Women in Jazz

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There has been a vast history of women performers in jazz. You’ve probably heard of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, etc. They were all amazing male jazz performers from the 1900s. However, have you heard of Vi Redd, Mary Lou Williams and Dolly Jones? They were all important female jazz performers from the 1900s that although, were under-represented due to gender stereotypes, made an impact in the history of jazz. Vi Redd was a saxophonist who is best known for being the first person to break gender stereotypes. Mary Lou Williams was a prodigy pianist who was known as one of the guys in her band and wrote hundreds of songs for Duke Ellington and even assisted in training Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and more. Dolly Jones was the first female trumpeter to receive national recognition for her musical skills and the first women to be professionally recorded. However, due to these stereotypes, women would stick together in the early years of jazz. They would form all women bands, instead of playing professionally with men. During the time period of World War II when many men were being drafted into war, women’s jazz bands began to rise and more women musicians gained recognition. This was the start of a new era for women. However, once the war ended, male musicians came back and continued their jobs. The women that did remain in the jazz industry, in male bands especially, were faced with sexual harassment and disapproval from their band members.

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Vi Redd was an astounding alto saxophonist, vocalist and educator, who put her best efforts forth to break gender stereotypes. Vi Redd was born in 1928, raised in Los Angeles and was surrounded by musicians in her family, beginning music at the age of 12. She was especially persuaded by her father, Alton Redd, who pushed her to her fullest potential in her early years as an up and coming musician. Vi Redd became active in the music industry in the early 1950s. She paid forth her musical knowledge by being an educator for students in the 60’s and 70’s, before returning back to playing and performing music. She has played with both Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and other well-known artists. Although under-recorded due to the sole fact that she was a women, she made many accomplishments in her career that are still influential to jazz musicians today. Throughout my research, I read about many musicians and jazz enthusiasts who recognized Vi Redd’s amazing talents and how undervalued they were during her time period. According to Rob Ferrier’s review of Vi Redd’s Lady Soul’ Ferrier writes, This record is a sterling example of what the music [jazz] lost in the name of its phallocentricity. Vi Redd demonstrates a thoughtful tone and a careful respect for those around her. Her solos are pithy and directly to the pointQuite honestly, there’s really nothing quite like her records. According to jazz-enthusiast, Yoko Suzuki’s biography of Redd, Vi Redd’s career path exemplifies how the music of female jazz instrumentalists remains largely invisible to jazz history. These quotes just go to show how under-estimated Vi Redd’s music was, just because she was a woman. Redd recognized this during the time period of her career (during the Bebop Era, Hard Bop Era and Post-Bop Era), and wanted to make a change. She became the first woman to pioneer breaking gender stereotypes. The track I chose to listen to by Vi Redd, was her famous tune Lady Soul, from 1963 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADILzh1qW0g). Her alto saxophone skills were way beyond what I expected them to be. I really enjoyed listening to her play, and closing my eyes while doing so. It brought over a sense of peace and serenity to my soul. Knowing it came from Vi Redd herself, one who was not accepted during her time period due to her gender, it made me love it that much more. Personally, to me, it sounded no different than the soundtracks I’ve listened to in class played by the beloved male jazz musicians who still carry on a legacy to this day. There is no one person trying to overpower the other in the song, similar to how male band musicians songs were, a mere competition to overpower one of their band members in their solo. It is just Vi Redd and her alto saxophone. It brings forth a very relaxed and deep thoughtful vibe.

