after women became accepted in other artistic fields, women in music —
whether classical, jazz or pop — still faced the barrier of male
chauvinism. Historically, men in jazz rarely hired women musicians, and
those women who crossed the gender barrier with seeming ease were usually
pianists. Of the women who became famous in jazz before the 1960s, most
played piano — Lovie Austin, Lil Hardin, Cleo Brown, Mary Lou Williams,
Dorothy Donegan, Hazel Scott and Marian McPartland. They represent all the
women of originality and brilliance who have been present in jazz music
since its inception. The contributions of these women have more than
ephemeral significance, and it is enlightening to focus on the significant
contribution of a female artist who, for more than five decades, has been
central to the mainstream of jazz history and who loudly applauds her
sisters in jazz.
McPartland (b. 1918), a classically trained white English
pianist, entered the American jazz scene in 1946 as the
bride of Jimmy McPartland (1907-1991), a pioneer jazz
cornet player. When interest was shown in the jazz career
of Marian McPartland, it focused on her unique position as
a white Englishwoman in the predominantly black American
jazz scene. If jazz is the music of defiance, Marian
McPartland defied all odds. Prior to her debut in New York
in 1952, critic Leonard Feather, later recognised as
championing female musicians, wrote that McPartland had
three strikes against her — being English, white and a
woman (Down Beat, 1952).
Preferring to regard his prediction as an accolade, Marian
McPartland triumphed over Feather's handicapping to become
a superior musician who never felt sexual discrimination
very intensely because she was good enough to lead her own
groups (Porter, 1984).
entrée into the jazz world through her husband, Marian McPartland quickly
distinguished herself, winning rave reviews for her lyrical
interpretations of ballads. In New York, the toughest of all jazz
environments, she began a long engagement at the Hickory House, a famous
midtown Manhattan jazz club and restaurant. Leading her own trio, she
called the tunes, challenging herself and her sidemen to creative
risk-taking and fresh interpretations of jazz standards.
was never in a position of waiting to be hired because I had my own trio,
so I could call up the guys and hire them. So I guess I was women's
libbing it long before there was a name for it, and I didn't think about
it, or think it was anything strange (Feather, 1976:177)
also turned sexual politics to her advantage:
my own combo, I was never in the position of waiting to be hired by some
leader who might have harbored one prejudice or another. In fact, being a
woman could be an asset. It was unusual enough for people to remember me
and club owners hire musicians who draw audiences. They don't care if the
draw is a man or a woman (Gottlieb, 1978).
her own career blossomed, Marian McPartland was acutely aware that
existing writings on jazz failed to account for the place of women in the
art form. The lives of women in jazz were “hidden histories” in
encyclopaedias of jazz composed by men. There was a dearth of studies by
women about women's music making and the status of women in jazz. In 1975,
it was a breakthrough for all women musicians when Marian McPartland was
commissioned to write about her contribution and the significant status of
women in jazz for Esquire. In her essay, entitled You've Come a
Long Way, Baby, McPartland acknowledges the influence of pioneer jazz
women Lil Hardin Armstrong, Cleo Brown, Hazel Scott and Mary Lou Williams.
McPartland writes of these exceptional women who transcended the label
“woman musician”, giving voice to their common strengths.
had a musical education. Each has developed her own style, sense of
purpose, inner security, flexibility, organisation, and knowledge of her
instrument. These are the requirements for any musician, male or female
and always have been (McPartland, 1975).
document, Marian McPartland inscribed her own life, and the lives of other
jazz women into jazz history.
addressing the question of why so few women succeed in jazz, McPartland
refers to the many accomplishments of women in the jazz field who inspired
her at the outset of her career. However, her first and main influence was
not a woman, but Duke Ellington, whose unique orchestral sounds and way of
voicing chords enthralled Marian. Having moved to the United States, and
encouraged enormously by her husband, Jimmy, Marian listened avidly to
every jazz group she could, seeking out other women musicians. Impressive
in their technique and feeling were vibraharpists Margie Hyams,
Dardanelle, Terry Pollard and Alice McLeod (later Coltrane). Along with
pianists such as Barbara Carroll, Jeri Southern, Toshiko Akiyoshi and
Norma Teagarden, Marian was equally impressed by trumpeter Norma Carson,
guitarist Mary Osborn, alto saxophonist Vi Redd, trombonist and arranger
Melba Liston, bassist Carlene Rey and drummer Dottie Dodgion.
acknowledgement of women as competent jazz instrumentalists contrasts with
the long-accepted role of the female jazz vocalist. In her quest to
develop the skills of a professional jazz woman, Marian McPartland found
singers and their interpretations of songs a great source of inspiration.
From singers such as Bessie Smith, Lee Wiley, Mildred Bailey, Anita O'Day,
Ethel Waters, Ivy Anderson, Helen Merrill, June Christy, Sarah Vaughan,
Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Carmen McRae and Ella
Fitzgerald, Marian found inspiration in their renditions of beautiful
songs. She stresses the importance of interpreting the lyrics in
expressing the feeling inherent in a tune.
of female singers was always assured in jazz. For the instrumentalists,
their ability was often defined by biased remarks such as “You play just
like a man”, or “Not bad for a woman”. The prevailing view at that time
was that a woman who played in a forthright manner was playing like a man.
Mary Lou Williams, demonstrating direct tough ideas, and a strong sense of
knowing where she was going, gave the advice “When you're playing for
people, just be yourself. Anything you are comes out in your music”.
Marian McPartland has lived by this dictum.
listening, McPartland chooses not to distinguish between male and female
musicians, regarding each musician as having individual creative gifts.
She makes the point that there has never been any difference in the union
scale, whether the musician was male or female. In 1978, three years after
her article in Esquire, a respected critic referred to jazz as “a
particularly male music . . . for which most women lack the physical
equipment — to say nothing of the poise”. The same year saw a new and
significant development in jazz, the first Women's Jazz Festival in Kansas
City. Jazz women of technical maturity and extensive experience rubbed
shoulders with eager younger artists full of potential and vitality. The
true test of a musician is her music, and a Festival such as this
emphasized the truth that women have participated fully in the creation of
jazz music since its beginnings.
background in classical music, Marian McPartland was an unlikely candidate
for a jazz career, but having surmounted so many intangible obstacles, she
occupies a position of eminence. She has become a symbol of achievement
for all women in music. Involved in a myriad of jazz-related projects over
the 54 years of her career in the United States, McPartland works
consistently for the advancement of the music and the recognition of the
women who perform it. Gone are the days when women musicians were unsung.
Today they are heard alongside men expressing themselves in an idiom which
is, for them, a burning necessity. Women have so much to say through jazz
music, that the world needs to hear, loud and clear, what men cannot say
Feather, L. (1952) “Marian
McPartland”. Down Beat Magazine.
—————— (1976) “Marian McPartland” in The
Pleasures of Jazz: Leading
Performers on Their Lives, Their Music, Their
Contemporaries. New York: Dell Publishing.
Gottlieb, A. (1978) “Marian McPartland: Everything a
Jazz Musician Is Not Supposed to Be”. Ms. March.
McPartland, M. (1987) “All in Good Time'“. New York:
Oxford University Press.
McPartland, M. (1975) “You've Come a Long Way, Baby”.
Esquire's World of Jazz. New York: Esquire Inc.
Porter, L. (1984) “She Wiped all the Men Out”. Music
Educators Journal. September.