Women in jazz

Women in jazz have contributed throughout the many eras of jazz history, both as performers and as composers, songwriters and bandleaders. While women such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald were famous for their jazz singing, women have achieved much less recognition for their contributions as composers, bandleaders and instrumental performers. Other notable jazz women include piano player Lil Hardin Armstrong and jazz songwriters Irene Higginbotham and Dorothy Fields.


United States

With women’s suffrage at its peak with the ratification of the United States Nineteenth Amendment on 18 August 1920, and the development of the liberated flapper persona, women began to make a statement within society. In the "Jazz Age", women took a greater part in the work force after the end of the First World War, giving them more independence. There were many more possibilities for women in terms of social life and entertainment. Ideas such as equality and freer sexuality began to spread and women took on new roles. The 1920s saw the emergence of many famous women musicians including African-American blues singer Bessie Smith (1894–1937), who inspired singers from later eras, including Billie Holiday (1915–1959) and Janis Joplin (1943–1970).[1]

Lovie Austin (1887–1972) was a piano player and bandleader. Pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong (1898–1971) was originally a member of King Oliver's band with Louis Armstrong and went on to play piano in Armstrong's band the Hot Five and then his next group, the Hot Seven.[2] Valaida Snow (1904–1956) became so famous as a trumpet player that she was known as "Little Louis".[3] It was not until the 1930s and 1940s that many women jazz singers such as Billie Holiday were recognized as successful artists in the music world.[2] These women were persistent in striving to make their names known in the music industry and lead the way for many more women artists to come.[2]

While jazz songwriting has long been a male-dominated field, there have been a few notable women jazz songwriters. Irene Higginbotham (1918-1988) wrote almost 50 songs, her best-known being "Good Morning Heartache".[4] Ann Ronell (1905–1993) is known for her 1932 hit song "Willow Weep for Me" and the 1933 Disney song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?".[4] Dorothy Fields (1905–1974) wrote the lyrics for more than 400 songs, some of which were played by Duke Ellington. She co-wrote "The Way You Look Tonight" with Jerome Kern, which won the 1936 Oscar for Best Song. She co-wrote several jazz standards with Jimmy McHugh, such as "Exactly Like You". "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby".[4]

Lil Hardin Armstrong's most famous song, "Struttin’ with Some Barbecue" has been recorded 500 times. Her other notable songs are “Doin’ the Suzie Q", "Just for a Thrill" and "Bad Boy".[4] While Billie Holiday is best known as a singer, she co-wrote "God Bless the Child" and "Don't Explain" with Arthur Herzog, Jr. and she penned the blues song "Fine and Mellow".[4]

Role of women

Historically, the majority of well-known women performers in jazz have been singers, among them Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996), Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae (1920–1994), Dinah Washington (1924–1963), Sarah Vaughan (1924–1990), Betty Carter (1929–1998), Anita O'Day (1919–2006), Abbey Lincoln (1930–2010), Nancy Wilson (born 1937), and Diane Schuur (born 1953). However, there are many notable instrumental performers. In some cases, these musicians are also composers and bandleaders:

There have also been all-female jazz bands, such as The International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

Factors contributing to lower participation and recognition

According to Jessica Duchen, a music writer for London’s The Independent, women musicians are "...too often judged for their appearances, rather than their talent" and they face pressure "...to look sexy onstage and in photos."[5] Duchen states that while "[t]here are women musicians who refuse to play on their looks,...the ones who do tend to be more materially successful."[5] According to the UK's BBC Radio 3 editor, Edwina Wolstencroft, the music industry has long been open to having women in performance or entertainment roles, but women are much less likely to have positions of authority, such as being a bandleader.[6] In popular music, while there are many women singers recording songs, there are very few women behind the audio console acting as music producers, the individuals who direct and manage the recording process.[7]

"Only a few of the many women [songwriters] in America had their music published and heard during the late 19th and early 20th centuries."[8] According to Richard A. Reublin and Richard G. Beil, the "...lack of mention of women [songwriters] is a glaring and embarrassing omission in our musical heritage."[8] Women "...struggled to write and publish music in the man's world of 20th-century Tin Pan Alley. Prior to 1900 and even after 1900, it was expected that "...women would perform music, not make music."[8] In 1880, Chicago music critic George P. Upton wrote, Women In Music, in which he argued that "...women lacked the innate creativity to compose good music" due to "biological predisposition".[8] Later, it was accepted that women would have a role in music education, and they became involved in this field "...to such a degree that women dominated music education during the later half of the 19th century and well into the 20th century."[8] The "secular music in print in America before 1825 shows only about 70 works by women." In the mid-19th century, notable women songwriters emerged, including Faustina Hasse Hodges, Susan Parkhurst, Augusta Browne and Marion Dix Sullivan. By 1900, there were many more women songwriters, but "...many were still forced to use pseudonyms or initials" to hide the fact that they were women.[8]

See also


  1. Ward, Larry F. "Bessie", Notes, Volume 61, Number 2, December 2004, pp. 458-460 (review). Music Library Association.
  2. 1 2 3 Borzillo, Carrie, "Women in Jazz: Music on Their Terms--As Gender Bias Fades, New Artists Emerge", Billboard 108:26 (29 June 1996), pp. 1, 94–96.
  3. Richard Williams, "Trumpet queen" (review of Valaida by Candace Allen), The Guardian, 14 February 2004.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Ted Gioia, "Five women songwriters who helped shape the sound of jazz", OUP Blog, 12 March 2013. Accessed on 15 October 2015.
  5. 1 2 "Classical music's shocking gender gap", CBC Music, 19 March 2014.
  6. Jessica Duchen, "Why the male domination of classical music might be coming to an end", The Guardian, 28 February 2015.
  7. Ncube, Rosina (September 2013). "Sounding Off: Why So Few Women In Audio?". Sound on Sound.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "In Search of Women In American Song; A neglected musical heritage", Parlor Songs.
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