Wilton program uncovers the role played by women in jazz

WILTON — Lil Hardin, Mary Lou Williams, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dorothy Fields, Marian McPartland. Some are well known, some not as much, but all contributed significantly to the history of jazz in America.

The role women played in furthering this distinctly American form of music will be the subject of an illustrated talk by vocalist, pianist and composer Brenda Earle Stokes on Wednesday, Sept. 23, from 5 to 6 p.m., via Zoom.

After a five-month hiatus, this will conclude the five-part “History of Jazz in America” series presented by Wilton Library and the Wilton Historical Society. Online registration is required to receive the link to the Zoom or YouTube live stream, both of which are being used to accommodate the full sign-up list.

Stokes, who spoke with Hearst Connecticut Media from her home in New York City, said rather than focus on a particular group of women or time period she will pose the question, “why are we even having a talk on women in jazz? Why is it a thing? … Why do we even have to talk about this?”

Jazz is no different than any other entertainment medium in that it has been dominated throughout the last century by men. Stokes will look at different eras “from the all-women big bands of 20s and 30s and the rest of the women who were a very important part of the music who didn’t receive the recognition they should have,” she said.

Lil Hardin Armstrong is one example who helped further the career of her husband Louis Armstrong, while not having her own talent fully recognized.

“Not only was she the only literate member of his band the Hot Five, she also was probably responsible for the majority of his career and how he became mainstream,” Stokes said, adding “she got him a lot of gigs.” Armstrong’s Hot Five album, recorded in 1925, was critical to his early success and Hardin not only wrote one of the hits, “My Heart,” she also played piano on the recording.

Jazz, Stokes said, is not a meritocracy.

“Just because we know of someone, it’s not because they were the best,” she said. “We may canonize certain names in jazz, we raise someone up to a high level. They weren’t necessarily the best, they got the opportunity.

“There were women jazz instrumentalists and composers who because they didn’t get the opportunity, they didn’t get the recording contract. How would we know how good they were?”

Perhaps a line from the Wikipedia entry on women in jazz sums it up. “While jazz songwriting has long been a male-dominated field, there have been a few notable women jazz songwriters.”

It goes on to mention three women, including Dorothy Fields, who wrote more than 400 songs, among them “The Way You Look Tonight,” with Jerome Kern; and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby,” with Jimmy McHugh. How many songs have been left unpublished by scores of other women who faced intimidation and discrimination?

Among the impediments women faced was sexual harassment, with Stokes describing after hours in a dark club where liquor is being consumed as a “kind of wild West.”

For Black women, she said, “it was 1,000 percent more difficult. There are plenty of well-documented stories of Ella Fitzgerald having to go in the back door, even at the pinnacle of her career.”

Motherhood, too, made it difficult for women to forge careers in jazz. There was no recognition of “working mothers.”

“There was a time period when women didn’t have children or had children and disappeared,” Stokes said, naming singer and pianist Shirley Horn as an example. Horn, who collaborated with the likes of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, put her career on hold from the late 60s to the early 80s to raise her daughter, performing only near her home on occasion.

Jazz “fathers,” Stokes said, rarely faced that dilemma.

Recent improvements

Things have improved in recent years, Stoke said.

“Within the last five years, there have been significant scandals at major conservatories of discrimination, harassment, assaults — a lot of it is now out in the open and being dealt with. The industry itself is making an effort to have more diversity,” she said.

“A lot of organizations are getting pressured on why only men, or only white people. What’s happening in entertainment is happening in jazz, too.”

One woman working to help other women in jazz is drummer Sherrie Maricle, who leads the DIVA Jazz Orchestra. The orchestra is composed of 15 women who perform contemporary and big band concerts around the world.

Formed in 1992 by Stanley Kay, who managed Buddy Rich’s career, the orchestra has been a beacon for women coming up in jazz in New York City.

“A huge group of women jazz musicians have participated in that band in some way,” said Stokes, who will talk about her own relationship with the orchestra.

Working to empower women and non-binary jazz professionals and to foster inclusiveness is the Women in Jazz Organization in New York City. “It’s provided a forum for women to come clean about what has happened to us,” Stokes said.

Stokes herself came to jazz by way of classical music. She studied piano and had a natural ability, “but couldn’t get my footing in classical,” she said, finding the discipline of practicing just a few notes too repetitious.

Then, in high school, she heard Oscar Peterson’s “C Jam Blues” and “that switched a light on. This is the thing I want to do. It’s virtuosic but freeing. She left classical behind and turned her attention to jazz.

In addition to being a singer, composer and performer, Stokes serves on the faculty of Fordham University, and runs a busy private studio in New York City.

Among the women in jazz she admires are Maricle, for her “unwavering commitment to music” and trumpet player/composer Ingrid Jensen, who she describes as “an amazing composer and a mom I admire a lot for her musical abilities and capacity to do things.”

Steve Hudspeth will act as moderator for the program.