Interview Date: August 24, 2011 @7pm EDT
Special Guest: Jimmy Scott (a.k.a. "Little" Jimmy Scott). This week I talk to one of my favourite jazz legends of all time, the great Jimmy Scott. Mr.Scott is famous for among other things, singing the most beautiful ballads in the most hauntingly high unwavering alto voice and for his unique relaxed behind the beat delivery. He is known in jazz circles as having both a tragic and inspirational life and career. In this podcast we talk to Jimmy Scott about Herman Lubinsky, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, going into the studio with Ray Charles and even a funny story with Quincy Jones. Once again, I’d like to apologize about the quality of the recording.
Women in Jazz
Jazz is an art form of seminal and innovative concepts. But, like Jimmy Scott, not everybody, or every innovation was able, or sometimes even welcomed to take root regardless of merit. The reasons for this are as many as there are opinions in Jazz. With Jimmy Scott, apparently the issue still stirs extreme emotions in the high echelons of jazz historians.
The experience of women in Jazz is complicated, singers being somewhat more accepted than instrumentalists and pianists over the other instrumentalists, but female jazz musicians were often excluded, or minimized, judged prominently on their sex appeal, and sometimes even ridiculed. George T. Simon, writer, producer, one time drummer for the Glenn Miller orchestra, and “ . . . probably the most influential jazz commentator during the swing era”1 wrote once that “Only God can make a tree . . . and only men can play good jazz.”2 People might be quick to mention Mary Lou Williams and Billy Holiday as being well respected in the jazz world, but these token acceptances were more about the females eschewing femininity and conforming to male rules than sexist males relaxing their conditions towards females. For example, Mary Lou Williams has been quoted as saying that she was “just like one of the boys.”3 Billie Holiday, “drank and cursed and gambled with the men on the bus as if she were one of them.”4 Band member Sweets Edison said of her, “She was like a man, only feminine.”5 whatever that means, but the point I'm trying to make is that they had to cast away their womanhood in order to gain acceptance for whatever degree that was granted.
Of Ella Fitzgerald, the schizophrenic acceptance of singers can be seen with what George T. Simon (who wrote that only men can play good jazz) said of Fitzgerald in Metronome magazine, “Unheralded, and practically unknown right now, but what a future, and there's no reason why she won't be the best in time to come.”6 Yet, when Chick Webb sent out his vocalist, Charles Linton, to search for a new vocalist for the band and he returned with Fitzgerald, Webb shouted “You're not going to put THAT on my bandstand!”7 (referring to her looks) It was only on Linton's insistence that she was allowed to try out; once she did and was accepted into the band, they gained wider popularity and several hits. It was stated in Ken Burns Jazz that Webb accepting Fitzgerald into his band was the best decision he ever made.8
Still, these were only exceptions to the rule; most women, especially instrumentalists, orchestrators and, all-girl bands were judged much more harshly, or simply dismissed. The bands, one source insists there were hundreds of all-girl bands, some even gaining some notoriety, never were fully recognized on their merit. “Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears were the first successful women's jazz band. Known as 'the Blonde Bombshell,' the press described her undulating movements more often than her musicianship.”9 One critic insisted that an especially good track of theirs had to be dubbed by a male band.10 Another orchestra that was largely overlooked despite the quality of musicians was the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Not only were they a groundbreaking orchestra for their sex, but they were also the first racially integrated women's group. They defied the Jim Crow laws of the south and skirted arrest by masking the lighter skinned girls on stage. Based on their musical merit, they were good enough to be named "America's #1 All-Girl Orchestra" by Down Beat magazine.11 Yet, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were largely ignored in popular histories of jazz. And still, regardless of the music they produced, or the merit they garnered through their music, all-girl bands were seen as something separate and lesser than their male counterparts; one writer states “in texts where one or two of the hundred of all-woman bands are permitted a type of existence, they are written about in isolation, as if each was a novelty, a gimmick, a dancing dog in the field of real music.”12 Thank God women can sing.
Perhaps the reason why females were more accepted as singers is because that's the one area where there was little chance for overlap, and thus competition with men—to sing in the upper registers, unless they sang falsetto. (this makes me think of the BeeGee's, or the Darkness doing a jazz number, maybe it's your thing, but to me it sounds ridiculous.) This is where Jimmy Scott comes in as a rare exception; having a naturally high voice due to Kallman's Syndrome, his voice was high, but noticeably unforced, smooth, male, and truly soulful. His re-accounted tales of why he received limited exposure and promotion are covered in the last article and the current and previous podcast.
So why then were female pianists given more acceptance? One explanation which came out of the 1940's said it was due to the piano being less strenuous than the wind instruments or the drums.13 One needs only to watch Dorothy Donegan, Clora Bryant, or Earnestine “Tiny” Davis at work if it doesn't at first sound foolish. Yes, they're standouts of their craft, but there are endless others to call upon if you still hold this chauvinistic and idiotic idea. Whether females were pushed to the piano through sexism, naturally gravitated to it, or for whatever reason has yet to be determined. One writer claimed it was a financial matter, “Unable to financially support a band behind them, many singers accompanied themselves on the piano. Rose Murphy, Nellie Lutcher, Nina Simone, Blossom Dearie, Dorothy Donegan, Mary McPartland, and Shirley Horn belonged to an era defined by necessity. If female singers were to continue practising their art they had to be, for the most part, self-sufficient.”14 Perhaps there happened to be more acceptance of female pianists because there simply were more of them than any other instrumentalist. Acceptance through familiarity, or oversaturation, if you will. Prejudice, partly, stems from fear of the unknown. I think there just happened to be enough females at the piano to erode away, somewhat at least, the established and inculcated sexist prejudice. To back up this notion with evidence and documentation is beyond my resources and the scope of this article, but I'll stand by it until proven otherwise. Maybe the men just relaxed around the piano knowing they had the unconquerable king of Art Tatum in their corner.
