Women’s History Month: Nina Simone!

There’s no trying to pretend that Nina Simone was a jazz era musician. She was born in 1933, and though she began playing piano at the age of six, she reached mainstream popularity in the 50s and 60s. Despite this historical distance from the ‘jazz era’, Simone’s playing and singing was clearly informed by classic jazz and blues as well as soul, rnb, gospel and modern jazz.

Simone was, first and foremost a gifted pianist, one who also sang.

Nina Simone – Love Me Or Leave Me

There’re a few bullshit pieces about Simone online, with stupid lines like ‘Simone had a chip on her shoulder’, as though her fury about racism in America was an overreaction by some silly emotional woman. Simone’s anger was well justified.

This is my favourite Simone song, which some white guy once tried to tell me wasn’t political. I can’t even.

(Nina Simone – Backlash Blues)

The lyrics were written by Langston Hughes:

Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash
Just who do think I am
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages
And send my son to Vietnam

You give me second class houses
And second class schools
Do you think that alla colored folks
Are just second class fools
Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you
With the backlash blues

When I try to find a job
To earn a little cash
All you got to offer
Is your mean old white backlash
But the world is big
Big and bright and round
And it’s full of folks like me
Who are black, yellow, beige and brown
Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you
With the backlash blues

Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash
Just what do you think I got to lose
I’m gonna leave you
With the backlash blues
You’re the one will have the blues
Not me, just wait and see

(Photo of Nina Simone, taken by Jack Robinson, 30th October 1969)

Women’s History Month: Eve Rees and her Merrymakers!

Eve Rees and her Merrymakers were an all-female dance band from Australia. They were very popular, touring extensively in rural and city Australia in the 1920s and to a lesser extent in the 1930s. Despite their popularity, it’s hard to discover much about them. A dodgy Trove search gives only three hits, and much of what I’ve found comes from books. I know! Today is World Book Day, so it’s appropriate It is not actually world book day, but that’s ok – we shouldn’t wait for WBD to read books :D . In fact, this image (of Eve Rees and her Merrymakers, including Grace Funston, Alice Dolphin, Marion de Saxe, Eve Rees (middle aged woman in centre), Stella Funston, Alma Quon, Gwen Mitchell and Lorna Quon) is taken from the book I’m about to discuss.

I totally forgot to do a post yesterday (yeah, yeah, whatever), so today is something special. A dear friend of mine, Corinne, gave me this book a few years ago:

(Sweethearts of Rhythm: the story of Australia’s all-girl bands and orchestras to the end of the second world war by Kay Dreyfus (Currency Press, Sydney, 1999))

It’s all about Australian all-women bands during the wars. The most famous of these sorts of bands is of course the American International Sweethearts of Rhythm. But there were actually heaps and heaps of these all-women bands in Australia and other countries. Mostly because so many men left for war there simply weren’t enough left behind to fill all the bands playing for the hundreds and hundreds of live music venues all over Australia. Remember, dancing was one of the most important popular entertainments during this period.

But all-women bands also served as titillation for male audience members, and initially as novelty acts for the broader community. Despite these issues, there is no doubting the competency of many of the all-women bands during the jazz and swing eras. After all, the mainstream jazz industry neglected 50% of the musicians on the basis of their sex, so 50% of that population were available for work when the labour pool shrunk.

Eve Rees and Merrymakers were one of the better known Australian all-women bands, managed by Rees, a capable and energetic business woman. Dreyfus quotes Alice Dolphin (who went on to lead her own bands):

The Merrymakers’ dance band at that time was extremely popular and I was invited to join them. The leader of the band was Mrs Evelyn Rees, a charming middle-aged woman who was well-liked everywhere we went. She was just ideal for the job.

What a tremendous amount of work we got! Every night, Mayoral balls, Country Women’s Association dances and balls (this of course meant travelling to country towns), Cafes, Lodges, Clubs, Weddings, Birthday parties, Jewish Greek and Chinese dances, Bar Mitzvahs, twenty first birthday parties and just parties, Military and Air Force dances and receptions of all kinds.

There’s more to be read about the Merrymakers in Dreyfus’ book, and I recommend picking it up.

References
You can read about the popularity of cinema and dancing in: Matthews, JJ, Dance Hall & Picture Palace : Sydney’s Romance with Modernity, (Sydney: Currency Press, 2005).

The Jeannie On Jazz blog proved useful in putting together this post.

Dreyfus has also written ‘The Foreigner, the Musicians’ Union, and the State in 1920s Australia: A Nexus of Conflict’ an interesting article about the role of the musicians’ union in the banning/boycotting of ‘foreign’ (ie non-British, ie non-white) musicians. This of course is relevant to recent talk about the Sonny Clay band and its role in provoking the ban on black musicians. And the Sonny Clay band was mentioned in the latest (third) episode of the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries’ abc tv series set in the 1920s.

Women’s History Month: Susie Edwards!

I’m a big fan of hokum, mostly because I’m a big fan of clowning for its subversive power, and I love blues sung by arse kicking women. Susie Edwards (née Hawthorne) was one half of the husband and wife team ‘Butterbeans and Susie’, performing with her husband Jodie Edwards on stage, in vaudville, theatre and records. Riverwalk Jazz did a fun radio program about them a little while ago, and you can learn more about them there.

