Category Archives: Women in History 2012

Women’s History Month: *facepalm*

So you might have noticed a lack of WHM posts lately. Here is my litany of excuses:

– Hayfever has put me down for the last few days. Big time.

– We discovered a leak into the concrete slab of our flat last week, and have spent a week moving our ONE HUNDRED BOXES OF BOOKS and associated bookcases UPSTAIRS so we can then rip up the carpet in smaller sections to expose the slab. It is now ‘drying’. Sydney has had a spectacularly damp and mild summer, so this ‘drying’ is not happening. We will not discuss leaks, mould and allergy connections.

– I have some other projects on the go which have sucked up my spare brain time. I have, however, quite sore shoulders from so much computer work, so that’s a good thing. I guess. Writing: I did it. Websites: they are maintained!

– The theme I set myself just didn’t inspire me the way the month of women dancers did last year. It seems I am a dancer first and a music nerd second.

– I have a limited block of time set aside for dancing during my day/week, and that block has been filling up with teaching, admin for the classes, various DJing gigs, getting rid of some dance commitments (why is that harder than actually doing the jobs in the first place?), a workshop thing I’m running in May (which will be SQUEE), thinking about promotions and advertising in a long term way (rather than just responding to things), trying to sort out new sound gear for one venue (gee, that task has totally not been done), and then I take on ANOTHER DJing project, which will be super fun, but is perhaps overly ambitious for someone who is supposed to be giving up ocd impulses.

I told you it was a litany.

I had some ideas for posts:

– the role of all-women bands in the first fifty years of the 20th Century, and the contribution they made to jazz (big);

– women in the early days of the recording industry (in which vocal blues and blues queens played a big part, and in which race records are really important, because they marketed those blues queens to black audiences so effectively the white labels started trying to screw them over and steal their ideas and artists), most especially the women working for record labels;

– other stuff.

A couple of books have just arrived from teh interkittens, so I will read some of those and then forget to write anything down. But first, I’m going to ramble on with a long, poorly-referenced bundle of ideas which really need some proper thought. I should really have written about women in jazz history, shouldn’t I? But this is an interesting topic, and one I keep coming back to in my own reading. When I get done with two of my new books, I’ll have some more cleverly thought out things to say. But for now, here’s a big ramble.

I’ve also wanted to comment on Peter’s Jazz and the Italian connection post because it touches on some issues that I’ve thought about for a while. And that are bizarrely relevant to Australian mainstream politics at the moment.
To sum that one up, I’m not suggesting that this is what Peter is doing (because the man knows his shit), but I do think it’s misleading to argue that the exclusion of the ODJB was a consequence of ‘reverse racism’ or ‘political correctness’ favouring black artists. Which is what is argued by a number of truly dodgy scholars in jazz studies (I’m going to have to check my notes more thoroughly for those references – bare with me, k?)

From what I can tell, however, Peter is arguing something slightly different: that it is important to discuss the ODJB in a history of jazz. For all sorts of reasons. I’d certainly agree.

My interest would be in how the ODJB presented a more palatable ‘white’ jazz to mainstream audiences at the same time as race records (labels targeting black audiences) were selling ‘black’ jazz to ‘black audiences’ and live music venues were also presenting jazz in quite racialised terms (the Cotton Club itself is a good example – black musicians presented for white audiences). As Peter also implies, the ‘white’ and ‘black’ dichotomy isn’t all that useful. The Italian musicians (and French and… everyone else) were definitely ‘othered’ at the time – they weren’t ‘white’ (ie Anglo celtic), but they read or looked white, and that was important when the look of an artist was being established as a key marketing tool. So my question would perhaps be ‘What was to be gained by, and what were the consequences of making the ‘otherness’ of non-anglo celtic musicians invisible in jazz histories?’

What I think happened is that the favouring of black artists was a consequence of racism in the 1930s and 40s. In those moments when ‘the origination of jazz’ was first being written (by white authors) the ‘popular jazz press’ (ie newsletters, magazines, etc) and other writing about jazz favoured black musicians because this approach favoured myths about race and creativity.

Just like the Ken Burns ‘Jazz’ doco, this approach follows particular individual musicians, positioning them as unusual, almost magical figures who overcame poverty/geography/BEING BLACK because they were somehow touched with a magical gift. In reality, these few figures were hard working people who worked within black communities, and then the wider American culture, experiencing racism every day. Their skills weren’t ‘god given gifts’ but the fruits of hard labour as well as talent and community support, and the advantages of being male musicians in an industry that made it very difficult for women to get gigs. This is something George Lipsitz discusses in his work “Songs of the Unsung: The Darby Hicks History of Jazz.”

