Women in Jazz
[ Issue 23 ]

Emily Bronto is without doubt an admirer of Women in Jazz

Bikwil salutes Women in Jazz

Women in Jazz

Clare Hansson outlines the contribution of women to jazz.  Mainly they were pianists and vocalists — but not always.

Marian McPartland gets special mention, not only for her piano playing but also for her role in music education.

The contributions of these women have more than ephemeral significance, and it is enlightening to focus on the significant contribution of a female artist who, for more than five decades, has been central to the mainstream of jazz history and who loudly applauds her sisters in jazz

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Jazz — A Womanly Thing? — Clare Hansson


Long after women became accepted in other artistic fields, women in music — whether classical, jazz or pop — still faced the barrier of male chauvinism. Historically, men in jazz rarely hired women musicians, and those women who crossed the gender barrier with seeming ease were usually pianists. Of the women who became famous in jazz before the 1960s, most played piano — Lovie Austin, Lil Hardin, Cleo Brown, Mary Lou Williams, Dorothy Donegan, Hazel Scott and Marian McPartland. They represent all the women of originality and brilliance who have been present in jazz music since its inception. The contributions of these women have more than ephemeral significance, and it is enlightening to focus on the significant contribution of a female artist who, for more than five decades, has been central to the mainstream of jazz history and who loudly applauds her sisters in jazz.

Marian McPartland (b. 1918), a classically trained white English pianist, entered the American jazz scene in 1946 as the bride of Jimmy McPartland (1907-1991), a pioneer jazz cornet player. When interest was shown in the jazz career of Marian McPartland, it focused on her unique position as a white Englishwoman in the predominantly black American jazz scene. If jazz is the music of defiance, Marian McPartland defied all odds. Prior to her debut in New York in 1952, critic Leonard Feather, later recognised as championing female musicians, wrote that McPartland had three strikes against her — being English, white and a woman (Down Beat, 1952). Preferring to regard his prediction as an accolade, Marian McPartland triumphed over Feather's handicapping to become a superior musician who never felt sexual discrimination very intensely because she was good enough to lead her own groups (Porter, 1984).

With entrée into the jazz world through her husband, Marian McPartland quickly distinguished herself, winning rave reviews for her lyrical interpretations of ballads. In New York, the toughest of all jazz environments, she began a long engagement at the Hickory House, a famous midtown Manhattan jazz club and restaurant. Leading her own trio, she called the tunes, challenging herself and her sidemen to creative risk-taking and fresh interpretations of jazz standards.

I was never in a position of waiting to be hired because I had my own trio, so I could call up the guys and hire them. So I guess I was women's libbing it long before there was a name for it, and I didn't think about it, or think it was anything strange (Feather, 1976:177)

McPartland also turned sexual politics to her advantage:

Having my own combo, I was never in the position of waiting to be hired by some leader who might have harbored one prejudice or another. In fact, being a woman could be an asset. It was unusual enough for people to remember me and club owners hire musicians who draw audiences. They don't care if the draw is a man or a woman (Gottlieb, 1978).

Even as her own career blossomed, Marian McPartland was acutely aware that existing writings on jazz failed to account for the place of women in the art form. The lives of women in jazz were “hidden histories” in encyclopaedias of jazz composed by men. There was a dearth of studies by women about women's music making and the status of women in jazz. In 1975, it was a breakthrough for all women musicians when Marian McPartland was commissioned to write about her contribution and the significant status of women in jazz for Esquire. In her essay, entitled You've Come a Long Way, Baby, McPartland acknowledges the influence of pioneer jazz women Lil Hardin Armstrong, Cleo Brown, Hazel Scott and Mary Lou Williams. McPartland writes of these exceptional women who transcended the label “woman musician”, giving voice to their common strengths.

All had a musical education. Each has developed her own style, sense of purpose, inner security, flexibility, organisation, and knowledge of her instrument. These are the requirements for any musician, male or female and always have been (McPartland, 1975).

