The man sitting in front of me in Ronnie Scott’s jazz club got me thinking. I was there to hear the Portico Quartet, but had instead spent the first half listening to the sound of his voice as he chatted to his companion — so I had asked him to be quiet. At the end of the gig he apologized a little too contritely for spoiling my enjoyment. Then he added “Why are you here, anyway? Is your boyfriend in the band?”
The answer was no, but it was the question that mattered. This man may have been a sexist throwback, but I wondered if there could be any basis to his assumption that I could not have been there out of my own appreciation of the music. I looked around the club. The band were all men. Most of the audience were men, except for a group of women whose shouts and whoops made me think they really were with the band. It made me wonder where, and how, women fit into jazz.
The short answer, of course, is at the microphone. Many of the best jazz singers have been, and still are, women — from Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, to the British singing star Claire Martin, and American stand-up comic and scat maestro Lea DeLaria. Female jazz instrumentalists are a much rarer breed.
All-woman ensembles proliferated on both sides of the Atlantic during World War II, but most of them disappeared shortly after. A number of women instrumentalists have risen to the highest levels — among them the American pianists, composers and band leaders Mary Lou Williams, Carla Bley, and Toshiko Akiyoshi and, more recently, Maria Schneider, and percussionist Terri Lyne Carrington. But many remain best known for their collaborations with more famous men — Williams, for instance, wrote arrangements for Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, and Lil Hardin Armstrong is more often referred to as Louis Armstrong’s second wife than as a composer and bandleader in her own right.
In the early days of jazz, scorn was poured on the very possibility of women as instrumentalists. In February 1938, for instance, an editorial appeared in the American jazz magazine Down Beat under the headline Why Women Musicians Are Inferior. “The woman musician never was born,” it read, “capable of sending anyone further than the nearest exit.”
The hugely successful composer Maria Schneider could not, of course, be further from that stereotype. She puts the lack of top women instrumentalists in jazz down to historical precedent rather than prejudice.
“One really can’t ignore the fact,” she says, “that when jazz began, it wasn’t conducive to being a woman at that time. Only a few women did it — Marylou Williams, Lil Hardin Armstrong. They were comfortable in that world somehow. But I don’t think many women were, and maybe still are. It’s not an easy life.”
Pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, who has earned 14 Grammy nominations in her 50-year career, agrees. “During the big band years, most musicians did one-nighters,” she says. “Duke Ellington used to travel by bus. Having a woman could be inconvenient — they only had one bathroom, and then they’d need a separate dressing room for the woman at the venue. So the band leader might shy away from having a woman player.”
Even if a woman did get out on the road, she could find herself the object of unwanted attention. One perhaps apocryphal story has the 1920s American bandleader Blanche Calloway, for instance, arrested while on tour for using a toilet in a roadside gas station at 6am.