The next jazz musician, who made a great impact on the history of jazz despite being degraded because of the fact she was female, was pianist, arranger and composer Mary Lou Williams. Born in 1910 in Atlanta, Georgia, but raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania she began her musical career performing piano as a child. Mary Lou Williams played and performed during the Swing, Blues and Bebop Era. Like Vi Redd, she was surrounded by music as a child and started playing by the age of 7, influenced and taught mainly by her mother. In 1930, Mary Lou Williams played with Andy Kirk’s band Clouds of Joy, even writing music for the band, which then lead her to compose and arrange for many famous male bandleaders including Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, etc. Williams performed anywhere she could, at clubs, concerts, and festivals both nationally and internationally. However, in 1954, she stopped performing because she felt that her spiritual needs were incompatible with the world of jazz (Biography.com), after walking off stage and disappearing for 3 years. In 1957, she converted religions and picked up performing again with Gillespie before starting her own label, Mary Records which was the first record label started by a woman. According to Biography.com Mary Lou Williams was known for being one of the first women to succeed in jazz, she had a career whose accomplishments place her in the top echelon of musicians. This truly is astounding because during this time period, women were greatly underappreciated in the field of musicians. Mary Lou Williams became a great influence for women and showed that women COULD succeed. The tune I chose to listen to by Mary Lou Williams was Mary Lou’s Mass (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8mqGabEHWo&list=PLQQLNys0yJ0v1L8ZbtUtYdZPn-5_FOjZK&index=2) which was written and performed by Williams after she converted her religion to Catholicism and started her own record label. Her record label consisted of merging two worlds together, two things she was very passionate about; religion and music. In the song, Mary Lou’s Mass, I personally felt as if I could feel her deep passion for her newfound religion and her life-long passion for composing and performing music. There is something about the way that she plays, her top-notch skills that allows you to not only feel the music, but think deeply about it as well. Her varying tones of ba-ba-ba and funky beats made by her own voice, really added some funk to the song and made it feel very light-weight and carefree; something you could definitely snap your fingers to. You could tell how truly talented Mary Lou Williams was, so much so as she created, played, composed and arranged this song all by herself in a time period where females were not thought to be capable in doing so.

Dolly Jones, also known as Doli Armenia and Dolly Hutchinson, was the final musician I chose to do research on. She was the first female jazz trumpeter to receive national recognition for her skills and the first to be professionally recorded. Dolly Jones was born on November 27, 1902 in Chicago, Illinois. Like Vi Redd and Mary Lou Williams, Dolly Jones was born into and influenced by her family’s musical careers. Her mother, Dyer Jones was a jazz trumpeter and her father was a saxophonist. Although her mother helped lead her in the right direction in her professional music career, she was mostly self-taught. Dolly Jones dedicated her life to her trumpet, playing and performing as much as she could and studying music and practicing when she wasn’t performing. Many musicians praised her talent, despite her being a women, including the well-respected and well-known trumpeter, Roy Eldridge. Jones strongly idolized Louis Armstrong, and according to All Music, Throughout her [Dolly Jones] career, she worked hard to maintain the higher-than-high standards needed by any woman trying to succeed in jazz in her era. Like the other women jazz musicians in her era, she faced the hardship and constant pressure of having to be top-notch, practically having perfect skills, if she even wanted to be recognized as a musician, solely because of her gender. She truly had to work that much harder than her male competitors because her being a women automatically made her less valued, and she knew that. That’s why she spent long hours practicing and playing as much as she could just to get her name out there. She was one of the first trumpet players who recorded a jazz record, and took part in two recording sessions, one in 1926 and the other in 1941, including Albert Wynn’s Gut Bucket Five and Stuff Smith Sextet. Dolly Jones also played a role in the 1938 musical Swing! as the character Miss Watkins (a trumpeter). Despite her facing the challenge of being a women jazz musician in the time period she was in, overall she came out on top and is remembered as one of the greatest female jazz musicians today. The song I chose to listen to by Dolly Jones was her solo trumpet piece in Oscar Mischaux’s Swing! musical (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-t5jCFbC6Q&t=32s). Watching and hearing her play her trumpet in the black and white clip you could truly see how dedicated and happy she was to be playing amongst an audience. The piece itself had a very catchy tune, I even caught myself stomping my foot to the beat of the music. I thought the piece was performed effortlessly by Jones, she didn’t miss a beat. She truly was a very musically talented performer; it just goes to show how her long nights studying music and practicing paid off.

Dolly Jones, like many of the other female jazz musicians, including but not limited to Vi Redd and Mary Lou Williams, worked extra hard through an era where women were looked down upon for fulfilling their passion of being a musician, and wanting to become successful in that field. They became that much more recognized because of their hard-work and dedication. All of these women showed the world that yes, women can be jazz musicians, and yes they can produce amazing music, and yes they can succeed in doing so. Women in this time period had to fight through being harshly criticized and sexually harassed, but they always kept their head up high and remembered what they were there for for their passion and love of music. Their passion kept their music alive, still to this day in age and left behind a legacy of greatness.

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Women In Jazz. (2020, Mar 23). Retrieved February 6, 2023 , from
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