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The Women In Charge Of The Band

Mary Lou Williams performs at the Cafe Society in New York in 1947.
William Gottlieb
The Library of Congress
Mary Lou Williams performs at the Cafe Society in New York in 1947.

The narrative of jazz history often credits the music as a powerful, progressive force for racial integration in American culture. But what about gender equality? On that score, jazz in its first few decades would have to be given a less than stellar grade.

Jazz critic George Simon embodied the belief of many when he wrote that "only God can make a tree, and only men can play good jazz." Although female singers were generally accepted and often spotlighted with the big bands, female instrumentalists found the going much more difficult. While the draft depleted the ranks of male musicians in the World War II years, creating opportunities for female players and the so-called all-girl bands, the attitudes of most bandleaders, promoters and bandstand colleagues remained in keeping with Simon's sentiment.

In spite of this brass ceiling, numerous female artists — such as trombonist and arranger Melba Liston, conductor Ina Ray Hutton, vibraphonist Marjorie Hyams, pianist Marian McPartland and guitarist Mary Osborne — managed to make significant contributions. Today the environment is more hospitable for female musicians, exemplified recently by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington's all-woman album The Mosaic Project grabbing top Grammy honors for Best Jazz Vocal album in 2012.

Here are five more women (two of them alive and active) who have left their mark on jazz history in leadership roles.

Copyright 2013 WFIU

David Brent Johnson
David Brent Johnson is the host of Afterglow and Night Lights. An Indianapolis native and IU alumnus, David began his radio career at Bloomington community radio station WFHB, where he hosted the weekly jazz program All That Jazz. A writer who’s published frequently in Bloom Magazine, The Ryder, the Bloomington Independent, and Indianapolis Nuvo, he has won two Society of Professional Journalists awards for his arts writing.