The Jazz ladies

Collage of jazz albums by female Grammy Award winners and NEA Jazz Masters honorees
Collage of jazz albums by female Grammy Award winners and NEA Jazz Masters honorees

— April is Jazz Appreciation Month, the time of year to honor jazz as an original American art form. Names such as Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard and Sonny Rollins are legendary. But what about the jazz ladies—the female musicians, promoters, performers and women behind the famous jazz men?

Since 1959, the year of the first Grammy Awards ceremony, 262 awards have been presented in 44 different categories honoring the musical accomplishments by jazz performers the year before. According to the Grammy winner’s database, out of those, 216 went to male performers or bands, and only 46 were given to female musicians or bands crediting female musicians or producers. Because an artist can receive several awards, in reality only 26 women in jazz have been honored in 56 years of music celebration.

Chart presenting the number of awards by performer, it includes Grammy Awards in other categories aside from jazz.


The numbers are not much different for the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship, which has honored 132 jazz masters in 32 years with only 16 women among them.

To be sure, awardees have included some legendary female performers. Ella Fitzgerald, dubbed “The First Lady of Song,” for example, became the first female vocalist to be honored in 1985. Fitzgerald had the ability to use her voice to imitate every instrument in an orchestra. And in 2013, jazz club owner Lorraine Gordon was honored with the Award for Jazz Advocacy for her work at the Village Vanguard in New York City; a legendary jazz club where the best jazz musicians have performed since 1935.

If you look only at the numbers, women may not seem to be prominent in jazz. But their influence has shaped this art form not only on stage but also behind the scenes. And on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Skylight Gallery in Brooklyn, their role in jazz will be front and center at a special forum, Jazz! The Women’s Viewpoint presented by the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium in partnership with the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation.

“It’s geared towards female musicians, and wives, and mothers, and daughters,” said Beareather Reddy, jazz and blues singer and the chairperson for this event. “It’s an opportunity to express their feelings and emotions about jazz.”

Jazz ladies are not only female musicians; jazz also harbors the myth of the women behind the men. “It’s kind of legendary actually,” said Jeffrey J. Taylor, professor at the Conservatory of Music at CUNY Brooklyn College. “Specially in older generations of jazz musicians, anybody who is trying to deal with some of this musicians that happen to be married, usually confront the wife first. The wife is like a gatekeeper.”

Examples of women as partners in jazz are abundant.  Three female Grammy winners stand out: Louise Holland -Dave Holland’s wife- credited as producer for What Goes Around by the Dave Holland Big Band, awarded on 2002 with Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album; Lucille Rollins -Sonny Rollins’s wife- credited as producer for This Is What I Do by Sonny Rollins, awarded on 2001 with Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group, and Sue Mingus -Charles Mingus’ wife- credited as producer for Mingus Big Band Live At Jazz Standard, awarded on 2010 with Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.

Musicians want to support themselves but mainly they just want to make music. “It’s often the women who said: ok, what’s the contract? How much is he getting paid,  when is he getting paid?” said Taylor.

Women have a lot to say about jazz and not only through music, said blues singer Reddy. “Some have endured staying home with their family when their husbands are out playing their music. Often times those women support the household financially and emotionally when the musicians are gone,” she said.

Some female jazz musicians, of course, have had families and careers. “I know lots of women jazz players that have families and they juggle it,” said trumpet player, composer and bandleader Nadje Noordhuis. “It’s a juggle no matter what career are you in, you know? You just got to pick your partner well.”

Trumpet player Nadje Noordhuis Photography by Mireya Acierto
Trumpet player Nadje Noordhuis
Photography by Mireya Acierto

Noordhuis does not have a family yet, but bassist Kim Clarke considers herself first a mother, then a musician. That might be the reason why when asked by music writer Stewart Mckinsey whether she prefers an electric or an upright bass, she answered: “I love them like a parent with two children. If I only have one I miss the other.”

Clarke has organized the Lady Got Chops Women’s Month Jazz Festival in New York since 2003; she is also one of the panelists at the Women’s Viewpoint this year. This hard-working musician managed to raise her child while leading a career in jazz. “My mother and neighbors helped me out,” she said, “but I tried not to go out on touring too long.”

Accompanying Clarke this year at The Women’s Viewpoint panel, will be Viola Plummer, owner of the Sista’s Place  who has been promoting jazz for at least 20 years, and Debbe McClain, owner of Sankofa Aban bed & breakfast, a brownstone in Brooklyn that features a ‘back in the day’ jazz night on Fridays.

The forum, moderated by Robin Bell-Stevens, director of The Jazz Mobile in Harlem, will focus on women in the business of jazz. “We are interested in emphasizing and speaking with female jazz promoters and proprietors in this area,” said Reddy. The discussion will be followed by a performance by saxophone player Camille Thurman. “We wanted to see how difficult it was for a women to be a club owner and try to promote this music,” said Reddy.

From a female musician’s point of view, there is more to tell. “Women understand that they are not making the marks that man are making,” said Diva Joan Cartwright, composer and director of Women in Jazz South Florida. “The Lincoln Center Jazz Band is an all man touring band that is led by Wynton Marsalis, and there is not one women in the band.”

Nevertheless, women are actively working at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Erica Von Kleist, saxophone player, has been commissioned to write for Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

The Girls in the Band poster
The Girls in the Band poster

Women’s involvement in jazz is also the focus of the 2011 documentary The Girls in the Band, directed by Judy Chaikin. The 81 minute-film presents the untold stories of female jazz instrumentalists and their journeys from the late 30s to the present day.

“The role of the girl singer is one that was carved out societally 75 or 80 years ago,” said Todd B. Weeks, senior business representative for jazz at the Associated Musicians of Greater New York -AFM, Local 802. “Putting an attractive young woman in a sparkly dress, in front of a group of male musicians became a societal norm.”

Things have improved remarkably over the last 20 to 30 years, said Weeks, but he agrees that women are still not being treated with the same respect and they are not given the same opportunities in the jazz field as their male counterparts.

Even so, their numbers are growing and the conversation is more now about their art instead of their gender. “It’s not really an issue for me,” said Noordhuis. “I think it is challenging to play regardless of gender. I would like to think that when I play, they are not seeing me as a woman, they are just hearing me as a musician.”

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