My favourite Butterbeans and Susie song is ‘Papa Ain’t no Santa Claus (and mama ain’t no christmas tree)’:

(Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus (Mama Ain’t No Christmas Tree))

The duo also recorded ‘He Like It Slow’ with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five in 1926.

Women’s History Month: Bessie Smith!

Composer, musician, singer, EXTREME BADARSE PERFORMER. There are dramatic stories about Smith seeing off violent white men in her tent shows, about her numerous lovers of both sexes, and about her violent death. My favourite is the one about working with a young Louis Armstrong, where she demanded that he play a little less enthusiastically as he was cramping her style. I have no idea whether it’s true or not. But the influence of Smith’s performing style on instrumentalists like Armstrong should not be underestimated.

Bessie Smith performing ‘You gotta give me some’, accompanied by Clarence Williams and Eddie Lang in 1929

Women’s History Month: Clora Bryant!

Another suggestion from a friend. Again, I’d never heard of Clora Bryant before she was recommended by the Buggzor (herself a brass instrumentalist of Repute). But now I have.

Clora Bryant was born in 1927 and is a trumpeter. She played with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and you can listen to her play a bunch of nice songs in this video Clora Bryant /Gal With A Horn 1957:

(Photo at the top of this post taken by Loomis Dean in 1954, and lifted from the Life Magazine collection on google)

Women’s History Month: Victoria Spivey!

Another musician/composer powerhouse, Spivey sang, composed, played the piano and ukulele and was a key player in the 1960s blues revival as well as during the blues craze of the 1920s. She managed her own record label (Spivey Records) AND performed in the ‘Hellzapoppin’ Revue’ stage show.

Here she is singing my favourite of her compositions, ‘Moanin’ Blues’ in 1929 with a pretty seriously hardcore band: Henry ‘Red’ Allen, JC Higginbotham, Teddy Hill, Luis Russell:

Victoria Spivey – Moaning the Blues

Even more excitingly, here she is in the 60s with Lonnie Johnson at the American Folk Blues Festival singing The Original Black Snake Blues:

Victoria Spivey – Black Snake Blues Volume Two

Women’s History Month 2012: Lil Hardin Armstrong!

Sure, she was married to one of the most famous men in jazz, but Lil Hardin was – much more importantly – an accomplished singer, pianist, composer, arranger, band leader and business woman.
Hardin was a part of King Oliver’s Creole band, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, lots of other smaller projects, and of course led her own band. She’s popularly credited with pushing Louis Armstrong into a career of his own, outside the Oliver band.

Hardin recorded with Armstrong’s Hot Five in 1927, playing the song ‘Struttin with some Barbeque’ which she composed.

Louis Armstrong – Struttin’ With Some Barbecue

NB: I’m trying to list a different woman jazz musician every day for Women’s History Month. You can read this post for more info.

Women’s History Month 2012: Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams was a phenomenal piano player, and one of the few who’s generally (though not hugely) well known in the lindy hopping world. She’s probably best known for her work with Andy Kirk’s band – as pianist and arranger but she went on to become an well known public figure and performer.

Read more about Williams here in this fascinating biography (which is where I found that image at the top of this post).

Williams composed, arranged and played on this 1938 version of ‘Little Joe From Chicago’, as well as heaps of other well-known songs by the Kirk band.

(Andy Kirk and his twelve clouds of joy – Little Joe from Chicago)


(An untagged photo of Mary Lou Williams in the Gjon Mili Life Magazine collection)

NB That’s Pearl Primus in the back, to the left.

Women’s History Month 2012


(photo stolen from here)

Women’s History Month is just about here again. Ah, March, season of Power Vag and Orsm Ovary. Time of Menopausal Might and Menarchal Majesty. Moonth of Fuck All That Biological Determinism, Let’s Get On With Doing Mad Shit.

This year’s theme is Women With a Plan: architects, town planners and landscape architects and I had planned to list a different woman choreographer each day, but I’m just about to go away and didn’t get any research done. Bad Girl! Then I decided I’d lift a few Excellent Jazz Women of Win from last year’s posts and put some new ones together when I get back. Because, frankly, it’s probably more important that a woman’s out there actually dancing than writing about dance, right?

Now I’m wondering if I should do a different woman jazz musician every day instead. Just repeating dancers from last year won’t really teach me much, and I found that having to scrabble to find a different woman dancer taught me a lot last year. And it wasn’t actually hard to find 31 different women dancers – I ended up with plenty more than I needed! The best part was hassling all my dance history friends for help and details :D
Ok, this year I’ll do musicians. But I don’t really have time to put together some posts ahead of time for this weekend when I’m away dancing. So I might have to make them up at the end of the weekend instead, Ok? I might borrow one from last month to start me off, though.

Just to add to the challenge, to celebrate Women’s History Month, I might see if I can do zero following in March, and only lead. This is going to break my heart when male (lead) friends ask me to dance, particularly while I’m away this weekend, but I’ll see just how long I can go. Why do this? Well, I just thought of it then when I was thinking, and I like a challenge. Also: why the fuck not?

Women’s History Month: month of potty mouthed blog posts, it seems.

Ok, get ready for me to come begging for ideas for women musicians mid-way through March. I’m probably going to end up needing your help. :D