• October 11, 2019 |

    tunes and trailblazers

    a brief history of women in jazz

    article by , illustrated by

    Who first comes to mind when you think of jazz?

    Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane? Likely.

    Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday? Perhaps.

    The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Melba Liston, Maria Schneider, Ingrid Jensen? Unlikely.

    This trend of thought is rooted in a misogynistic past. The world of jazz has historically been male-dominated, and the contributions of male musicians have generally garnered more public recognition for shaping the genre than those of their female counterparts. Although many of these women’s tales remain untold, there exist countless accounts of talented female musicians facing discrimination, barriers, and prejudice while trying to enter (and perhaps even alter) this musical boys’ club.

    But these stories don’t have to stay untold. 


    The onset of World War II provided American women with new opportunities in the workforce. As the men went off to war, women took over jobs in many traditionally male-dominated industries, including jazz performance. This paved the way for the formation of all-female jazz bands. One band in particular was instrumental in carving out a space for women instrumentalists during this era. Its name was the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

    In addition to being an all-female band, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm was notable for its racial diversity. The ensemble, established in 1937 as a savvy school principal’s fundraising effort, originally consisted of low-income high school students from Mississippi’s Piney Woods School, many of whom had never even touched an instrument before. By 1941, the band had begun performing professionally throughout the United States. But its multiracial makeup presented a problem in the South during the era of Jim Crow, forcing the girls to take refuge in their tour bus whenever they weren’t performing in order to avoid run-ins with the law.

    Soon afterwards, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm rose in popularity and even headlined venues such as New York’s Apollo Theatre. They performed for throngs of dedicated fans, their name in bold letters on lighted marquees. Their fan base grew exponentially after they toured internationally to perform for soldiers on army bases during World War II, an experience that brought the girls as far as France and Germany.

    Not much remains of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm’s legacy in the public eye now, aside from a few surviving recordings. They disbanded in 1949 with many members leaving to lead different lives—starting families, finishing school, pursuing other careers. 

    Ultimately, this period of newfound opportunity for women in jazz was brief. After the end of the war, many female jazz instrumentalists found themselves out of work, abruptly replaced by men returning from war, often without even a day’s notice. 


    During the final years of the 1940s, the legendary Dizzy Gillespie shocked his big band by announcing that he was bringing a female composer from the West Coast all the way to New York to arrange music for the band. He faced backlash from his dismayed male musicians, but when they heard her arrangements, even they had to acknowledge that she had created something beautiful, something powerful, something special. 

    Her name was Melba Liston.

    Though she was a masterful arranger of music, Liston was first and foremost an instrumentalist, differentiating her from how we usually think of women in jazz. But Liston wasn’t a vocalist, and she didn’t play the piano. In fact, she played what some may consider a stereotypically masculine instrument: the trombone. 

    Watching Melba Liston play the trombone, even by way of a grainy, black-and-white video recording, is a near-ethereal experience. Despite the immense amount of air it takes to play the trombone and the physical limitations of the instrument itself, Liston plays effortlessly, somehow smiling into the mouthpiece of her horn as she hits each note accurately and easily. The trombone slide simply becomes an extension of her arm.

    Although Liston’s extraordinary talent gained her recognition in jazz’s inner circles, even (begrudgingly) from her male peers, she was dissatisfied and disheartened by the confines of her career and the lifestyle of an American female jazz musician. In the 1970s, Liston left the scene of professional jazz performance to teach music in Jamaica instead. 


    In 1978, the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival was established. This event was the brainchild of Carol Comer and Diane Gregg, two prominent women in the Kansas City jazz circuit. They set out to assemble the first festival completely centered on women in jazz, intending to provide budding female jazz instrumentalists with inspiration and a strong support system. The weekend-long event centered on concerts and workshops, bringing together some of the most notable female names in jazz in Kansas City, a place known for its immense influence on the genre.

    Coincidentally, the Second Annual Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival in 1979 served as the setting for Melba Liston’s triumphant return to jazz after her stint in Jamaica. It was at this event that her newly-formed, all-female ensemble, Melba Liston and Company, made its debut. After this, Liston continued to immerse herself in jazz, playing and arranging until she was physically unable to. 

    The Third Annual Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival in 1980 bore witness to the reunion of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm 31 years after the ensemble’s separation. 

    The final Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival took place in 1985, but its legacy persists through similar festivals throughout the country today, which aim to replicate the musically empowered community it created.


    In 1980, an energetic, young college student was studying music theory and composition at the University of Minnesota. Her first exposure to modern jazz came during her college years when her classmate loaned her Coltrane, Hancock, and Tyner albums. 

    Her name is Maria Schneider.

    Schneider did not attend the 1979 or 1980 Women’s Jazz Festival, but 17 years later, she would lead her own jazz orchestra at a similar event—the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, held at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

    Maria Schneider is not known for being an instrumentalist although she has classically trained in piano since the age of five. Instead, she is known for her gorgeous, sweeping jazz compositions and for being the conductor of the critically acclaimed Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra.

