Woman have been involved in and contributed to jazz’s evolution and prosperity ever since its roots. Yet, their achievements are all too often overlooked and even dismissed in comparison to their male counterparts. These female artists came from all races and religious; some had college or conservatory degrees, while others learned the art of jazz on their own; some had short careers, with stronger desires to start a family, while others devoted their entire life to jazz. However, as Sally Placksin establishes in her introduction to her interviews in her book, American Women in Jazz: 1900 to the Present, a universal characteristic that all her female interviewees possessed is their strong sense of “commitment” and resiliency to “survive” despite the impediments of being a female in an art dominated by men (Placksin 1982, 10).
Women’s involvement in jazz dates back to early nineteenth century when black women slaves brought their culture of music to America. This music derived from improvisation, rhythm and call-and-response antiphony. Unlike its earlier forms, however, the music had deeper meanings: the music often relayed coded messages through lyrical genius. Thus, in jazz’s primitive stage, women primarily functioned as vocalists, singing songs to pass messages across town (Placksin 1982, 6).
Very quickly, though, the music emerged as a rich part of black culture with religious voodoo undertones (Placksin 1982, 7). In the late 1800s, crowds began to converge in New Orleans’ Place Congo, more commonly known as Congo Square. Here, talented musicians, both men and women, took front-stage to share what is now considered the early stage inception of jazz. Women functioned as band leaders, vocalists and even as drummers on stage (Gerard 1998, 42).
As time progressed, particularly post-Emancipation, the music began to evolve. In the early 1900s, women began singing more freely about personal experiences. Early blues performances by Ida Cox, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey gained more attention as they began sweeping across the South. However, women’s involvement in jazz gained more recognition and became more prevalent in 1930s when Billie Holiday began performing (Billie Holiday, Biography.com). Many label Holiday as the “mother of jazz,” citing her influences from vocalist Bessie Smith and trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Her music has been described as “ahead of her time,” (Billie Holiday, Biography.com) paving way for new developments in the music.
Though their involvement in jazz is often limited to a rich and extensive history as vocalists and pianists, women have also had a long history of playing instruments that had widely been considered ‘”unacceptable’ or ‘inappropriate’” (Placksin 1982, 14) for women. Such instruments include brass, reeds, drums and bass. As jazz began to evolve so did women’s involvement in the art. What started as a movement pioneered by black culture transformed into an art form shared among a diverse group of artists (Gerard 1998, 36). Women of all races and all backgrounds found their way to the stage and paved way to a culturally and historically rich art.