When discussing the most important personalities from the history of jazz, it is common to refer to the big names and great musicians (Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum, Ray Charles, etc.) and this leads to a systemic and unjustified loss of the memory of the great contribution that women made to the history of this music. If you examine the discographies that include information on the ensembles and bands that recorded disks in the early days of jazz when it first began to be published, you will see that the members of many of these groups include female names. For example, in the extremely famous King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, you will find the pianist listed as Lil Hardin, who later became more well-known by the name Lil Armstrong, after marrying the young second trumpet of the band named Louis. Speaking of pianists, there are plenty of other important names, such as Mary Lou Williams, pianist and arranger of Andy Kirk’s big band; Camille Howard, pianist of Roy Milton’s band; Dorothy Donegan, the great soloist, and many more. If we look at an instrument as difficult as the trumpet, history has recorded the names of two great female trumpet players, namely Dolly Jones and Valaida Snow; while on the trombone, we have the name Melba Liston that appears with many groups and on many important recordings. More recently, in Europe, the Swedish multi-instrumentalist, Gunhild Carling, is an enormous hit wherever she performs. Finally, we also have important band directors, such as Blanche Calloway, Cab Calloway’s sister.

However, there is a field in which women made a contribution that was of greater importance both in terms of quantity and quality, which is jazz singing. We could say that there are two parallel trends in this sector. The first trend is made up of those of singers tied to the Blues world, but who also performed in Jazz groups, such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Clara Smith, Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox, Memphis Minnie, Juanita Hall, LaVern Baker, Carrie Smith, Aretha Franklin, etc. Then, parallel to them is the other trend made up of singers who were linked directly with the bands and repertoires of jazz, such as Ethel Waters who inspired most of those that came after her, namely, Adelaida Hall, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Helen Humes, Ivie Anderson, Mildred Bailey; and others with different styles, like Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Linda Hopkins, Ruth Brown, Olive Brown, Patti Austin; and more recently, Diane Reeves, Diana Krall, Cécile McLorin Salvant, etc.

All of them, regardless of the musical trend they fell into, made great contributions to the History of Jazz. So, whenever we discuss the great protagonists of this history, we must not forget all of these women, without whom we would have lost many wonderful creations that bring joy to both hardcore fans and the general public.


Ricard Gili, Fundació Catalana Jazz Clàssic