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By Dr. Tammy L. Kernodle
Recently, I was asked by the global library catalog WorldCat.org to compile a list of resources that focused on the contributions of women to jazz. The invitation was part of a larger initiative that correlated with the celebration of World Music Day. Being the overachiever that I am, I not only compiled a list of books that historicize the contributions of women musicians to the progression of jazz, but also a list of major scholarly articles. This musicological exercise took me into a space of reflection about the current state of jazz, how women creatives are currently navigating the gendered spaces that still exist and more importantly what contemporary jazz scholarship and criticism is really accomplishing.
About three decades ago, I began my engagement with the work of Sally Placksin, Linda Dahl, D. Antionette Handy and Leslie Gourse, which provided a foundation for feminist studies in jazz. The discovery of their work, coupled with my experiences of “sitting at the feet” of Dr. William “Ted” McDaniels, shifted my life’s trajectory. McDaniels headed the Jazz Studies Department at Ohio State and also taught a myriad of courses that focused on African and African-derived music. He was the intellectual beacon I needed as I waded through a sea of courses on Western European composers. Most importantly, he showed me that jazz history did not have to focus on a litany of “great male masters” who instigated stylistic shifts and operated in the specter of self-contained, introspective genius. Rather, he modeled a pedagogical approach that considered stylistic progression in a framework that considered how musicians existed within specific soundscapes and dialogued with larger intellectual/cultural communities. This approach still governs the way I teach and write about jazz.
I had no idea when I entered graduate school in the early 1990s that my studies with McDaniels and others at OSU would place my work within a lineage of scholars who would continue to advance feminist studies in jazz as a serious field of study as we entered the 21st century. After all, my immersion into jazz studies had extended out of a personal desire to play jazz piano.
For a year, I studied with the late Hank Marr, who challenged me to think about music in ways that my classical training had not prepared me. Thinking beyond the notes — and trying to find comfort in reharmonizing chords that I had played in church and through gospel music — often sent me to the music library for marathon listening sessions. Monk, Garner, Powell (Bud and Ritchie), McCann and Tyner were always in the mix, but my thinking about jazz piano (and jazz in general) significantly changed when I heard Mary Lou Williams and Hazel Scott for the first time.
Growing up in a musical family and the fertile musical environment of my hometown(Danville, Virginia), I knew women musicians whose prowess could not be questioned. However, Williams and Scott were on another level. My scholarly trajectory changed seemingly overnight and my interest in jazz women grew exponentially. Williams has been the focus of much of my research since 1995, when I made my first trip to the Institute of Jazz Studies to look at boxes of uncatalogued ephemera that became the Mary Lou Williams Collection. Even as my research moved onto other jazz women like Scott, Alice Coltrane and Melba Liston, I’ve still found myself circling back to Williams to explore in more depth some aspect of her six-decade career or vast music catalog.
Indeed, jazz studies has come a long way since the 1980s when Sally Placksin’s American Women in Jazz and Linda Dahl’s Stormy Weather: A Century of Women in Jazz were the only comprehensive histories of jazz women. Even with the wealth of scholarship, journalism and advocacy that has reclaimed women musicians from the margins of jazz history in recent years, there is still much work that needs to be done. So many stories that need to be told.
Dr. Tammy L. Kernodle has written and lectured extensively on the contributions of women musicians to the progression of American popular and concert music. Her work appears in a number of scholarly journals and anthologies. She is the author of Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams. Kernodle is the past president of the Society for American Music and currently holds the rank of University Distinguished Professor at Miami University in Ohio.