This approach to jazz history – telling stories of miraculous black achievement as an aberration from the norm – reinforces racist archetypes. If the stories were told as stories of hard work, the musicians positioned within communities which fostered and encouraged their creativity – the authors would have to revise their ideas about black and white creative practice. They’d have to accept the idea that musical genius happens in all communities, regardless of race or class or gender. But that the factors which make it possible to realise this genius are absolutely defined by class and privilege and power and opportunity. Here’s a long quote from Lipsitz discussing these things:

The story of jazz artists as heroic individualists also overlooks the gender relations structuring entry into the world of plying jazz for a living. Women musicians Melba Liston, Clora Bryant, and Mary Lou Williams can only be minor supporting players in this drama of heroic male artistry. Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday are revered as interpreters and icons but not acknowledged for their expressly musical contributions. Although [Ken Burns’] Jazz acknowledges the roles played by supportive wives and partners in the success of individual male musicians, the broader structures of power that segregated women into ‘girl’ bands, that relegated women players to local rather than national exposure, that defined the music of Nina Simone or Dinah Washington as somehow outside the world of jazz are never systematically addressed in the film, although they have been investigated, analyzed, and critiqued in recent book…” (15)

The ODJB was one of a number of white bands working at the time, and they were well positioned to take advantage of a new recording industry and the possibilities of clever promotion. I think that they are/were glossed over by many music historians not because they weren’t black, but because they didn’t shore up racist archetypes.

The other interesting part of Peter’s post discusses the role of Italians in the early days of recorded jazz (and jazz history). This is much more interesting. There’s a chunk of scholarship about discussing the role of jewish musicians in early jazz and radio, which I think can be helpful. And cities like New Orleans (and New York for that matter) had large migrant populations: jazz is (as Winton Marsalis goes on about, ad nauseum), a gumbo. It is a mix of cultures and musical traditions. So it makes perfect sense to explore the Italian contribution.

Lipsitz, George. “Songs of the Unsung: The Darby Hicks History of Jazz,” Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004: 9-26.

Women’s History Month: Maxine Sullivan!


Geez, these posts are becoming a real trial. I am just too busy. No, actually, I’m just too can’t be bothered to do one of these every day. I just feel as though I’m listing all the big name vocalists of the swing era. Boooring. I had intended to do lots of research and come up with interesting women. But I didn’t. I suck a bit for that, because the women’s history month 2011 posts were so exciting and inspiring. I guess the difference is that I’m a dancer first, and a music nerd second. And I’m not that much of a music nerd really.
Incorrect. I’m a massive music nerd.

Anyway, to continue this tale of woe would bore us all to tears. So here’s Maxine Sullivan. If you don’t know her, you are living in some crazy town where nothing is fun or good. She did stuff with Charlie Shavers, John Kirby and that crew, so you know her shit is hot.

This is a song from her 50s come-back album with a fucking great band: Maxine Sullivan – Massachusetts (1956). You need to buy the Tribute to Andy Razaf album that I crapped on about here.

This is a song from that 1930s Loch Lomond ~ Maxine Sullivan ~ 1937:

Women’s History Month: Mamie Smith!

The first person to record a vocal blues album, Smith was a singer, actor and performer. Her 1920 recording ‘Crazy Blues’ was important for lots of reasons. It sold 75 000 copies in its first week and fueled a popular hunger for black women blues artists, which in turn shook the recording industry and race relations of the day. The song itself, written by Perry Bradford discussed the violence and experiences of black men and women in America in the 20s. Adam Gussow has written an interesting article about ‘Crazy Blues’*, and is interviewed about it here.

Crazy Blues – Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds (1920):

*Gussow, Adam, ‘”Shoot Myself a Cop”: Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” as Social Text’,
Callaloo 25.1, Jazz Poetics: A Special Issue (Winter, 2002), pp. 8-44.

Black women drummers of the 1940s

I’ve just been reminded of this Shorpy photo (Cafe Society: 1941) by a friend on Faceplant, and it includes a list of black women drummers from this period:

Here’s a list of African American female drummers who may have worked during this time: Henrietta Fontaine, Hetty Smith, Mattie Watson, Helen Cole, Dez Thompson, Rae Scott, and Alma Hightower. I haven’t seen a photo of any of them to compare to the drummer pictured here.

They’re mentioned in the book “Swing Shift: All-Girl Bands of the 1940s” by Sherrie Tucker.

I NEED TO GET MY LEARN ON

Women’s History Month: Sister Rosetta Tharpe!

Oh, argh. My life is making it difficult for me to find time to do proper service to these posts. And I’m a little tired of just defaulting to women singers. I’d really like to post some women record company administrators, or composers or other people in the music industry. But I guess that’s the point of this whole project: women in music have always found it hard to get into roles other than ‘songbird’ or, at the most, ‘songbird with piano’. A recent Riverwalk Jazz story ‘Not Just Another Pretty Face: ‘Girl Singers’ of the Swing Era’ almost does some solid gender talk in its discussion of women singers in the jazz age.

