Women’s History Month 2016: The Girls in the Band

In celebration of tonight’s premiere Swing Sisterhood concert, the final WHM2016 post today is dedicated to those female musicians throughout jazz history who deserve their due, even if history obscured them.

Last year I covered Melba Liston‘s incredible influence on jazz trombone. But she wasn’t the only female musician making waves in the jazz era. Groups like The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Lil-Hardin’s All Girl Band, Lena Kidd Quartet, and Ivy Benson and Her All Girl Orchestra played with skill and swing.

While it may have been seen or imagined as a publicity schtick, all-girl orchestras provided (and continue to provide) a place for talented musicians to come together and perform in an industry that shunned them otherwise. If they weren’t singers or pianists, women musicians didn’t have much of a shot in the jazz world. On top of that, female musicians playing in male majority bands faced harassment, discrimination, and worse.

International Sweethearts of Rhythm Trombone section. Credit: http://jazzhotbigstep.com/170.html

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm have been widely considered one of the highest quality all-female bands in jazz history. They broke racial barriers, set jazz sales records, and helped celebrate the end of World War II in Paris with the troops. They were largely erased from history until the 1970s, when their contributions to women at work in traditional male fields became a source of study for women’s history departments.

One of my responses to ‘it’s not every day you come across a working female trombone player’ is ‘it’s not every day we get the recognition we deserve’. History is written by the victors, and for millennia, patriarchy has been winning. Because we don’t see women working in certain fields does not mean they do not exist. Representation and recognition are key to giving women, people of color, and non-binary and transgender folks their due in a world often hostile to their success. Next time you see a hard-working female musician out at a gig, consider that she may not want to be singled out for her gender alone. Give her a compliment on her musicianship. Thank her for her example. Give the girls in the band their due.

Sources for this post: Women of Jazz, All Female Bands of the 20th Century, The Girls in the Band (documentary), America’s “Sweethearts” (NPR story)

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