Jazz Instruments and Their Women

Jane Ira Bloom and Vi Redd

Jane Ira Bloom

Soprano saxophonist and composer Jane Ira Bloom has established herself as a major player in the world of modern jazz. Her music includes a unique incorporation of electronics and has been honored by Downbeat, Time Magazine, and the International Association of Jazz Educators. Jane was the first composer to be commissioned by NASA and can be seen at both major festivals and clubs nationally and internationally.


Jane has never questioned being anything else but a musician. From her earliest memories, she can remember being fascinated with musical instruments. She knew she loved music and it was clear very early on that she had a “special feeling for it” (Bloom, line 96). When Jane was four, she began improvising early on without realizing it. She had a piano teacher who would show her what chord changes were and how to write things out, so that even when she began to study the piano, she was also improvising at the same time. So, her learning process went hand in hand with improvising and studying written form as well. Improvising always seemed intuitive to Jane because it was just a part of what she did. When she was studying with Joe Viola at the age of twelve, she was exposed to the soprano, which was a passion of his. She can remember him playing the piano and thinking: “I like that. I want to play like that” (Bloom, line 157).

When Jane was in college at Yale, it became clear to her that being a musician was the only thing she could do, because music had chosen her. Looking back, Jane believe college was her most invaluable exposure to becoming musician. Her time at Yale was when she really started to work playing in clubs and putting on concerts of original music. Highly regarded jazz artists and innovative thinkers, such as Anthony Davis, George Lewis, and David Naught, all happened to be at New Haven at one time. There were a lot of musicians around, a lot of opportunities to play with like-minded players,  and a little burst of activity in New Haven during the 70’s. This very time period was Jane’s training ground.

When Jane began playing in the early 70’s, there was a lot of “consciousness in the air” about women’s issues (Bloom, lines 259-260). There were women’s jazz festivals that Jane played at, and had they not been there she might not have been heard. They were the one venue that Jane saw a possibility to play, and at that point in time she would have played “anyplace, anywhere, anytime.” So there was something beneficial about that environment at that time. Yet, it has been her point of view that things haven’t changed as much as she had hoped they would in twenty years. When she first started playing, she thought things would be a lot better: the playing field would be a lot more equal, mostly in respect to the business environment of jazz. This is problematic especially because there are women players who are now out there playing horns, drums, bass, and “all the things that were not considered instruments for women to play in jazz” (Bloom, lines 269-270). The thing that upsets Jane is that when she talks to some of these younger women, she is still hearing some of the same stories she remembered listening to twenty years ago about social acceptance and business acceptance. So it has gotten better, but not as quickly, and not as much, as Jane had thought.

Vi Redd

Vi Redd has a distinguished career as a saxophonist, vocalist and educator. Redd has taught in elementary and college classrooms and has performed on concert stages both in America and abroad. She was a consultant to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Science and has been honored by the Los Angeles Jazz Society and the Smithsonian.

Ms. Redd is the daughter of Alton Redd, who was a New Orleans drummer and the co-founder of the Big Easy’s legendary Clef Club. Vi was born in Los Angeles in 1928. Redd can confidently say her family was “all about the arts” (Redd, line 89). As far back as she can remember there was music in the house. With her father being a major part of the Central Avenue jazz scene, Vi was exposed to many of the greats of jazz from an early age. Redd's aunt, Elma Hightower, was considered one of the foremost L.A. music teachers of her time (Curtjazz.com). Elma Hightower was instrumental in Vi’s decision to play the saxophone. Growing up, she heard all types of music and had been taught by her aunt to play marches, overtures, and jazz. Redd did not start the saxophone until she was about thirteen years old.
In 1948, Redd formed a band with her first husband, trumpeter Nathaniel Meeks. She played the saxophone and sang, and began performing professionally. In the 1960s, Redd's popularity as a jazz saxophonist/singer peaked. The Los Angeles Sentinel's coverage of her musical career starts in August 1961, when she had a weekly gig at the Red Carpet jazz club. The Los Angeles Sentinel reported that Redd became “the first femme to be one of the instrumental headliners at a jazz festival. As a matter of fact, Miss Redd, may well be the first gal horn player in jazz history to establish herself as a major soloist” (brooklyn.cuny.edu). Here, Redd, a 34-year-old woman with two young children, is described as an "attractive young girl" (brooklyn.cuny.edu). Moreover, as is often the case with any male dominated field, being the "first" female is emphasized (brooklyn.cuny.edu).

In 1964 Redd toured with Earl Hines in the U.S. and Canada, including engagements in Chicago and New York. Bassist Dave Holland, who played with Redd, recalled that she both played and sang and was enthusiastically accepted by the London audience. Prominent jazz critic Leonard Feather, noted that Redd often earned greater attention and applause than several world famous saxophonists who appeared during that time. Redd's London appearance was clearly extremely successful.

When reflecting on the history of how women have been treated in the world of jazz, Redd can see it is improving as she sees younger women musicians playing. Yet, the world of jazz has not changed a whole lot, in her opinion. For Redd, the key is to be aggressive. Redd believes that women have to be aggressive and say “Hey, I want to be heard too” (Redd, line 438). Redd still gets “snubs after all these years sometimes,” but she still makes a point to play which leads her male colleagues to simply just say “Oh, okay” (Redd, lines 439-440).


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