Incidentally, I’m sorely disappointed by Riverwalk’s only managing to do TWO shows about women in women’s history month. And after those, it’s back to the dick stuff. PLEASE, if I can manage to come up with around sixteen women musicians, surely one of the most famous, most prestigious jazz media can come up with more than two measly stories?

In researching jazz history I’ve come across some really interesting discussions of how particular instruments have been gendered. Krin Gabbard published an article in 1995 called “Signifyin(g) the Phallus: Mo’ Better Blues and Representations of the Jazz Trumpet,” (Representing Jazz, ed. Krin Gabbard. Duke U Press: Durham and London, p 104-130) which discusses the way trumpets functioned, discursively, as phallic imagery. Well, duh. This is partly why Clora Bryant is such an interesting example: woman with trumpet! OMG WIMMINZ HAS THE FALLUS!!! JAZZ IS RUINED!11

Linda Dahl goes into the gendering of musical instruments in Stormy Weather: the Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women (Limelight: NY, 1992). I don’t have the book right here in front of me (must buy!), but my notes remind me that she discussed the way music was ubiquitous in domestic life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and that this music was ‘home made’. Playing the piano and singing were considered essential parts of a young woman’s development, and were also often positioned in faith contexts – women played the piano or organ in church. Dahl also discusses the way the music industry was very difficult for women to get into, particularly for white women instrumentalists, how the musicians’ union was obstructionist in women’s careers, and the way territory bands were more accessible than mainstream bands. None of these things should surprise us. Indy rock has seen more women musicians than the mainstream (though they seem to be relegated to drums and bass rather than having access to the ultra-phallic lead guitar), and I’m still chasing down ideas about unionism and social power.

So Sister Rosetta Tharpe is an interesting figure. She played the guitar. She mixed church music and blues (shock!), she was a composer, a singer, a solo artist, a musician in a big band (Lucky Millinder’s, most notably), she pwnd all.

I’ve talked about Rosetta Tharpe before. Once as a Thursday cat blogging post, another as a discussion of how the way her guitar tuning was marked by race, class, geography and (implicitly) gender, in Retuning for white audiences – more sister rosetta tharpe.

It’s cool to compare this pretty explicitly sexualised image of the female form (Lonesome Road, with Tharpe singing with the Lucky Millinder band in 1941):

with this video of Sister Rosetta Tharpe singing ‘Up Above My Head’ with a gospel choir, 1960s). Dang – sister is workin’ that power. Safely contained by religion? I don’t think.


(via flopearedmule)

Women’s History Month: Ella Fitzgerald!

I’ve had a bit of a rough day, so I’m going to post someone easy. Ella Fitzgerald. Because even when she was trying to sing the blues, she couldn’t help but leak joy. She was just made of it.

You can read about her here. My story about Ella is: I’d picked up Ella Fitzgerald sings the Gerome Kern Songbook by accident, and I was totally in love. I did a lot of singing at school and stuff, so I was nuts for someone who could actually sing. This led to my asking for ‘an Ella Fitzgerald CD’ for christmas, still quite a few years before I started dancing, and my dad bought me three. One was all the early stuff, which I thought sounded like rubbish. One was a mixture of bits and pieces, which I liked. It had a pink cover. I can’t remember the other one.

When I started dancing, the one song we used to dance to in class (which I can remember) was a 1945 version of ‘Paper Moon’. I still play it for new dancers today – it’s just a lovely, simple song with a really clear beat.


Ella was my gateway to Basie. It was because of her that I bought One o’Clock Jump, a verve rerelease of an Ella/Basie/Williams CD. I didn’t much like it because Joe Williams irritates me. He still does. But it gave me an idea I’d like Basie. And I do.

That reminds me of another of those nice little Verve rereleases, Ella and Basie!, which was my prize for winning in a jack and jill competition (leading) years and years ago.

My favourites of the later Ella stuff – which is where I think she really shines – are the ‘Ella and Louis’, and ‘Ella and Louis Again‘ Verve rereleases. Those Verve CDs were the perfect gateway drug for a babby swing nerd.

These days I can’t really hack a lot of her early stuff, because they’re just such rubbishy cheesy songs. My favourite is an album Doris put me onto, years and years ago, of stuff recorded with the Chick Webb band, live at the Savoy.

So, for nostalgia’s sake, Ella Fitzgerald singing Paper Moon with the Delta Rhythm Boys (who’re responsible for the best version of ‘Solid as a Rock’ with Basie in 1950):

[photo by Herman Leonard in 1949, and that’s Ray Brown kissing Ella]

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.