Women of Jazz: Stream a Playlist of 91 Recordings by Great Female Jazz Musicians

Browse through an archive of jazz writ­ing from the last, oh, hun­dred years, and you’ll get the dis­tinct impres­sion that jazz, like the NFL, has been a man’s‑man’s‑man’s‑man’s world. “Of course,” writes Mar­garet Howze at NPR, “we have Bil­lie, Ella, and Sarah,” and many oth­er pow­er­house female vocal­ists every­one knows and loves. These unfor­get­table voic­es seem to stand out as excep­tions, and what’s more, “when we think of women in jazz, we auto­mat­i­cal­ly think of singers,” not instru­men­tal­ists.

Part of the mar­gin­al­iza­tion of women in jazz has to do with the same kinds of cul­tur­al blind spots we find in dis­cus­sions on every sub­ject. We’ve been as guilty here as any­one of neglect­ing many great women in jazz, sad­ly. But women in jazz have also his­tor­i­cal­ly faced sim­i­lar social bar­ri­ers and stig­mas as oth­er women in all the arts. There are more than enough female vocal­ists, pianists, gui­tarists, trum­peters, drum­mers, sax­o­phon­ists, band­lead­ers, teach­ers, pro­duc­ers to form a “wor­thy pan­theon,” yet until fair­ly recent­ly, a great many women jazz musi­cians have worked in the shad­ows of more famous men.

Howze’s two-part sketch of women in jazz offers a suc­cinct chrono­log­i­cal intro­duc­tion, not­ing that “the piano, one of the ear­li­est instru­ments that women played in jazz, allowed female artists” in the 20s and 30s “a degree of social accep­tance.” In those years, “female instru­men­tal­ists usu­al­ly formed all-women jazz bands or played in fam­i­ly-based groups.” One ear­ly stand­out musi­cian, Dol­ly Hutchin­son, née Jones, played the trum­pet and cor­net in bands all over the coun­try. Hutchin­son doesn’t appear in the Women of Jazz playlist below, but you can see her at the top in a clip from Oscar Michaux’s 1938 film Swing!

The Spo­ti­fy playlist Women of Jazz does, how­ev­er, offer sam­ples from many oth­er female jazz greats in its 91 tracks, from the very well-known—Nina Simone, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, “Bil­lie, Ella, and Sarah”—to the very much over­looked. In that lat­ter cat­e­go­ry falls a woman whose last name is famil­iar to us all. Lil Hardin Arm­strong nev­er achieved close to the degree of fame as her hus­band Louis, but the pianist, writes Howze, “helped shape Satchmo’s ear­ly career,” play­ing in “King Oliver’s Cre­ole Jazz Band, a group Arm­strong joined in 1922. He and Hardin began a romance and even­tu­al­ly mar­ried and it was Hardin who encour­aged Arm­strong to embark on a solo career.”

Hardin’s “Clip Joint,” fea­tured in the playlist, show­cas­es her sweet, clear con­tral­to, dis­tin­guished by a ten­den­cy to wrap sur­pris­ing hooks around the end of each line, pulling us for­ward to the next or keep­ing us hang­ing on for more. (Equal­ly charm­ing and effort­less­ly swing­ing, see her on the piano, above, accom­pa­nied by drum­mer Mae Barnes.) Anoth­er huge­ly influ­en­tial woman in jazz, whose lega­cy “has also been some­what occlud­ed,” writes Alexa Peters at Paste, “by the lega­cy of her hus­band,” harpist and pianist Alice Coltrane deserves far more acclaim than she receives (at least in this writer’s hum­ble opin­ion).

“An incred­i­bly gift­ed avant-garde musi­cian, com­pos­er, and arranger,” Coltrane’s solo com­po­si­tions and her col­lab­o­ra­tions with sax­o­phon­ist Pharoah Sanders, “are as sub­lime as they are indeli­bly impor­tant” to the devel­op­ment of spir­i­tu­al jazz. Her incor­po­ra­tion of Hin­dus­tani instru­men­ta­tion “like drones, ragas, Tabla drum, and sitar,” togeth­er with long hyp­not­ic free jazz pas­sages and the unusu­al choice of harp, con­tributed a new son­ic vocab­u­lary to the form.

Though hard­ly com­pre­hen­sive, the Women of Jazz playlist does an excel­lent job of out­lin­ing a list of great female singers and instru­men­tal­ists through­out the his­to­ry of jazz. As some­one might point out, the com­pi­la­tion has its own blind spots. Though firm­ly root­ed in the tra­di­tions of the Amer­i­can South, jazz has, since its gold­en age, been an inter­na­tion­al phe­nom­e­non. Yet the major­i­ty of the artists here are from the U.S. For a con­tem­po­rary cor­rec­tive, check out The Guardian’s list, “Five of the Best Young Female Jazz Musi­cians” from the U.K. and Scan­di­navia, or Afripop’s “Five South African Female Jazz Instru­men­tal­ists You Should Know,” or NPR’s list of four great “Lati­na Jazz Vocal­ists”.…

And we should not neglect to men­tion great French women in jazz. In the short film above on French jazz and trum­pet duo Nel­son Veras and Airelle Besson, the two musi­cians dis­cuss their col­lab­o­ra­tive process. Any men­tion of gen­der would prob­a­bly seem awk­ward­ly irrel­e­vant to the con­ver­sa­tion. Per­haps all jazz talk should be like that. But it seems that first most jazz fans and writ­ers need to spend some time get­ting caught up. We’ve got a wealth of resources above to get them start­ed.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Spir­i­tu­al Jazz: Hear a Tran­scen­dent 12-Hour Mix Fea­tur­ing John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Her­bie Han­cock & More

Hear 2,000 Record­ings of the Most Essen­tial Jazz Songs: A Huge Playlist for Your Jazz Edu­ca­tion

1,000 Hours of Ear­ly Jazz Record­ings Now Online: Archive Fea­tures Louis Arm­strong, Duke Elling­ton & Much More

Her­bie Han­cock to Teach His First Online Course on Jazz

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Mandy says:

    Such a shame that this is only avail­able via Spo­ti­fy. This is prob­a­bly the least Open of all the stream­ing apps oth­er than iTunes.

  • David says:

    Agreed. I want­ed to lis­ten to this.

  • Sharee says:

    I also can’t do Spo­ti­fy. It slows down my com­put­er so I won’t be able to lis­ten to this fine list.

    On anoth­er, what about Miss Peg­gy Lee? Not only was she a great jazz singer, she helped musi­cians gain con­trol of their own copy­rights at a time when they had none.

  • Christopher Nowak says:

    As a jazz gui­tarist (male), I am going to rec­om­mend that this short list add the name: EMILY REMMLER.

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