You’ve reached a Premium article. To continue reading, please login or start a 3-MONTH TRIAL SUBSCRIPTION for just 99 cents/month. You’ll receive unlimited digital access plus a complimentary issue of our award-winning print magazine.
Join Our Newsletter
Join thousands of other jazz enthusiasts and get new music, artists, album, events and more delivered to your inbox.
By Bob Weinberg
Women musicians may have been scarce on the bandstand, but their influence had an outsize impact on the jazz world and beyond.
The jazz world today brims with innovative and authoritative women players. Any discussion of the top musicians in the field, gender be damned, might include guitarist Mary Halvorson, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, clarinetist-saxophonist Anat Cohen, composer-bandleader Maria Schneider, pianist Kris Davis, bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, among others. And while some women players of previous generations were held in high regard by critics and audiences — think of celebrated pianist-composers Mary Lou Williams and Carla Bley — they were more the exception than the rule.
In the early days of jazz, beyond the vocalists — who were often innovators in their own right — women on bandstands were a downright rarity, and those who more than nominally led those bands rarer still. Yet, as jazz studies are being recalibrated, the contributions of women jazz artists are coming into sharper focus. Here are a few of the women who helped shape the music.
Lil Hardin Armstrong
(February 3, 1898-August 27, 1971)
Would Louis Armstrong have risen to the status of timeless jazz icon without Lil Hardin Armstrong? Possibly. But her powerful influence on his career is undeniable, from updating his look to contributing to his songbook to urging him to stretch his abilities and ambitions.
It was not love at first sight — at least not on Lil’s part. Joe “King” Oliver introduced Louis to the pianist in 1922 at Chicago’s Dreamland nightclub, where she was a star attraction. Lil looked askance at the chubby New Orleans transplant to the big city, who was three years her junior and dressed and coiffed, in her eyes, like a rube.
Oliver, Louis’ mentor, had taken over as first cornetist and leader of the Creole Jazz Band, and had sent for his protégé to join him in the Windy City. Lil had actually preceded Oliver in the Creole Jazz Band, but had quit; he lured her back, offering her $100 a week, which was more than he paid Louis and an enormous sum in the 1920s. Louis, unhappily married to a woman in New Orleans, eventually won over Lil, also married at the time, and the two became a couple. Her tutelage was evident in his natty new threads as well as his increasing confidence in blowing and business matters; she pushed him to hit notes he wasn’t sure he could reach and to demand his money from Oliver, who doled it out to him as needed.
In April of 1923, Oliver brought the band to the Gennett studio in Richmond, Indiana, and Lil’s piano can be heard (albeit more in a rhythmic function) on the historic sides they recorded over two days, and later in October. Her playing is quite charming on “Chimes Blues,” credited as the first record to feature Louis as a soloist, and she truly fulfills the chiming function promised by the song title. But Lil’s writing didn’t really come to the fore until after she and Louis, who married in 1924, had left Oliver and formed a new unit comprising some of the hottest players in Chicago.
With Johnny Dodds on clarinet and Johnny St. Cyr on banjo, Kid Ory on trombone, and Lil on piano, The Hot Five provided the perfect platform for Louis’ cornet genius to shine, and a more prominent role for Lil. Strictly a studio band, they recorded landmark sides in 1925 and 1926, and added two pieces to record as The Hot Seven in 1927. Lil contributed indelible classics such as “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” and “Hotter Than That” (with Lonnie Johnson on guitar), and trades vocals with her husband on her “Georgia Grind.” On “Gut Bucket Blues,” Louis gives her a verbal shout-out with the exhortation “Aw, whip that thing, Miss Lil, whip it, kid!”
Louis and Lil had split by 1931, but didn’t divorce until 1938. In 1936, she led her own Swing Orchestra, which was stocked with top talents such as Buster Bailey, Chu Berry and J.C. Higginbotham. Lil fronted the band, showcasing a spirited and often-humorous vocal delivery on tunes such as “My Hi-De-Ho Man” and “Oriental Swing,” novelty numbers, to be sure, but featuring exceptional musicianship. Recording for Decca, she went on to become the label’s musical director. In 1957, a group called The Jive Bombers scored a No. 7 R&B hit with her tune “Bad Boy,” and Ray Charles scored big with her “Just for a Thrill” in 1959. Appearing on the 1961 TV special Chicago and All That Jazz, Lil showcased still impressive chops, and that year also saw an LP release, Chicago: The Living Legends, on the Riverside label.
Lil continued to entertain audiences for another decade. Performing as part of a tribute concert to Louis at Chicago’s Civic Center Plaza in August 1971— he had died a month earlier — she was playing “St. Louis Blues” when she suffered a fatal heart attack. She was 73.
(February 9, 1902-December 16, 1978)
Like Lil Armstrong, Blanche Calloway was strongly urged by her parents to find a more respectable profession than jazz singer. But, also like Lil, her drive and talent wouldn’t be denied. The older sister of Cab Calloway made her Broadway debut in Shuffle Along, the 1921 all-Black musical penned by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, which also featured Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson. Not long after, she was leading her own Joy Boys jazz orchestra, and was the first Black woman to front an all-male ensemble. With her lean, elegant looks and animated stage performance, which included wielding a conductor’s baton, she was an obvious antecedent to baby bro’s iconic style.
