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Rachel Azbell
Professor Zilincik
Intro to Listening
10 October 2015
They Cant Take That Away From Me: The Feminist Movement in Jazz
Just don't give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love
and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong. Ella Fitzgerald
This quote, by one of the most prominent jazz musicians of all time, can be
applied to the mindset of every woman in jazz from 1930s to the 1960s. During this
time, jazz was well on its way to becoming a popular genre in music. At the same time,
many social issues were rising, including the fight for equality for both women and
African-Americans. The social circumstances during this time period caused women to
have an extremely hard time creating and maintaining successful careers in the
professional jazz world. Because of these hardships, there were several rebels, or now
considered feminists in jazz music who broke the social mold made for them to follow
their passion, and made their mark in the history of jazz in America.
Before diving into the women of jazz, it is important to first explain the
upbringing of jazz in America. The birth of jazz is a subject of much opinion and
controversy. In the 1920s, jazz music was thought to be white dance music (Gerard 1) .
But as time passed, it was clear that jazz was not just white peoples music. The need
for social labels in America during this time led to a discrepancy that continues today: Is
jazz black music or white music? The answer is simple. Ruby Braff, once said jazz is an
American product made up by all people in this countryit just so happens that great

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pioneers of jazz, and improvised music were black people (Gerard 32) . Although
much of the style of jazz is derived from the musical traditions of Africa, Europe and the
Caribbean, (Pointillistically Sublime) it is only because the most well-known jazz artists
happen to be African Americans- Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, etc.that jazz is considered to be the music of African Americans. Jazz music, in itself, is a
rebel in music, because it doesnt fit in to social molds-much like the musicians who play
it. Therefore, jazz music has no one creator, but rather, continues to be reborn by every
musician who plays it.
As jazz music began to become popular in the United States in the 1950s, several
events had already occurred or were on the brink of occurring. These events were World
War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. As stated in Pointillistically Sublime, it
is better to not look at each event individually, but rather analyze the result of all events
combined. All events combined created societal norms (Pointillistically Sublime)meaning, gender roles and stereotypes that both men and women were expected to
follow. Not only this, but women at this time had little rights, education or economic
stability. These conditions of living in which women lived are what ultimately
discouraged many from pursuing professions and hobbies outside of the role of the
housewife-including music. For those who did choose to pursue music regardless, the
path was not easy- ultimately because they were rebelling against society. These rebels
had no one name, face or instrument. What they had instead was a fight within them to
seek out their passion- no matter the cost.
Jazz instrumentalists, believe it or not, were treated and discriminated against in a
completely different way than jazz vocalists were, even though both are closely related. A

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woman playing a musical instrument at all was seen as highly inappropriate and was
discouraged at all costs. Despite this, there were many female musicians who played
professionally. One of these women was Mary Lou Williams. Mary is perhaps one of the
biggest female jazz musicians of her time, despite the sexist environment in which she
worked in. According to Pointillistically Sublime, she had no formal education and
could not read music. She did, however, have a good ear, and picked up the instrument
of piano by ear. Despite the natural ability she had, it wasnt until she filled in for a male
pianist at a gig that her talent was truly recognized. Mary Lou Williams went on to be a
composer, arranger, pianist, and jazz innovator in her 60 year-long music career
(Pointillistically Sublime) . This is just one example of the countless amount of women
who were instrumentalists at this time who were forced to be in the background because
of their male counterparts.
The treatment of female vocalists during this time was completely different than
that of instrumentalists. Having a female vocalist during the big band era was almost
mandatory because it strengthened the groups commercial appeal (Dahl 122) . Being
a female vocalist during this time didnt lead to better treatment, it simply led to a
different kind of mistreatment. There was, and continues to be an unspoken standard for
the appearance of a woman in the media to be flawless and almost always sexually
appealing. The vocalist was supposed to be the visual and emotional link between the
audience and the musicians, therefore, her appearance was at least as important as her
singing, if not more so (Dahl 122) . The female vocalist was the cheerleader who stood
supportively and decoratively on the sidelines (Dahl 122) . This objectification of
women began the rise of feminist ideals in jazz singers. For one vocalist, Billie Holiday,