    There’s a video recording of the orchestra performing Schneider’s piece “Hang Gliding” at the 2008 Vienne Jazz Festival. It is awe-inspiring to see Schneider standing in front of her jazz orchestra—conducting the almost entirely male ensemble (save Ingrid Jensen, the lone female trumpetist) with an infectious smile and a spirit that can only be described as carefree composure. Her commanding, controlled arm movements and her alternating crouching and straightening posture, paralleling the rise and fall of the music, cause her to resemble a bird ready to take flight. Halfway through the piece, Jensen calmly steps to center stage, seamlessly transitioning into her four-minute-long solo. Her eyes remain closed throughout much of the performance; she skillfully manipulates the trumpet as if it were a keyboard, rapidly producing an incredible range of pitches from merely three valves.

    Throughout the solo, Schneider smiles at Jensen, her entire body swaying to the rising, swelling trumpet runs. She allows herself to be immersed in the music without ever losing focus; it’s clear she knows how to extract the sounds she wants from her musicians in order to convey her composition just as she envisions. 

    This moment reflects the camaraderie shared between these two extraordinary female musicians. It’s an intimate moment incongruous with the public setting of a jazz festival, made all the more meaningful when you realize they are being watched by the rest of the all-male orchestra. It’s a quiet triumph, and it’s unforgettable. 


    My high school jazz band consisted of 13 girls united by a passion for music and an eagerness to learn, incentive enough to wake up for 7 a.m. rehearsals before school. Each day, bold melodies and boisterous laughter cut through the early morning silence. 

    Entering my first year at an all-girls high school, I was ready to abandon the trombone forever after deciding years earlier to take it up in middle school band class simply because no one else was willing to play it. I never considered joining the jazz band in high school; it didn’t have a good reputation in terms of talent, and it didn’t garner much attention from the music department, where choir was the ensemble everyone else gravitated toward. I still don’t know what exactly motivated me to join during my sophomore year, but in this band, I found the community I had so desperately needed. 

    We weren’t the best at sight-reading music. We weren’t the most skilled musicians, to say the very least. In fact, after listening to the recording of our performance of Vince Guaraldi’s “Skating” for our music department’s annual holiday CD, there were audible groans and visible shudders throughout the band; the melodies and harmonies frequently clashed, creating a cacophony of brassy screeches, and at any given moment each instrumentalist seemed to be reading a different section of the music. Later, we collectively laughed it off as a learning experience and put it on the CD anyway. Yet even while joking about our own inexperience and shortcomings, we learned to appreciate the expertise of the musicians whose pieces we tried to reinterpret by listening to their original recordings together in hushed, reverent silence. We couldn’t emulate it, but we could appreciate it. 

    In our band, theory and technique were secondary; instead, the focus was on understanding the power of collaboration and confidence, from arranging daring set lists—including everything from jazz standards to funky renditions of David Bowie tunes—to cheering each other on while attempting to improvise on a blues scale, making soloing far less intimidating. Perhaps this is why I associate jazz with camaraderie, with community, with empowerment. 


    In the 2018-2019 school year, the Brown University Jazz Band had a single female instrumentalist in their 18-member band. Alexandra Ertman graduated from Brown last year, and as a baritone saxophonist, she sat at the far edge of the band, out of the glaring center spotlight—yet her mere presence spoke volumes. 

    Alexandra is familiar with the importance of having role models in jazz, and she has plenty; her entire extended family is made up of musicians and she grew up listening to jazz records in her household. When I asked her for music suggestions, she eagerly recalled a name she didn’t think I would have heard of. It was Maria Schneider, whom she first met as a budding middle-school-aged instrumentalist, having taken up the baritone saxophone just a year or two prior. 

    And she was right—I hadn’t heard of her.

    As for the Brown Jazz Band, their musical arrangements mandate restrictions on the makeup of the band, meaning that although musicians re-audition for their spots each year, a position in the band is generally unavailable until the preceding musician graduates. While this allows for fewer dramatic changes in the band’s composition, Alexandra recognized that this could prevent interested female musicians from joining. 

    And when she gushed over the talents of a female underclassman awaiting her chance to be in the band, I realized that this is exactly what I’d been pursuing in writing this piece: simple instances of women supporting other women in jazz, reminiscent of the support system built into the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival’s celebration of women in jazz, and Maria Schneider’s quiet but public admiration for Ingrid Jensen’s performance of her own piece.


    As the hidden history of women in jazz is gradually unraveled, female musicians of years past and present are finally gaining the recognition they deserve, even if much of this acclaim is arriving decades too late. These musicians are just a small sampling of artists who prove that women aren’t discordant with jazz—and there are so many more stories to tell.