Location, Space, and Women In Jazz

Women Jazz Musicians in Media

For far too long, female musicians have been excluded from the historical narrative of Jazz. Besides the big names such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, female jazz musicians are rarely mentioned through any medium and it is about time we give various talented musicians a voice and a spotlight.

In order to understand why women don’t appear often in such archives like the Hamilton Jazz archives, it is important to examine the history of women in jazz as shown through a the media’s lense.

EARLY 1900s

In the early 1900s, music held a place in women's lives, not as a career, but as a pastime hobby. During this time, women typically played the piano, the guitar, the harp or sang. Although not often mentioned, women were very active in the musical world of jazz songs. Starting as early as the 1900s, females appeared in ragtime and vaudeville performances as well as carnivals, tent shows and circuses. Leading up to the Great Depression, women began to have a greater presence in jazz. Several women such as Jeanette Kimball and Lovie Austin appeared in major cities such as New Orleans and Chicago, and women began performing more than just the piano.

During the 1920s, entertainment producers collaborated to increase the number of female viewers via suitable family entertainment. Theatre managers began to limit their audience by prohibiting prostitutes from attending their entertainment productions and censoring inappropriate language. Despite these efforts to involve more women, several male patrons did not like the changes being made for popular entertainment audiences. An expert on the subject of women in jazz, Kristin McGee, argues that the “radical transformation of women in public popular culture contexts incited a moral panic surrounding jazz and that women’s activities as fans, performers, instrumentalists, jazz dancer, and vocalists fostered a “feminized” image of jazz culture.

At this time, all-girl band, such as Ingenues and the Harlem Playgirls began to appear in the industry of Jazz. Several racial barriers gave all white groups such as the Ingenues several advantages over all black groups such as the Harlem Playgirls. The Ingenues appeared in several films such as Madis and Music in 1937, and they toured the nation. On the other hand the Harlem Playgirls were limited to vaudeville stages, hotels, circuses and they were ultimately screened from film productions.


During the Great Depression, in general, in order to provide more jobs for men, women were fired. As a result of the great depression, nightclubs became very popular, and women turned towards these venues in order to find work and express their passions. Women most often founds themselves joining men’s jazz bands, and there are several examples of how women such as Mary Lou Williams, influenced swing music because of their presence in the night clubs. At this point in time, there was a rise in popularity for all women’s bands. In addition women began to lead men’s bands. On the other hand, audiences began to demand entertainment through  instrument as well as dance and voice from women in jazz bands.

The 1930s was a time for experimentation within the jazz industry. This period was well suited for women who were willing to adapt their appearance as well as style in order to survive within the industry. Technological advancements lead to new mediums which integrated both sound and image. As a result of these advancements, a more feminized instrumental style developed. For example, two all-female bands, The Melodears and Ray Hutton’s Melodears, adopted a feminine look to accommodate patrons from Hollywood and, more generally, the rest of American society. Women often wore gowns that accentuated their bodies, and managers created mood lighting for their performances. Moral and religion, however, argued that the new style and projection of Women in jazz was a threat to America’s social values. The media was more likely to discuss women’s appearance or relationship status rather than their performance and talent.


During World War II there were several changes within the dance and music industries in America. Men were drafted to the war and women filled their positions in bands. Female bands adopted patriotic images and troops began requesting all female jazz entertainers.

       As McGee States in her book, Some Liked it Hot, during the 1940s, “the physical appearance of female bandleaders became the selling point for these groups as lead women sang, danced, and wore dresses and costumes that augmenting their female sexuality.” At the time,  groups such as Hollywood Boogie Woogie and Swing It were well known for their femininity and attractive band leaders.


Following the war, men came home and reoccupied their positions in jazz bands. Women were expected to go back into traditional housewife roles, or educational instructors. Women who did not fall back into these traditional roles worked in nightclubs or just reformed all women bands. During this time, women jazz musicians also participated in several jazz activities that were in support of the civil rights movement.

The 1960s and 70s are regarded as the second-wave movement of women in jazz. The first women’s jazz festival was held in 1978, and women began appearing in historical recording. As a result,  they had a bigger presence in the media. Despite the indisputable talent that women jazz musicians had, several males still held a sexist point of view and believed


Very recently, there has been a focus on rediscovering the history of women in jazz. Today there is a strong movement to republish old jazz recordings by women, and to turn the attention onto both women and men in jazz, as both genders have played a big role within the success of jazz music.