Writing Women Into Jazz History: A Movement

Mary Lou Williams ,  composer and pianist

Mary Lou Williams,  composer and pianist

By Sarah Milligan

This piece was originally posted on Sarah's blog, where you can find more of her work highlighting women in jazz.

Growing up, we all learn about jazz greats like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Ron Carter, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Bill Evans, Dizzie Gillespie and so on and so on. Yes, they are all great musicians, but how many of them (excluding vocalists) are actually female? Depending on the person, there may be one or two names thrown in there like Esperanza Spalding or Maria Schneider, but one things those names have in common is that they are modern compared to Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker. Now, I get that until the 70's or 80's women were rarely respected as jazz musicians. It was taught that jazz was a dirty scene that wasn’t lady-like enough for the women to be present, and if a woman was present she was the “eye-candy” singer. I get it. It’s awful, but I get it. The thing that irks me the most though, is that today it is 2018 and women have rights. Most of the time I could stand next to a male horn player and young adults won’t bat an eye.

 Melba Liston , jazz trombonist, composer, and arranger.

 Melba Liston, jazz trombonist, composer, and arranger.

Many scholars of jazz have dug into history looking for the marks women left on jazz and have found them! We have Melba Liston, who was one of Dizzie Gillespie’s writers and arrangers. Mary Lou Williams, composer/ pianist who swung the band like no other. Lil Hardin Armstrong, who was a pianist/ composer/ leader of the Hot Five band before Louis Armstrong took leadership. Vi Redd who was considered to be just as good as Charlie Parker. Clora Bryant, who Dizzie Gillespie considered to be Louis Armstrong and Lee Morgan in one package. All of these women were never written down as the greats in jazz history, yet we know about them today and still aren’t teaching them as a part of history. It may take one chapter at a time, but I say, let’s rewrite the books and give these women the recognition they deserve.