In this document, Marian McPartland inscribed her own life, and the lives of other jazz women into jazz history.

In addressing the question of why so few women succeed in jazz, McPartland refers to the many accomplishments of women in the jazz field who inspired her at the outset of her career. However, her first and main influence was not a woman, but Duke Ellington, whose unique orchestral sounds and way of voicing chords enthralled Marian. Having moved to the United States, and encouraged enormously by her husband, Jimmy, Marian listened avidly to every jazz group she could, seeking out other women musicians. Impressive in their technique and feeling were vibraharpists Margie Hyams, Dardanelle, Terry Pollard and Alice McLeod (later Coltrane). Along with pianists such as Barbara Carroll, Jeri Southern, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Norma Teagarden, Marian was equally impressed by trumpeter Norma Carson, guitarist Mary Osborn, alto saxophonist Vi Redd, trombonist and arranger Melba Liston, bassist Carlene Rey and drummer Dottie Dodgion.

The acknowledgement of women as competent jazz instrumentalists contrasts with the long-accepted role of the female jazz vocalist. In her quest to develop the skills of a professional jazz woman, Marian McPartland found singers and their interpretations of songs a great source of inspiration. From singers such as Bessie Smith, Lee Wiley, Mildred Bailey, Anita O'Day, Ethel Waters, Ivy Anderson, Helen Merrill, June Christy, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Carmen McRae and Ella Fitzgerald, Marian found inspiration in their renditions of beautiful songs. She stresses the importance of interpreting the lyrics in expressing the feeling inherent in a tune.

The place of female singers was always assured in jazz. For the instrumentalists, their ability was often defined by biased remarks such as “You play just like a man”, or “Not bad for a woman”. The prevailing view at that time was that a woman who played in a forthright manner was playing like a man. Mary Lou Williams, demonstrating direct tough ideas, and a strong sense of knowing where she was going, gave the advice “When you're playing for people, just be yourself. Anything you are comes out in your music”. Marian McPartland has lived by this dictum.

In her listening, McPartland chooses not to distinguish between male and female musicians, regarding each musician as having individual creative gifts. She makes the point that there has never been any difference in the union scale, whether the musician was male or female. In 1978, three years after her article in Esquire, a respected critic referred to jazz as “a particularly male music . . . for which most women lack the physical equipment — to say nothing of the poise”. The same year saw a new and significant development in jazz, the first Women's Jazz Festival in Kansas City. Jazz women of technical maturity and extensive experience rubbed shoulders with eager younger artists full of potential and vitality. The true test of a musician is her music, and a Festival such as this emphasized the truth that women have participated fully in the creation of jazz music since its beginnings.

With her background in classical music, Marian McPartland was an unlikely candidate for a jazz career, but having surmounted so many intangible obstacles, she occupies a position of eminence. She has become a symbol of achievement for all women in music. Involved in a myriad of jazz-related projects over the 54 years of her career in the United States, McPartland works consistently for the advancement of the music and the recognition of the women who perform it. Gone are the days when women musicians were unsung. Today they are heard alongside men expressing themselves in an idiom which is, for them, a burning necessity. Women have so much to say through jazz music, that the world needs to hear, loud and clear, what men cannot say for them.


Feather, L. (1952) “Marian McPartland”. Down Beat Magazine.
(1976) “Marian McPartland” in The Pleasures of Jazz: Leading
Performers on Their Lives, Their Music, Their Contemporaries.
New York: Dell Publishing.
Gottlieb, A. (1978) “Marian McPartland: Everything a Jazz Musician Is Not Supposed to Be”. Ms. March.
McPartland, M. (1987) “All in Good Time'“. New York: Oxford University Press.
McPartland, M. (1975) “You've Come a Long Way, Baby”. Esquire's World of Jazz. New York: Esquire Inc.
Porter, L. (1984) “She Wiped all the Men Out”. Music Educators Journal. September.

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