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feminism was the ideology that she centered her song repertoire on. Billie sang songs of
romance and sentimental love and converted them into a satirical call for social reform.
She was known for performing these songs in such a way that was subtlety mocking.
According to Blue Legacies and Black Feminism, the song My Man was a song that
Billie was famous for. This song is about a relationship where the women stays with her
partner through thick and thin. The last lyric is Whats the difference if I say Ill go
away. When I know Ill come back on my knees someday. For whatever my man is, I am
his forevermore. Billie would sing this in an almost cynical manner, with a literal
interpretation of male dominance (Davis 178) . By taking these songs of light topics and
transforming them completely with the power of interpretation, Billie became an
advocate for multiple issues, including equality for women.
Even the most renowned female performers of the big band era faced diversities
while beginning their career because of their gender. One of these performers was jazz
phenomenon, Ella Fitzgerald. Band leader Chick Webb once denied young Ella
Fitzgerald a spot in his big band because of her appearance, saying youre not putting
that on my bandstand (Nicholson 35), and later stating, shes a big girl, and knew
nothing whatsoever about how to dress or talk to strangers (Nicholson 36) . Despite
the refusal to put her in the big band, Chick eventually gave into the opinions of his
fellow band mates and gave her the spot in his big band. It was unknown at this time that
Ella Fitzgerald would later become one of the biggest names in jazz. Today, the decision
to almost deny Ella Fitzgerald a vocalist spot because of appearance would be viewed as
laughable. But the reality is that the judging, stereotypes and objectification of women
almost kept Ella Fitzgerald from getting a start in her music career. How many artists

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never shined in this time because of appearance based judging? And furthermore, how
many artists today dont shine because of this?
Although equality for women in the workforce has improved, it still is not where
it needs to be. Objectification and sexual appeal in female performers is perhaps worse
today than the 1950s. For a female performer to be mainstream music, she must sell
herself in a completely different way than male performers. It is all about the way she
looks, what she is wearing, and how revealing she is in her music. This conclusion can be
drawn purely by looking at the album covers on the pop charts, or simply by researching
the top female pop artists, such as Nicki Minaj, Beyonc, Rihanna, and several more. The
objectification of women goes further than just pop culture. This issue is seen in every
aspect of society, but I will focus on performing arts because it is the most pertinent to
my career goal.
A bit of advice that was constantly drilled in my mind during elementary school
and at my home is to not judge a book by its cover. As Ive grown up and found my
passion in music and theatre, I have come to the realization that judging a book by its
cover, or rather, judging a person primarily by their appearance, happens constantly. It
happens most often in the performing arts, whether it will be music, theater, film, or
dance, and most often in the audition room. Perhaps this is human nature, and it is only
natural to initially judge something or someone on the immediate impression of
appearance; or maybe that is just the excuse that society will use to disregard the reality
of the issue. It takes minimal research to reveal the truth of the industry in which I would
like to have a career in. But it does not just rest on the shoulders of women to be
advocates for change. In order to change an entire society that is in a rut of sexism and

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objectification, we must come together as one, and work towards a culture that judges on
what is, not what appears to be; and towards an industry where an artist is celebrated and
glorified because of their craft-not because of how high her hemline is at an awards show.
The female vocalists and instrumentalists of the big band era left an undeniable
and unforgettable imprint on the industry; not just for their talent, but because they were
willing to fight for equal treatment and opportunity in the workforce. It is because of
them, and all the other women of that time that female performers are where they are in
the industry today. What they accomplished in their time isnt the end of this issue, but
rather the beginning. Artists such as Billie Holiday and Mary Lou Williams may have
been the pioneers of feminism in jazz, but myself and countless others will be the
innovators who will continue to go against societal norms in the pursuit of equality in the
performing arts and society as a whole.

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Works Cited

Crossfield, Leita. "Pointillistically Sublime." Web log post. Pointillistically Sublime.


N.p., 8 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 Sept. 2015.
Dahl, Linda. "Chapter 7: The "Canaries"" Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a
Century of Jazzwomen. New York: Limelight Editions, 1992. N. pag. Print.
Davis, Angela Y. Blue Legacies and Black Feminism. New York: Pantheon, 1998. Print.
Gerard, Charley. Jazz in Black and White: Race, Culture, and Identity in the Jazz
Community. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998. Print.
Nicholson, Stuart. Ella Fitzgerald: The Complete Biography. New York: Routledge,
2004. Print.