Ladies First

This page is devoted solely to female jazz instrumentalists and is meant to serve as a point of reference for those who want to learn more about the important role that women have played in the jazz field.

Why Females in Jazz?

While interning with Real Detroit Weekly, I decided to cover the Detroit Jazz Festival, and in that task, I had to choose one of the performers at the festivals to interview. The big name acts are always the ones who usually get a ton of press during the event, so I wanted to focus on someone who I knew may not be featured on TV or in every entertainment paper in Detroit.

Mary Lou Williams

I also wanted to interview someone who I was not particularly familiar with, but who still was very popular, and made good music. While looking through the list, I came across Tia Fuller, and when I saw the word saxophonist next to her name, I automatically knew this was the person who would be the topic of my story. Before learning about Tia, I did not know of any female jazz saxophonists;I could just about count on one hand the female jazz instrumentalists that I was familiar with at all.

So upon further research and in interviewing Tia, I found out that she leads her own quartet, has a masters in jazz pedagogy and performance, toured with Beyonce as a part of her all-female band, teaches music, and has three albums under her belt. One would think that Tia has got quite an impressive resume for a jazz musician. That may be true, but she went through a lot to get to the point where she is now, including facing gender discrimination, which is not uncommon within the male-dominated field of jazz.

I could tell how passionate she was about this music, and it made me realize that the male/female dichotomy should never be a major factor at hand when discussing art.

But, even though feminism does not seem to come up much when discussing the history of jazz, it is certainly a subject that bears further study within the musical discipline.

Tia Fuller

Women in jazz has been considered an anomaly within the genre ever since jazz was created, especially when you think of female musicians who don’t sing, but rather play an instrument. Vocalists such as Sara Vaughn, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald, are among the names mentioned when discussing female within jazz. There is no doubt that these artists are staples within jazz music, and they commanded attention whenever they performed.

Their voices were instruments that deserved to be heard.

Holiday is more so known for her presence as a jazz singer, but people don’t tend to realize that she modeled her voice as an instrument, and tried to emulate Louis Armstrong’s musical brilliance on the trumpet. Armstrong was Holiday’s idol so it makes sense that she would copy his style, thus going on to create her own and become one of the most recognized figures in the genre.

Yet, when Billie was crooning on the stage, lets not forget that there were just as many females in the bandstand. Artists such as Mary Lou Williams, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Melba Liston, and Dolly Jones paved the way for various genres within jazz, and many more are continuing their legacy.

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing a couple of highly talented female instrumentalists and hope to make connections with many more in the future.

Be sure to look out for interviews with contemporary female jazz musicians coming soon.

Pieces I’ve written about female jazz musicians.

Tia Fuller album review of Angelic Warrior

Real Detroit Weekly – Tia Fuller

The Jazz Line: Gayelynn McKinney

Melba Liston tribute

Roots, Rhythm and Rhyme Black History Month Series: Women in Jazz

Women in Jazz: Brandee Younger

Valaida Snow: Queen of the Trumpet

Women in Jazz: Commanding the Drums

Hazel Scott: Jazz Virtuoso and Icon

Elariz Lucas Thompson: Detroit female jazz artist

More references about Women in Jazz

NPR: A DIY Guide to the History of Women in Jazz

Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen by Linda Dahl

Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams by Tammy Kernodle

American Women in Jazz: 1900 to the Present by Sally Placksin

Jazzwomen: Conversations With Twenty-One Musicians  by Wayne Enstice and Janice Stockhouse


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