Since its creation in the early twentieth century, jazz has remained a popular genre of music with both men and women creating music. Its fast pace and upbeat tempo helped to increase its popularity, but most of the people who were receiving attention were men. Women, especially black women, have long contributed to the creation and continuity of jazz yet they don’t get the same amount of attention. Women jazz musicians are often pushed to the side in favor of their male counterparts. Women bandleaders and women playing instruments not considered ‘appropriate’ often didn’t get the recognition they deserve. Women like Dolly Jones (trumpet), Irma Young (saxophone), Carline Ray (Fender bass), Dottie Dodgion (drums), and many others are not given the same treatment as their male peers. All of these women and more deserve more credit and attention. In my article, I want to discuss why women in jazz are often overlooked.
Women artists in jazz can be separated into three categories: vocalists, composers, instrumentalists. Most women in jazz were pushed into the vocalist category. If one were to look at the photos of the bands of the early 20th century, most of the singers are women and the musicians are all male. Even in Louis’ band, his vocalist Velma Middleton is the only woman in the band. But why are women being forced into the occupation of singers? Many men felt that women did not have the physical stamina to play instruments. Although this information wasn’t based in science, it was spread through many circles and society as a whole. Vocalists are very talented women who have plenty to offer the jazz world. While both vocalists and instrumentalists were met with sexism that is present in the jazz community, instrumentalists faced a higher degree of discrimination.
Women who play ‘male’ instruments also do not get their proper recognition. Instruments like the guitar, drums, trumpet, and saxophone are considered ‘masculine’ and society dictates that only men play those instruments. When women play certain instruments they are creating a new image of what a woman is capable of doing. Lil Hardin Armstrong played the piano and was a bandleader but most people know her for being Louis Armstrong’s second wife. Carline Ray was an amazing Fender bass player, but not many people know her story. Ray’s story might not be publicized as much because she played the bass and not the harp, a traditionally ‘female’ instrument. Women instrumentalists were often confined to their gender and not seen as great musicians. For many people, these women were seen as women first and musicians second. Gender and talent was not separated. Nat Hentoff in 1952 wrote about the way Mary Lou Williams was discussed, “[How often do you hear] Mary Lou Williams [referred to] as the ‘best of the female pianists?’ The implication is always that in the minor leagues of feminine jazz, she is peerless.” What Hentoff was referring to was the media having a role in the characterization of women artists. If the people who advertise and critique women have a narrow view of what they can accomplish, then they are limiting women’s contribution to jazz.
Composers help to create music from the ground up and for female composers they rarely get enough appreciation. Women such as Betty Carter, Ma Rainey, Hazel Scott, Lil Hardin, and others wrote and composed their own music. Male composers receive all the accolades, yet women do not. The rampant sexism in the jazz industry is the reason behind this and it still persists to this day. As heard at a recent conference: Women don’t need jazz, jazz needs women and once more people begin to realize that, the circumstances for women should get better.