JAZZHERS: A partial hyperHERstory of women popular songwriters and jazz composers



Linda Dahl’s Secret Garden
Photo collage by Serena Spiezio

It should no longer be news that women have written popular songs and jazz since these forms first began to take shape in the late l9th century. Still, it remains important to review their accomplishments. They not only serve as an inspiration, but as a reminder of how difficult it was for women to get equal time and recognition in virtually every aspect of music making— composition being no exception.

On the one hand, the bandstand – the very place that has been the logical, specific inspiration for so much jazz composition – was long much more a fraternity or “boys’ club” than an open shop. (The same could be said of professions including music publishing, song plugging, record producing, artists’ management, and so on.) On the other hand, however, composition has had advantages during earlier times when women were pressured to confine themselves to the roles of wife and mother. It was and is an art form, but it can also be viewed as a cottage industry.

At the turn of the century, the determined woman who could claim a room of her own (or at least a corner of a room), who could carve out time away from the demands of housekeeping and children, might produce music, not unlike her sisters who kept journals, wrote poetry and novels, or painted. Given the lingering Victorian value system, creating songs was a far more acceptable and practical route in the eyes of greater American society than adopting the freewheeling life of a performer.

African American women, far less likely to be among the middle class at the turn of the century, worked more frequently as musicians and learned the rudiments of writing for a variety of instruments in the rough school of the road. Tent shows, minstrelsy, circuses, vaudeville, family bands, and territory bands provided constant entertainment around the country at a time when live music was the backdrop for so many shows, as well as an integral part of political events and social gatherings of all kinds.

Boy and girl children in family bands were rigorously trained. With a constant need for new material, women often contributed arrangements and original works. Such was the case in the Young band, which began the careers Lester, Lee, and Irma Young, and the Hampton band. (Slide Hampton worked alongside his mother, father, five brothers, and fours sisters, some of whom are still active as arrangers today.) The women sometimes left the family bands, typically with spouses or other family members, to work in a variety of these other contexts.

The moment we start to consider women who have written music in the invisible book of jazz and its precursors, we run into difficulties. What do we include and what do we leave out? To some extent it is a matter of taste, but speaking broadly from a historical perspective, a range of material has risen to the top, like the cream in milk, and found a place in the jazz book. This includes the better songs from all the genres of popular musical entertainment, beginning with minstrelsy and the blues, incorporating a touch of the spirituals and gospel, through vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley, to musical theater and film music (not to mention the wonderful imports from other countries that spice up the American musical melting pot and create new hybrids, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian being perhaps the most significant).

Women have contributed enormously to songwriting in the past 120 or so years, including well-known gems that have been played and sung across the country by millions of people: from parlor songs like “I Love You Truly” by Carrie Jacobs Bond to ragtime songs and vaudeville numbers like “Hello Ma Baby,” co-authored by Ida Emerson, and “The Bully,” by performer May Irwin. Ann Ronell’s “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” and Doris Fisher’s “Tutti Frutti” (with Slim Gaillard) counted among popular “novelty” tunes. Dana Suesse’s “You Oughta Be in Pictures” became a radio hit, as did Maria Grever’s “Besame Mucho” and Mabel Wayne’s “Ramona.” These tunes were often clothed in jazz-flavored arrangements in the record studio, radio broadcasts, or on the dance floor.

Some of these songs entered the jazz musicians’ repertoire and eventually became standards: Ann Ronnell’s “Willow Weep for Me,” Kay Swift’s “Can’t We Be Friends?” and “Black Coffee” (for which she was sued by Mary Lou Williams, claiming successfully that it too closely resembled “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?”), Maria Grever’s “What a Difference a Day Makes,” Irene Higginbotham’s “Good Morning Heartache,” Ruth Lowe’s “I’ll Never Smile Again,” and Doris Tauber’s “Them There Eyes.” Although many of these women songwriters have been neglected, their songs continue to enrich the American songbook.

For women who came from within the tradition of jazz and blues, their careers as performers have tended to overshadow their legacies as songwriters and composers. “Blues Queens,” such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, wrote a substantial portion of their own repertoire (often with collaborators like Lovie Austin). There has also been a small, but continuous and significant thread of women singers who have written their own material: Ella Fitzgerald penned some of her best-known songs as did Billie Holiday. Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln have followed in their footsteps.

Aside from the realm of songwriting, the role of female instrumentalists as jazz composers likewise runs the length of the music’s history, beginning with Lil Hardin Armstrong’s involvement in New Orleans style jazz. The works of pivotal figure Mary Lou Williams (who also composed songs) embodied the encounters of jazz and “art music” by the middle of the century and also provided an early indication of women’s proclivities to lead and work with large performing forces (often instead of ranking among their performers). Toshiko Akiyoshi, Melba Liston, Amina Claudine Myers, Carla Bley, and Maria Schneider have also followed this path and been on the cutting edge of big band composition.

A technical, but vital, point: many composers of both popular songs and jazz failed to secure the rights to their own works, typically out of simple ignorance of the procedures. The travail of Mary Lou Williams as she later tried to untangle copyright problems dating from her Swing Era compositions is but one example.

For men and women alike, problems with copyrights were not unusual; it was not unheard of for song publishers, agents, and managers to help themselves to an artist’s copyright, and subsequent royalties. Evidence is largely anecdotal but compelling on this score. The less powerful the songwriter was vis-à-vis the virtual cartel of song publishing, the more vigilant and downright tough he/she would have to be to secure what was rightfully hers. (Isaac Goldberg provides a valuable overview of this subject in Tin Pan Alley: A Chronicle of the American Popular Music Racket).

To get one’s song published, connections could be crucial; everything from working as a song demonstrator (that is, playing sheet music for customers of a music store, as did Hardin Armstrong), as a secretary to an established songwriter (as in Tauber’s employment by Irving Berlin) or apprenticing oneself to a composer (as in Swift’s relationship to George Gershwin) could help. Other women often had a parent or relative in the business to clear the way: Fisher was the daughter of songwriter Fred Fisher, and Irene Higinbotham, the sister of musician J.C. Higinbotham. Last, but definitely not least, was the time-honored connection of romance or marriage, Lil Hardin Armstrong’s to Louis Armstrong being perhaps the best known. Irene Wilson Kitchings was married to pianist Teddy Wilson for a time.

Issues still remain regarding the authorship of songs and jazz compositions: has it at times been erroneously assigned and have women been properly credited for collaborations? Have those whose works which are part of our oral and recorded traditions been properly acknowledged? These questions will be the basis for important historical work in the future and continue to establish women’s contributions as songwriters and composers within the jazz tradition.

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