But so if they did place their faith in Art Tatum, why then didn't Dorothy Donegan get more notoriety? “The Legendary Art Tatum sought her out and became her mentor.”15 That should have been a big enough seal of approval, but it wasn't so. Notoriety came in later years, but certainly not to the degree she was worthy of, not in her earlier career; not for a protege of Art Tatum's, regardless of sex, of whom he said “the only woman who can make me practice.” 16 “She was one of the nation’s most respected but little known jazz artists who certainly should have enjoyed greater recognition and appreciation of her talent and contribution to jazz.”17 She gained a position in the spotlight at times. She landed a centre stage bit in the movie Sensations of 1945 complete with revolving piano on stage with Cab Calloway; her stride piano technique puts the viewer in awe. As part of the Newport Jazz Festival, she played at the White House for President Bill Clinton. She was so talented, but her first handful of albums fell into obscurity, and afterwards it was really her live performances that gained her renown18 And not only is she a stellar piano player, but also an excellent entertainer as well. Some said too good; Ben Ratliff in The New York Times said “her concerts were often criticized for having an excess of personality.”19 I guess she emerged from an era of limited and begrudging acceptance to one where women gained acceptance for being good at something, but they damn well better well be demure about it.
Clora Bryant was another stand out that never got the attention she deserved despite being one of the most talented trumpeters, (or trumpetiste, her own moniker). She was part of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm for a while. She gained attention from Dizzy Gillespie and had modest success and “appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and later became the first American female jazz musician to play in the Soviet Union on a request from Mikhail Gorbachev.”20
It can be explained away by saying the women just had it tough because these were the times and conditions in which they lived, but that's too simple and not good enough. For a form of music so innovative and border-crossing, why wasn't it more accepting of women in the field? Maybe it had something to do with the mentality of the audience they had to play to, and on which they rely for success. The audience: the amorphous body of people--less eager, or able to let go of conservative thinking, and that in turn influenced the musicians. That's the most positive explanation I can come up with, rather than simply that all men were jerks in those days, and perhaps still are. I wonder what Diana Krall thinks about it.
Guthrie Alan Corwin
Nota Bene: this article was written in a limited time frame with limited resources. Less than a few days to research with only a public library and the internet at hand for research and less than a day to write. Please excuse me if there are errors and omissions. Feel free to note them for an addendum.
I would like to give another BIG THANK YOU to the Jazz/Country Community for being so fantastic! Once again these are some sites to check out:
“Jazz Lives” – Probably the most factual, Knowledgeable and entertaining Jazz website out there. It really is the real deal! FYI, will be having the owner of the site Michael Steinman on the show on the next couple of weeks! BTW, they were kind enough to write a really nice review about my last article. Check it out here: http://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2011/11/16/the-horror-the-horror-jimmy-scott-talks-about-herman-lubinsky/
“JazzWax” – The largest Jazz blogging post going put a really nice post about me too! Thank you Marc Myres; that was really kind. Check out the post here: http://www.jazzwax.com/
I also had a really nice write up about my Ray Price post on the site “A Hank Williams Journal.” Thank you John Waugh (I’ll ask about Hanks back for next time). Read the article here:
In Guthrie’s studies for this article he came across a movie/website called www.thegirlsintheband.com; it obviously shares the same sentiment as the article. The movie looks really great so I thought I might put the trailer on the site. The movie which just premeired at the Vancouver Film Festival and will appear in the Dubai Film Fest and shown in Palm Springs, and Cleveland (more dates to be announced) is looking for funding for the music rights so they can sell it to a distributor. If there are any angels out there you can contact Judy Chaikin at firstname.lastname@example.org:
Lastly, I thought I might post another video that Guthrie stumbled across that was quite entertaining. It is trumpeter Joe Wilder talking about "performing in Charleston in 1948 with Lucky Millender's integrated big band". Check it out here:
- Simon, The Big Bands, (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1967) p.261. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_T._Simon
- Jazz. Dir. Ken Burns PBS. 2000.
- (2007) "Helen Jones". Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Sweethearts_of_Rhythm
- Tucker, Sherrie Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940's p4.
- Hager, Andrew G. Satin Dolls: The Women of Jazz p55.
- Waldron, Clarence (December 1983) Dorothy Donegan: Bouncey as Ever at Age 61. Ebony pp.87-90 ISSN 00129011 Fromhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Donegan
- Ratliff, Ben (22 May 1998). "Dorothy Donegan, 76, Flamboyant Jazz Pianist". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/05/22/arts/dorothy-donegan-76-flamboyant-jazz-pianist.html. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Donegan
- Ankeny, Jason. "Clora Bryant". allmusic. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/p10237/biography. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clora_Bryant