Celebrating Women in Jazz: Past, Present and Future

March is recognized as Women’s History Month and like my good friend Leah, I couldn’t let the month go by without doing something to celebrate the accomplishments of women of all colors and all they have contributed to society. For the past few years I have attended the Black Women Rock concert, which is a celebration of African American female rock ‘n’ roll singers put on by internationally renowned poet jessica Care moore. This year, I attended the annual Women in Jazz concert at Kerrytown Concert House. The concert explores the contributions of women to the field of jazz and this year it featured seasoned players Marion Hayden and Ellen Rowe along with some new faces in jazz.

The septet performed tunes from some great musicians including trombonist Melba Liston, vocalists Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, pianist Alice Coltrane, as well as some original compositions from the band members. They tore the house down with their swinging melodies and amazing expertise on their instruments, which featured saxophone, trumpet, trombone and drums, all of which are instruments that many people think are deemed “male” only. These ladies are continued proof that jazz has no boundaries when it comes to gender and that female instrumentalists should have more of a voice on the national jazz scene. There always seems to be plenty of opportunities for female jazz vocalists to be featured in jazz bands, but rarely do you see female trumpeters, saxophonists, or even drummers featured in national bands unless they are fronting their own band and even then those are few and far between.

A few years ago I did a series on Women in Jazz for Black History Month where I featured some past and present female jazz artists. I explored their music and what their life was or is like being a female in the male dominated jazz world. Covering females in jazz is a subject very dear to my heart and my goal is to continue to learn their stories in the hopes of sharing their accomplishments with those who may not be familiar with them. I’m in the process of finishing up the biography of Mary Lou Williams, who was a pianist during the 1920s through the 1970s.

She was an innovative composer and wrote hit tunes for Duke Ellington, Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy, Benny Goodman and a slew of other top musicians. Later in life, she began helping to rehabilitate jazz musicians who were struggling with various addictions and she opened up her home to anyone in need. Williams is one of the few well known female jazz musicians during the early 20th century whose legacy has been acknowledged on a national scale. Yet, for every Mary Lou Williams there is a Terry Pollard or Dorothy Dodgion who unfortunately did not make it into the jazz history books, but who deserve just as much recognition as any musician in the field who has paved the way for future artists.

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