Jazz has without a doubt secured itself in history as being uniquely American. From its inception to the modern day you can’t escape it. Yet this is an art form that has been associated with male musicians, give or take a female vocalist or two whose names ring bells.
When you think of the giants of jazz there are many, mostly men. One might think that they were the only ones making the jazz noise but this isn’t the case. This is not to dispute the accomplishments made by them. The honor and prestige earned by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and others are well deserved. And this isn’t to say that it was easy for them either. These men had their own racial stereotypes to battle with.
But it is important to note that off not so distantly there were the women of Jazz who fought against both racial and gender stereotypes.
The Women Of Early Jazz
As far back as the late-1800s, women not only faced barriers within music but in American society as a whole. This is not news to anyone hopefully. But what may be news is that during this period there were instruments that were regarded as “acceptable” and “not acceptable” for women to play – the piano was one of these acceptable instruments.
Because of this, it wasn’t rare to encounter a female pianist playing especially so so within the church confines. During the explosion of gospel, soul, and jazz women had been firmly cemented as some of the best pianists around. And when jazz music started to take off, in the early 1920s, female pianists were abundant in the scene and had even mentored some of the greatest men pianists of the time.
The 1920s gave rise to a lot of things. It was a post-sufferage era where women were allowed to branch out and experiment in Western society like never before. Aside from piano, women could now be found filling other roles as instrumentalists of different kinds.
An example of this, as well as an example of a jazz icon, is trumpeter Dolly Jones who was one the first female to achieve national recognition for her skill and the first to be professionally recorded.
During the war, women took on the many roles of what was considered to be a man’s job. This included the role of a musician. In those days it wasn’t uncommon to encounter all-female jazz groups performing.
Female Singers In Early Jazz
When we think of a woman’s role in jazz music it’s usually that of a vocalist. In this instance, women were able to firmly establish themselves in jazz history easier than their brass blowing, key hitting counterparts. Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald are American household names who the blues singer Bessie Smith paved the way for in the 1920s.
Ella Fitzgerald is adoringly known as “The First Lady Of Jazz”. She may be most known for her rendition of popular songs at the time and now her name and music are internationally known, standing the test of time.
Billie Holiday was another heavy-hitting vocalist in the early jazz scene. During the 1930s Billie was known by her stage name of Lady Day. Holiday had raised the bar for what a jazz singer was, for both men and women. She was known as a skilled improviser and her talents were matched by none. Billie was credited for birthing “swing” along with her peers.
Less known than the prior two vocalists was an important figure in shaping jazz music forever, taking it out of its infantile stages and into the popular American music genre it has become. This culture-shaper was named Sara Vaughn. She took jazz singing and ran with it – into the 40s, 50s, and 60s while raising the standard for vocalists everywhere.
Aside from the more well-known, there were more than a handful of other women who made jazz what it was and now is with their vocal stylings.
- Baby Esther
- Carmen McRae
- Dinah Washington
- Betty Carter
- Anita O’Day
- Abbey Lincoln
- Nancy Wilson
- Diane Schuur
- Diana Krall
- Gretchen Parlato
And there’s more – way more. Join us in part two of this series as we look into a few other key women of early jazz.