It seems natural to follow last week’s post about Women in Jazz Day in New York and the many women in jazz festivals out there with a post on the fifth and sixth episodes of Ken Burns’ film JAZZ. For the first time in the series, these episodes give us biographies of influential women in jazz world. In fact, details about women’s lives are conspicuously absent in the first half of the series – to be sure, there were fewer women who were well-known in the early years of jazz, but the film could have explored in more depth the life of Lil Hardin, for example. Hardin, who is mentioned in a previous episode, was an accomplished jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and band leader. She also played the role of PR agent for her husband Louis Armstrong, advising him on how to dress and which jobs to take, and coordinating some of his advertising.
Episode six of JAZZ, “Swing: The Velocity of Celebration,” includes stories from the careers of singers Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, and pianist Mary Lou Williams. Both five and six show the career of Billie Holiday, who faced poverty, abuse and neglect as a child and grew to be one of the most vocally artistic singers of jazz. The film gives a poignant treatment of Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit,” a somewhat graphic and incredibly moving song written by Abel Meeropol about racism and lynching.
The episode also gives a taste of the difficulties and prejudice women in jazz have faced. It quotes a piece from the jazz magazine Down Beat saying in 1938, “Why is it that outside of a few sepia females, the woman musician never was born capable of sending anyone further than the nearest exit? You can forgive them for lacking guts in their playing, but even women should be able to play with feeling and expression, and they never do it.”
We wish we could send a video of Yoko’s playing one of her own compositions, such as Wheel of Life, back in time to that Down Beat writer, but he could have also been proven wrong if he had listened to some of the great musicians of his own time!