Calloway first recorded in 1925, waxing original tunes such as “Lonesome Lovesick Blues,” on which Louis Armstrong’s cornet eloquently dialogues with the singer throughout. In the 1930s, the Joy Boys would feature Cozy Cole, Ben Webster, Benny Moten and Chick Webb, and become popular faves at venues such as the Apollo Theater and Harlem Opera House.
Cab, whose fame would eclipse his sister’s, acknowledged Blanche’s importance. After all, when she became a sensation at Chicago’s Sunset Cafe, she used her influence to get him a spotlight there, as well. Sexism and proscribed gender roles likely weighed in Cab’s favor — although he too was a formidable talent — as his star ascended beyond his sibling’s. In March of 1931, Blanche released “Just a Crazy Song (Hi, Hi, Hi),” which utilized similar “ho de ho” call-and-response lines as Cab’s “Minnie the Moocher.” Released that same month, the latter was a huge hit. Blanche’s “Growlin’ Dan,” sung with libidinous gusto, also shares some lyrics with “Minnie,” but perhaps was considered too risqué for a woman to perform at that time. (Dig Cécile McLorin Salvant’s sexy redo of recent years.)
Calloway was just as bold off the bandstand. Touring the South in 1936, she was arrested for using a whites-only bathroom at a Mississippi gas station. Meanwhile, her musical fortunes waned as popular tastes changed. Declaring bankruptcy in 1938, she broke up the band and moved to Philadelphia, where she became active on the political scene. After relocating to Washington, D.C., in the early ’50s, where she managed a nightclub — as well as the career of rising R&B singer Ruth Brown — Calloway ended the decade by moving to Miami. There, she scored a spot as a DJ on the Black music radio station WMBM, and became the station’s program director. She also holds the distinctions of being the first Black voting clerk in Florida and the first Black woman to vote in Florida in 1958. Calloway continued as a champion of civil rights and worked for the NAACP and Congress for Racial Equality until she died in 1978 at the age of 76 in Baltimore.
(June 2, 1904-May 30, 1956)
She was known as “Little Louis,” and the influence is hard to miss. Valaida Snow’s trumpet and vocal phrasing displayed more than a passing acquaintance with Armstrong’s, and she also seemed to share his dynamism and charisma on stage. No less an authority than W.C. Handy dubbed her “Queen of the Trumpet.”
A vivacious performer, stylishly attired in slinky gowns and feather boas, Snow sang and played popular fare such as the Duke Ellington songbook staple “Caravan” out front of an orchestra that bore her name, and the Sophie Tucker favorite, “Some of These Days,” as well as torchy numbers like “I Must Have That Man,” where she offers a tremulous vocal and a Satchmo-inspired trumpet solo. A signature tune, “High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm,” turns up the novelty quotient, but also tips a cap to Pops, particularly on a scat vocal passage.
From the age of 5, she performed with her minister father’s troupe of kid performers throughout the South. Snow was said to have played about a dozen instruments, in addition to singing and dancing and routinely wowing audiences. By the early 1920s, she began making a name for herself, her reputation growing with a residency at a popular cabaret in Harlem. She would also gain notice for her 1924 turn in Blake and Sissle’s Chocolate Dandies, which also featured Josephine Baker, and for a role in the musical Rhapsody in Black opposite Ethel Waters. However, opportunities for women bandleaders were few in the U.S., and she sought opportunities abroad.
A star-making tour of Europe and Asia in 1926 contributed to the hunger for American jazz overseas, and Snow frequently made the crossing. She was embraced in Paris and Scandinavian countries, where she lived in high style: There are accounts of her riding in an orchid-colored Mercedes with her driver, valet and yes, pet monkey, all dressed in caps and jackets of the same hue as the car. So comfortable was she in Europe that when the Nazis invaded, she refused to leave Denmark in the midst of a tour, and was jailed in Copenhagen for unspecified reasons. (Among other theories, biographer Mark Miller suggests her 10-week detention may have been for her own protection.) Snow was released in 1942, but the experience took its toll on her, physically and emotionally, when she returned to the States; her career never quite reached previous heights. Nonetheless, a YouTube clip of her 1946 performance of “Patience and Fortitude,” with The Ali Baba Trio, finds her beautifully attired in a flowered gown and gloves and playing and singing with expressive élan.
Snow continued to perform for another decade and, like Lil Armstrong, died doing what she loved best: She was backstage at the Palace Theater in New York when she suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in May 1956. She was 51.
(April 6, 1922-May 19, 1998)
In March of 1998, Dorothy Donegan was booked to perform at a women’s jazz festival in Fort Lauderdale. Undergoing chemotherapy for colon cancer, the virtuoso pianist was unsure she would be able to attend. Nonetheless, she displayed a terrific sense of humor and great insights into the jazz world during a phone interview prior to the event, at which she didn’t end up performing; she died a couple of months later.
