The Common Good
March-April 1996

Knowing the Score

by Bob Hulteen | March-April 1996

For many in the Christian tradition, it's a common Lenten discipline
to think about confession and complicity.

For many in the Christian tradition, it's a common Lenten discipline to think about confession and complicity. Some recent reading I've been doing has made me very conscious of a particular confessional moment.

In the mid-'70s I played in a jazz band-an award-winning band to boot. It had never before had a woman member, but Lynn Block, a talented trombonist and a true jazz and blues enthusiast, joined the band the same year as I did. This was not a popular decision with many in the band, and as a new member, I chose to remain silent in the debate. Lynn was harassed until she eventually decided to leave the group. Like any good musician (and insightful young woman), Lynn knew the score.

This is not a new experience; it has dogged jazz music throughout its existence. Now let's get this straight: There have always been jazzwomen. Just as there were always blueswomen. But the women, often suffering the double burden of being black and female, got more guff and less recognition (and much less money). Some hung in, carried the message, and today the industry has a representative showing of women instrumentalists.

Madame Jazz: Contemporary Women Instrumentalists, by Leslie Gourse (Oxford University Press, 1995), tells the story of modern female jazz instrumentalists. Concentrating primarily on the jazz world from the '70s to the present, Gourse argues that women, though still discriminated against in hirings, at least have the opportunity to prove themselves. As a result, many women players have emerged as legitimate talents.

As in any good biography of a movement, Madame Jazz allows anecdotes to carry the message of the travails of breaking into a world that is mostly unresponsive or antagonistic to a new presence. Gourse includes the stories of such women as alto saxophonist Sue Terry, pianist Shirley Horn, and percussionist Marilyn Mazur. Unfortunately, the book is short on analysis, and without the social context of the jazz world, the reader cannot appreciate the depths these women had to overcome.

A book released more than a decade ago fills this void for the reader, making the two together a real contribution. Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen, by Linda Dahl (Limelight Editions, 1984), begins at the turn of the century, and emphasizes the racial and gender barriers that limited many careers and denied fans access to genius.

Beginning with the great blues and jazz vocalists, Dahl describes the changes in the music world, and the accompanying changes in instrumentality. From trumpeter Valaida Snow in the '20s to the contemporary band Diva, the author traces the development of the music world and society as women musicians experienced it. Often biographies and social histories offer greater insight into cultural transition than straight-up history texts.

NAT HENTOFF'S Listen to the Stories: Nat Hentoff on Jazz and Country Music (HarperCollins, 1995) pushes this learning to new levels. Hentoff tells the stories of the jazz giants, and includes the story of the International Sweethearts of Jazz, an all-female group founded in 1937. The Sweethearts were considered a gimmick act by traditional jazz enthusiasts.

Rosetta Records (115 West 16th St., New York, NY 10011), a label founded by Rosetta Reitz to recover the ignored works of female blues and jazz vocalists and instrumentalists, has released on vinyl and cassette the tunes of the Sweethearts. (The series includes compilations such as Mean Mothers, Women's Railroad Blues, and Big Mama.) Reitz has become the unofficial archivist of the jazzwomen movement.

This band has the tight ensemble sound associated with the swing era of jazz. Appearing in front of some of the "toughest jazz crowds" in the country, like at Harlem's Apollo Theater, the Sweethearts punched holes in the theory that women didn't have the stamina to be on the jazz stage except as pianists and vocalists. With Vi Burnside on tenor saxophone, Ernestine Tiny Davis on trumpet, and Dorothy Donegan on piano, the Anna Mae Wilburn-led Sweethearts could hold their own with most bands of the era, save perhaps the Ellington orchestra.

A new reference guide, Jazz: The Essential Companion to Artists and Albums (Rough Guides Ltd., 1995), offers short biographical listings for the many jazz musicians who might otherwise be overlooked in Hentoff's storytelling. Unfortunately, it suffers the shortsightedness of much of the jazz world: It includes few women among its sketches, and usually only those of jazz vocalists, like Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. And when it does so, it often mentions their romantic relationships with male musicians. (For instance, in the Billie Holiday listing, it mentions her failed relationship with Artie Shaw; but in Shaw's listing there is no mention of Holiday.) Subtle sexism it may be, but sexism nonetheless.

To get the story on Holiday, an interesting new biography helps: Billie Holiday (Northeastern University Press, 1995), by Stuart Nichols. This recent bio covers much the same ground as earlier works, but adds a deeper understanding of the complexities of the woman who is this great and tragic jazz figure.

And so the story goes on-the music and the experience.

The year after Lynn's unceremonious dismissal from my jazz band, three women joined. Band members knew that if we were to keep winning festivals, we needed their talents. We needed their chops. So we evolved. We grew up. Although we didn't know it then, we experienced grace, which is the message of Lenten discipleship.

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