Get Lit: Women In Jazz

Becker’s Book Strengthens The Genre

Robin Babb
4 min read
Women in Jazz
Pianist Connie Crothers (Peter Gannushkin)
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You’ve probably heard of Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five. But did you know that before Satchmo even came to New Orleans, The Hot Five was Lil Hardin’s (soon to be Lil Hardin Armstrong) band?

In the new book
Freedom of Expression: Interviews with Women in Jazz, Chris Becker unearths that and some other lesser-known jazz history and shines a light on some of the musicians who so often go untalked about: the women.

Though you wouldn’t know it from most history books, women musicians were an integral part of the pioneering of jazz music and have been active in the continuing evolution of the genre. In
Freedom of Expression, conversations with 37 different contemporary female jazz musicians weave a story of the unsung heroines, the anonymous session musicians and the modern game-changers.

The title of the book comes from a Duke Ellington quote about jazz. In a larger sense, though, freedom of expression is what these 37 musicians have all pursued and fought for throughout their careers, frequently facing extreme prejudice, doubt and outright erasure from both within and without the music community. The singers, instrumentalists and producers interviewed in
Freedom of Expression have triumphed by proving their talent and finding success in a world that’s not always sympathetic. The list of interviewees includes the likes of Dee Dee Bridgewater, Helen Sung, Brandee Younger, Aurora Nealand and Jan Leder.

In the introduction, Becker gives a brief history of jazz and the women who had a role in its evolution, from the more obvious (Lady Day, Ella Fitzgerald) to the lesser-known (Mary Lou Williams, Dorothy Ashby and Hazel Scott). From the roots of jazz in New Orleans at the start of the 20th century to the influx of female musicians during World War II to the influence of world music on modern-day jazz, Becker combines musical history with social history, addressing the impact that the women’s liberation movement has had on music and vice versa.

For each musician interviewed, Becker provides a short introduction to their career, style and how their work has had an impact. Connie Crothers—the pianist adorning the cover of the book—is important as a bridge between the jazz that interprets standard tunes and the jazz that improvises and as an example of a new business model in music: In 1982 she founded her own label, New Artist Records, to produce her own and others’ music. This story is a common one among the artists in
Freedom of Expression: Dee Dee Bridgewater, the jazz singer, also started her own record label, and the prodigal drummer and producer Terri Lyne Carrington produced the Grammy-award-winning album The Mosaic Project, a compilation of tracks by many respected female musicians and singers.

In a world where record companies are increasingly unlikely to pick up experimental or niche artists, many female jazz musicians have found the DIY method to be ideal.

Each interview is in-depth and organic. Becker asks many of the same questions of each artist, but is also a lively conversationalist and draws unique long-form answers from his interviewees. He clearly knows the oeuvres of each musician and—as somebody with a musical background himself—knows about many of the challenges that these artists face. But he also knows the challenges that he hasn’t faced: He acknowledges his male perspective and his advantage. As Mindi Abair mentions in her interview, “One day we won’t need a book called
Women in Jazz. Until that day comes, I’m glad that we’ve got such a book.
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