Unsung Women of Jazz – The Introduction

Our newest Obscure Jazz Masters series will deal not with an instrument, but with gender. 

I’ve seen many articles and musical compilations that deal with “Women in Jazz” but most seem to overwhelmingly favor singers. The reason is kind of understandable. For so long, “vocalist” has been the dominant role of women in jazz. And yes, the list of great female jazz singers could fill many a book and blog and start many unwinnable arguments. 

However, the list of legendary female instrumentalists is much smaller. If asked to name ten great jazzwomen who didn’t sing, many people will start with the great pianist Mary Lou Williams, perhaps follow with organist Shirley Scott and  then begin to mumble and stare at their shoes. 

It’s not the fault of the artists. From its roots, jazz has been a male dominated genre, except for the singers. Women on an instrument have often been viewed unfortunately, as a novelty act; especially if they play anything but the piano. And even then, many fine women pianists have been pushed toward singing, in order to make themselves more “palatable” to mainstream audiences (as if a woman displaying instrumental virtuosity would frighten children or something!).

Thankfully, times have begun to change, albeit at a glacial pace.  Though there is still a considerable amount of chauvinism in many corners of the jazz world, I’ve been encouraged of late by the number of very good female instrumentalists that I see on the regularly on the jazz scene; Ingrid Jensen,  Anat Cohen, Sherrie Maricle and the indomitable DIVA Jazz Orchestra, Geri Allen, Cindy Blackman, Tia Fuller and of course, Grammy Winner Esperanza Spalding are just a few of the women who are kicking down the boys club door. These artists (and more) offer uncompromising musicianship at a level of excellence that makes their gender irrelevant.

So this next series of undeservedly obscure jazz masters will consist of ten women instrumentalists. Most of them are not active today, but all of them had a lot to say with their axes.

Some of them will be familiar names to those well versed in the idiom, but that’s cool. My objective with these series is not to stump the cognoscenti, but to bring someone new to the attention of the casual to moderate jazz listener.

I’ve tried to provide a few available recordings and musical samples by each of the artists; so if you dig them, you can buy their music… better late than never.

They will be listed in alphabetical order; one per post; starting with the next post, tomorrow, April 1.

Please feel free to leave comments. I love reading them, I will post them all (unless they are obscene or spam) and I try to respond to as many as possible.

4 Responses to “Unsung Women of Jazz – The Introduction”

  1. “Ingrid Jensen, Anat Cohen, Sherrie Maricle and the indomitable DIVA Jazz Orchestra, Geri Allen, Cindy Blackman,” How blessed am I… I have seen all of these women play live (and Maria S) Now I am ready for you to introduce me to some I have sadly never heard of.

  2. Speaking as a great fan of jazz guitar, and an amateur player myself, Mimi Fox is one great and versatile guitarist – comps well in bands, fantastic single-string solos, and very creative and bluesy solo guitar arrangements.
    Some other excellent female jazz guitarists: the late Mary Osborne (swing), the late Emily Remler (post-bob), Leni Stern (fusion), Mary Halvorson (free jazz but very melodic), Susan Weinert (post-bop, favors acoustic nylon-string these days). Two recent newcomers Esperanza Spalding (acoustic bass) and Tal Wilkenfeld (el bass). The late great Dorothy Ashby on jazz harp. The elderly Marion McPartland is a fine pianist and publicist of jazz on her NPR Radio show “Piano Jazz” in which she interviews and plays with many different jazz musicians. Grace Kelly is a young and talented sax player. Thanks for your blog and the opportunity to give you my two cents worth.

  3. […] we’re in the midst of our “Unsung Women of Jazz” series, a post about drummer/composer/producer Terri Lyne Carrington’s new album, The Mosaic […]

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