The piano – and the seemingly endless appetite for sheet music that accompanied it – provided the public’s main source of musical entertainment until the advent of radio and the movies. Naturally, dozens of women jazz players, songwriters, and composers have been pianists.
As outlined in Arthur Loesser‘s history Men, Women, and Pianos, homes that could afford to do so acquired a piano for the parlor; many that could not bought on “time.” It was a mark of middle class respectability. But the piano was not confined to the domestic sphere: it was also a fixture in schools, churches, theaters, gambling dens and whorehouses. Crucial to the success of women on the instrument, the piano was viewed as “gender neutral,” acceptable to either sex. Think of other instruments: on one side, the harp, with its angelic, or ultra-feminine, connotations, and on the other side, the majority of blowing and beating instruments, long the domain of boys and men. (For more on this topic, see Porter and Abeles, “The Sex Stereotyping of Instruments,” Journal of Research in Music Education, Summer l978; and Dahl, “My Sax is a Sex Symbol,” in Stormy Weather, 1989.)
As legions of neighborhood teachers taught an ever-expanding crop of new players – education also being an acceptable female occupation – the piano helped to create an insatiable public appetite for new songs. Music to fit all tastes and abilities could be bought cheaply and easily throughout America: classical music, folk songs, sentimental “heart and home” tunes, coon songs (a legacy of minstrelsy), and ragtime. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that many of the women who were trained on this instrument wrote popular songs and jazz compositions that could be played on it. Piano skills were also a great advantage to those who would arrange and compose.
Many African-American women worked as bandleaders and pianists in the thriving vaudeville theaters around the country. Some, most notably Lovie Austin, born Cora Calhoun (l887-l972), were important composers and arrangers as well. Austin became an influential presence in Chicago in the l920s, as leader of the pit band at the renowned Monogram Theater, one of the important venues for the best African American acts on the Theater Owners’ Booking Association circuit (TOBA).
Mary Lou Williams, who was a young pianist when she saw Austin in the early l920s, recalled: “You can imagine my surprise and thrill to see a woman sitting in the pit with four or five other male musicians, with her legs crossed, cigarette in her mouth, playing the show with her left hand and writing the music with her right hand for the next act to come on the stage.…I thought ‘I am going to do that one day,’ and I did.”
It was a rarity for African American women to study music at the university level, but the Chattanooga-born Austin had done just that at Roger Williams and Knoxville Colleges. Tellingly, like nearly any black woman who eschewed teaching neighborhood children, she had a long and hard apprenticeship—even with her college level credentials. Like virtually every African American musician of the era (and most white jazz musicians), she played her music in the less than savory surroundings of mob-controlled nightclubs and the red light districts.
But Austin persisted. She wrote the music for and directed her own shows: The Sunflower Girls and Lovie Austin’s Revue. Not only was she the leader of the Monogram Theater band, but landed plum recording work as the house pianist for Paramount Records during the mid 1920s. Austin was able to record many of her own compositions and those which were collaborations and arrangements for entertainers of the era: “Graveyard Blues,” “Down Hearted Blues,” “Travelin’ Blues,” “Frog Tongue Stomp,” “In the Alley Blues,” and many, many others. She was associated with Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, and Ida Cox and recorded under her own name with the Blues Serenaders.
Another talented pianist and composer arrived in Chicago on Austin’s heels: Lil Hardin Armstrong (1902-71). She, too, had studied music formally; she completed two and a half years at Fisk University. Despite her education, she felt herself lucky enough to get a job demonstrating sheet music, a common selling technique of the era, at Jones’s Music Store on State Street. The pay was a mere three dollars a week.
Known at the music store as “The Jazz Wonder Child,” Lil soon found better-paying work accompanying “hot bands” from New Orleans. Often she was the only player who knew how to read music. In short order, she landed a job with trumpeter King Oliver and his band, which included Oliver’s protégé, Louis Armstrong. Thus began her most important musical and romantic partnership. Hardin Armstrong, who by her own estimate composed about l50 pieces during her lifetime, authored a number of the classics performed by Armstrong’s Hot Five (which also recorded as Lil’s Hot Shots) and Hot Seven: “Struttin’ With Some Barbeque,” “My Heart,” “You’re Next,” “I’m Gonna Gitcha,” “Droppin’ Shucks,” “The King of the Zulus,” “Skid-Dat-de-Dat,” “Jazz Lips,” and “Lonesome Blues.”
In l926, Lil played piano, and co-composed with Louis the bulk of the material on Columbia recordings credited to the New Orleans Bootblacks and New Orleans Wanderers, including “Flat Foot,” “Mad Dog,” “Mixed Salad,” “Gate Mouth,” and “Too Tight.” She also co-wrote “Perdido Street Blues” (l926) and “Just for a Thrill” (l936), also the title of her recent biography by James Dickerson. She did arrangements for three of her own bands during the Swing Era: The Harlem Harlicans, plus another all-woman band, and an all-male band including George Clark, Dick Vance, and Jonah Jones. As the house pianist for Decca between 1935-1940, she made records under her own name and with a variety of other musicians. Poor health limited her activities in later years and she died while performing at Louis’s memorial tribute in Chicago.
From JAZZHERS: A partial hyperHERstory of women popular songwriters and jazz composers
By Linda Dahl
© 2002 NewMusicBox