When you think of women in jazz during the formative years from the 1920s to the 1940s, only pianists and singers will readily come to mind.
Lil Hardin (1898-1971) was a cornerstone of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven. In fact, she married him. Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) was an inventive player and brilliant arranger, notably for Andy Kirk and later for Dizzy Gillespie.There were those who combined piano playing with singing, such as Cleo Brown (1909-1995) and Fats Waller protégée Una Mae Carlisle (1915-1956), paving the way for the likes of Nina Simone (1933-2003) and Diana Krall (b 1964). (Bluffers will, of course, controversially state that Simone, like Nat King Cole, was a better pianist than a singer.) Julia Lee (1902-1958) was a fine two-handed rocking pianist with a sly voice that she used to deliver cheekily smutty numbers such as I Didn’t Like it the First Time. The lyrics might refer to spinach but the meaning was concerned with something else entirely.
There are also a number of other names that every good jazz bluffer will need to know — and be able to drop at will…
Va lai da Snow (1903-1956)
In the early days, women who played any instrument other than the piano, or sometimes the guitar, were so rare as to be deemed mere curiosities, irrespective of any talent they might have. One name that might briefly dazzle in a bluffing bout is Valaida Snow, a hot trumpet player much admired by Louis Armstrong and even more so by Earl Hines, who became her lover. She came to London in the mid-1930s and made some records; for a bonus point you could mention that the drummer was George Elrick, who became much more famous for being the presenter of Housewives’ Choice on the BBC Light Programme.
Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)
Thanks to Every Time We Say Goodbye, Ella Fitzgerald became perhaps the most widely known of all jazz singers. Her version of Cole Porter’s sentimental dirge has become a firm favourite for funerals, ranked equivalent with Frank Sinatra’s solipsistic anthem My Way and Louis Armstrong’s saccharine What a Wonderful World. You will be on fairly safe ground when pointing out what a terrible irony it is that artists with such incredible jazz credentials should be best remembered for revealing that even they have feet of clay.
Connee Boswell (1907-1976)
Ella’s earliest singing idol, Connee Boswell, was raised in New Orleans, the cradle of jazz, but not born there as many people think. And here’s another irony: the woman Ella admired so much was white, though to hear her you’d never know it. Connee had a deep, furry sound and an instinct for the rhythmic possibilities of whatever she sang. She acknowledged her own influences to be the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith (1894-1938), Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Enrico Caruso. You will gain serious bluffing points for suggesting that her best recordings were made with her sisters, Martha and Vet. And the odd bonus point could come from a mention of the records she made with Crosby, which illustrate how they were obviously made for each other. Funny how operatic tenors crop up as inspiration for jazz singers: Connee claimed Caruso, Crosby claimed John McCormack. There’s no proof that Louis Armstrong swooned at the sound of the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli, but there’s no proof that he didn’t either, so stir it in.
Teddy Grace (1905-1992)
Teddy Grace wasn’t born in New Orleans either, but sang and sounded as though she should have been. For the record, she was actually born in Arcadia, which you know is the ancient Greek ideal of bucolic romanticism, except that this one was in Louisiana. She recorded with some of the greats, such as Charlie Shavers and Bud Freeman, as well as Bob Crosby’s band. She literally sang her voice to destruction, losing it for good on a morale-boosting tour during the Second World War, and for the rest of her life was barely able to speak. Teddy is worth dealing into any bluffing bout, if only to bamboozle other bluffers who think she was a man. This gender confusion has parallels in literary bluffing. ‘Oh, Evelyn Waugh, she’s such a good writer, I admire her work immensely,’ you might hear a badly briefed bluffer say as they’re teetering on the edge of an elephant trap. Followed by ‘And as for George Eliot, he has no equal’, as they pitch headlong into it. Some might say that the likes of Teddy, Connee, Julia and Una Mae are examples of the small change of jazz, but they are the bits of precious metal that’s there to be found when you sort through the humbler coinage. You should always have a pocketful to scatter among your poorer bluffees. And you must never forget to mention the two other female titans of jazz: Billie Holiday and Rosemary Clooney.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
Holiday possessed one of those voices that could never be mistaken for anyone else’s: intense, sad and filled with pain (genuinely felt). Some jazz purists might claim that she was a blues or ‘pop’ singer; but you won’t stand for that. Answer dismissively that she actually transcended musical genres and that her singing style was unique and extraordinary.
Rosemary Clooney (1928-2002)
Clooney was no stranger to pain either, descending into a drink- and drug-fuelled depressive hell in her late 30s. Although this condition is actually obligatory for most jazz singers, she managed to haul herself out of the abyss and reinstated her reputation as an accomplished TV performer, actor and recording artist in the 1970s. Bluffers will need to know that she co-starred opposite Bing Crosby in White Christmas (1954) and that she was the much-loved aunt of George Clooney.
For more musical notes about hep cats and jazz divas, consult The Bluffer’s Guide to Jazz®