Since it’s the “back to school” time of year, I thought it would be fun to take things back in time as well. For a very long time, female musicians have been a rarity, a novelty. It’s an unhealthy and false stereotype that insists girls aren’t up to par as musicians; and, if they are musicians, then they strictly stick to singing.
Even some of our culture’s favorite female music idols are presented solely as singers: Beyonce, Adele, Lady Gaga, Dolly Parton, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Janis Joplin, Debbie Harry, and Aretha Franklin. Collectively, they diversely represent females in music. However, as talented and iconic as they all are, where are the instrumentalists? It has taken decades to see any woman with an instrument; and, after all this time, it’s still very limited to piano and possibly some guitar. Sadly, an extremely common discrimination in music is against female instrumentalists, and it has been for a century now. With that in mind, I’d like to take us back in time and highlight some amazing female musicians who have gone unnoticed during the jazz age.
Roz Cron is a female saxophonist who got her start during the 30’s and 40’s, and she had continued performing until very recently. She started playing Big Band music in high school and soon after performed with Ada Leonard’s All-Girl Orchestra and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Since Cron performed with an interracial band, she had to deal with racial prejudices, and she was able to see the evils of the Jim Crow laws first hand. In an interview, she recalled being thrilled that she got to wear “real clothes” when she joined the all-female band since it made the band look professional. She toured Europe during WWII and then settled in Los Angeles.
Melba Liston was a trombone player as well as composer and arranger of jazz. When she was a teenager living in Los Angeles, she joined the Musician’s Union, and she performed and composed for the Lincoln Theater band. Later she joined the Gerard Wilson Band and the Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band, where she played alongside John Coltrane and John Lewis. She eventually joined the backing band for Billie Holiday. Liston recalls that, not only were the female musicians discriminated against musically, but many of them also had to deal with abuse from male musicians. Eventually, she settled in New York and continued composing throughout the decades for artists such as Marvin Gaye, Gloria Lynne, and the Supremes.
Clora Bryant was a bebop trumpeter who started playing as a teenager and went on to study at Prairie View A&M University near Houston. There she played with the school’s all-girl swing band. She then moved to Los Angeles, where she played with Dizzy Gillespie’s band and cut her own record Gal with a Horn. She continued to play with bands and lead her own bands until the 1980s, even performing with Louis Armstrong. She was a special guest at the 1st Women’s Brass Conference in 1993.
These 3 women had to overcome gender and racial prejudices to make their way in music, and they were considered radicals for simply loving to play an instrument that most people thought women were ill-suited for. What I find saddest is that their work went unnoticed for the longest time, which led later generations to believe that women still couldn’t hold their own in the music industry — even after they’d proven that they clearly could.
Fortunately, there is a wonderful documentary about female musicians in the Jazz Age (in which these 3 fab women are featured), called The Girls in the Band. Interesting and factual, it shows what women really had to deal with in the music industry and what they still have to work against today.
What about you guys? Who are your favorite female instrumentalists?