The Chicago native’s ambitions of a classical career were thwarted by the usual racial and gender obstacles, but she did incorporate some of her dazzling conservatory-trained chops into her blues and boogie-woogie; she was also the first Black instrumentalist to play her hometown’s Orchestra Hall, in 1943. An example of her musical melding can be observed in the film Sensations of 1945. Wearing a sequined gown and sporting a flower in her hair, Donegan is almost demure as she starts playing a piece by Liszt on a white piano before unleashing a mighty boogie-woogie, her feet trip-hammering in time. She’s soon joined by a second pianist, Gene Rodgers, and the familiar figure of Cab Calloway, dancing frenetically and egging them on. Cab’s orchestra joins in, and suddenly, dancers are jitterbugging in the streets.
Donegan was a student of Art Tatum’s, and the jazz piano king remarked that she was the only one who could make him practice. Although she was sometimes dismissed by critics for her wild and humorous antics at the keyboard, Donegan was admired by fellow musicians — like Marian McPartland, who featured her on her Piano Jazz radio program — and beloved by audiences, even late in her career. The arts and academic communities followed suit, and she was awarded an American Jazz Master Fellowship from the NEA in 1992, played the White House in 1993 and received an honorary doctorate from Roosevelt University in 1994.
Following are excerpts from my 1998 interview with Donegan.
On women being discouraged from becoming musicians: “I think you had racial barriers and economic barriers. Because I wanted to be a concert pianist, but I had a competitor: Vladimir Horowitz. [cracks up]. I did outsell him in Chicago at Orchestra Hall — I had 500 more people. [Playing classical or jazz?] Half and half. I always say you should be AC and DC. It’s a poor rat that has one hole.”
On seeing Horowitz perform: “I used to love Horowitz. I used to throw my mink coat up [on-stage] when he played the third Rachmaninoff.”
On her rivalry with Mary Lou Williams: “They wanted me to take Mary Lou Williams’ job [with Andy Kirk’s 12 Clouds of Joy]. And Joe Glaser, who’s head of Associated Booking, came to Chicago, and he said ‘I’ll give ya $150 a week! We want to get rid of this Mary Lou Williams.’ Well, one monkey don’t stop a show. We once had a confrontation. She said, ‘Well, you couldn’t take my job ’cause I was goin’ with [dating] Andy Kirk.’ So I said, ‘But you weren’t goin’ with Joe Glaser!’
“I turned the job down. I said, ‘That’s too many men to be around.’ And I’d rather stay with my mother. I was 20.
“[Williams] gets more praise now than when she was livin’. The men would say, ‘Ohhh, she’s great for a girl.’ I’d say, ‘She’s great for a man.’”
On Oscar Peterson: “Oscar doesn’t like me on the bill. He says he needs me like Custer needs more Indians! I think he’s a great pianist. … I think I’m more diversified than he is. And he hasn’t been exposed to all the different surroundings as I have. I think art is an imitation of life’s experience. You gotta bring something to the table.
“I played rent scuffles in sewers. And then the lady says, ‘Well, you ate three hot dogs so all you can get is a quarter.’ But that teaches you how to play.”
On playing to the back row: “You have to capture [audiences’] attention. You can play up and down [the keyboard] — I can do that — but you have to satisfy the person in the back row who’s readin’ the newspaper. I don’t want ’em to read the paper on me!”
On sex appeal: Sex, yeahhh. I wear pants, I dress very well, you know. But sometimes I’ll change and put on a short dress. Like in the Hollywood Bowl [at the Playboy Jazz Festival, 1993], I was on the stage with [emcee] Bill Cosby. He would always look at my legs. And I said, ‘I thought you were a married man.’ The critics said, ‘Why is he tormenting a 75-year-old woman?’ So, he said, ‘Well, she’s got 20-year-old legs on a 75-year-old body.’ [cracks up]
On Mom’s encouragement: “She said she would do the housework as long as I brought the money home. I said, ‘No problem.’”
On playing the blues: “I learned the blues from playing with people like Lonnie Johnson, and then Rozelle Gayle and Raymond Walters — he could play better drunk than most people could play sober. He had a jealous woman. I used to think she was gonna cut me. But I’d go around with him and assure her there was nothing going on.”
On Harlem stride and classic Chicago-style piano: “I don’t see those styles displayed. People are playing with no left hand and they hit it once every hour. I guess they do what they can do. Buck and Bubbles told me, ‘Don’t you ever use your left hand? What, did you leave it in the dressing room?’ So I started developing my left hand. [Inspired by Count Basie’s boogie-woogie?] Well, I think Cleo Brown could play it even better. She had a good left hand. So I said, ‘Well, I’ll get one too.’”
On playing with big bands: “I was supposed to play with the Benny Goodman band, but I didn’t take it. But I loved Sinatra, and people like that, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford. When you play with a band, you’ve got to play with, not against. Mary Lou Williams would probably do that better than me. She wasn’t a great soloist, but she could play with a band better.”
On Duke Ellington: “He was suave and polished, he was a womanizer. But he knew how to assemble men that could play his music.”
On European audiences: “They’re not interested in us doin’ classical music in Europe. They want us to do music that is characteristic of Black people. [Is that frustrating?] No. I said, ‘Get the money, get the money.’”