could be allowed to play it. Such open discrimination diminished many careers and women were left with no source of livelihood but to depend on their husbands or turn to prostitution.
Despite the obvious discrimination and marginalization a number of women managed to compete favorably with the male counterparts. They observed societal norms and still earned their place in books of history. They serve as an inspiration to millions of young women around the globe.
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McGee, Kristin A. Some Liked it Hot: Jazz Women in Film and Television, 1928-1959. New York: Wesleyan University Press, 2009.