Women’s History Month: Women of Jazz

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega searches old newspapers to learn more about some of the women pioneers in jazz. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

The 1920s was a decade of shorter skirts, speakeasies, bathtub gin, and jazz. Even today, most people are familiar with those early jazz legends like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. But what about the women of jazz? Some of their names are also familiar, like the great Ella Fitzgerald, while others have been forgotten with time.

Old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives, help us remember those forgotten musicians of yesteryear.

Lil Hardin Armstrong (1898-1971)

The Armstrong name is synonymous with jazz, but Mrs. Armstrong was a musician in her own right before she helped to make her husband a star. Lil Hardin was a pianist with the King Oliver band when Louis Armstrong was invited to join. Hardin was initially not impressed with Armstrong, but eventually helped him develop a new look and then later encouraged him to seek fame outside of Oliver’s band.

An article about Lil Armstrong, Oregonian newspaper article 26 November 1961
Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 26 November 1961, page 112

Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong were married in 1924, but eventually separated in 1931 and divorced in 1938. This 1938 newspaper article publicly airs their problems, with accusations of desertion by Louis.

An article about Lil Armstrong's divorce from Louis Armstrong, Metropolitan Post newspaper article 24 September 1938
Metropolitan Post (Chicago, Illinois), 24 September 1938, page 16

Although Lil and Louis divorced, they remained friendly and Lil was known to be billed professionally as Mrs. Louis Armstrong. Lil continued her jazz career after the divorce, which included leading bands (including an all-female band), singing, and playing the piano. Some of Lil’s songs include “Born to Swing” and “Bluer than Blue.”

An ad for a concert by Lil Armstrong, Bags and Baggage newspaper advertisement 1 May 1938
Bags and Baggage (Chicago, Illinois), 1 May 1938, page 4

After the death of Louis Armstrong in July 1971, Lil played in a memorial concert in his honor. Tragically, she collapsed at the piano during the concert and died a little over a month after Louis’ death.

An obituary for Lil Armstrong, Springfield Union newspaper article 28 August 1971
Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 28 August 1971, page 3

Blanche Calloway (1902-1978)

One of my favorite women in jazz is Blanche Calloway, who was the sister of the more recognized singer Cab Calloway. Like Lil Hardin Armstrong, Blanche was a singer, composer, and band leader. Her career began in 1921 and included important milestones like being the first woman to conduct an all-male jazz band.

A hit musician, Blanche is thought to have originated one of Cab Calloway’s signature lines, “Hi De Ho,” in a song she recorded in 1931.

An article about Blanche Calloway, Negro Star newspaper article 4 August 1933
Negro Star (Wichita, Kansas), 4 August 1933, page 3

Not surprisingly, Blanche Calloway experienced racial and sexual discrimination in the music industry and beyond. While traveling in Mississippi in 1937, her tour bus made a stop where Blanche and another woman in her group used a “whites only” gas station bathroom. The following newspaper article states that:

Apparently the gas station manager called the police because the tourist convenience had been used by Negroes, for in less than five minutes two policemen approached the bus with drawn guns…

When the police officers asked her husband where the two women were, they quickly followed up their question by beating him with their gun and fists. Blanche and her husband were arrested and jailed. While they were in jail, another band member left with the band’s earnings. Calloway ended up selling her car for money so that she could leave the state.

An article about Blanche Calloway, Plaindealer newspaper article 18 June 1937
Plaindealer (Kansas City, Kansas), 18 June 1937, page 1

Blanche eventually found it difficult to find gigs due to segregation, so she worked at other jobs after World War II such as nightclub manager and radio DJ. She went on to become an entrepreneur and founded the cosmetics company Afram House.

An ad for Afram House cosmetics, Bulletin newspaper advertisement 15 October 1969
Bulletin (Chicago, Illinois), 15 October 1969, page 12

Blanche Calloway died in December 1978 at the age of 76 years.

An obituary for Blanche Calloway, Arkansas Democrat newspaper article 18 December 1978
Arkansas Democrat (Little Rock, Arkansas), 18 December 1978, page 22

Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)

Ask anyone about great female jazz singers and most people think of Ella Fitzgerald, “The First Lady of Song.”

Photo: Ella Fitzgerald, 1968
Photo: Ella Fitzgerald, 1968. Credit: the Fraser MacPherson estate c/o Guy MacPherson; Wikimedia Commons.

Ella was discovered as a teenager when she won the chance to perform at the Apollo theatre and went on to sing for audiences worldwide. She was the most popular female jazz singer for over 50 years and won 13 Grammy awards and sold 40 million albums.* This newspaper cartoon recalls the story of Ella’s beginnings in jazz.

An article about Ella Fitzgerald, Los Angeles Tribune newspaper article 20 September 1943
Los Angeles Tribune (Los Angeles, California), 20 September 1943, page 18

Ella worked with the greats of jazz: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Joe Pass, and Louis Armstrong partnered with Ella. She even sang with Frank Sinatra.  Her hit songs included “A-Tisket A-Tasket” and the classics “Cry Me a River” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”

Like other African American performers, she experienced her share of bigotry and prejudice. One story suggests that Ella had some help in overcoming at least some of the racism she experienced. It is said that Marilyn Monroe called the owner of the Mocambo club in the 1950s and said that if he booked Ella, she would be there every night and take a front table to watch the singer. Marilyn and the owner both knew that her presence would bring the club press attention. Ella credited Monroe and said that she never had to play a small jazz club again because of what Marilyn did.**

An article about Ella Fitzgerald, Greensboro Record newspaper article 19 September 1955
Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 19 September 1955, page 14

Ella’s final performance, at the age of 74 years, was in 1991 at Carnegie Hall. By that time, she had recorded over 200 albums. Ella’s failing health meant that she was not able to continue performing. Ella Fitzgerald died on 15 June 1996 at her home in Beverly Hills, California.***

An obituary for Ella Fitzgerald, Daily Advocate newspaper article 16 June 1996
Daily Advocate (Stamford, Connecticut), 16 June 1996, page 8

Women of Jazz

The early women of jazz overcame many barriers in their quest for musical success. Racism, segregation, and working in a male-dominated industry were just some of the obstacles they had to deal with. While many of their names are all but unknown to audiences today, they paved the way for today’s female musicians. Lucky for us, their accomplishments can be found in the pages of old newspapers and heard on the many recordings they left us.


* “Biography,” Ella Fitzgerld (http://www.ellafitzgerald.com/about/index.html: accessed 22 February 2017).
** Ibid.
*** Ibid.

2 thoughts on “Women’s History Month: Women of Jazz

  1. If people that write articles cared more about writing great material like you, more readers would read their content. It’s refreshing to find such original content in an otherwise copy-cat world. Thank you so much.

    1. Walter,

      Thank you for your kind comments. Those early jazz women are an important part of music history that needs to be remembered.–Gena

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