Browse through an archive of jazz writing from the last, oh, hundred years, and you'll get the distinct impression that jazz, like the NFL, has been a man's-man's-man's-man's world. "Of course," writes Margaret Howze at NPR, "we have Billie, Ella, and Sarah," and many other powerhouse female vocalists everyone knows and loves. These unforgettable voices seem to stand out as exceptions, and what's more, "when we think of women in jazz, we automatically think of singers," not instrumentalists.
Part of the marginalization of women in jazz has to do with the same kinds of cultural blind spots we find in discussions on every subject. We've been as guilty here as anyone of neglecting many great women in jazz, sadly. But women in jazz have also historically faced similar social barriers and stigmas as other women in all the arts. There are more than enough female vocalists, pianists, guitarists, trumpeters, drummers, saxophonists, bandleaders, teachers, producers to form a "worthy pantheon," yet until fairly recently, a great many women jazz musicians have worked in the shadows of more famous men.
Howze's two-part sketch of women in jazz offers a succinct chronological introduction, noting that "the piano, one of the earliest instruments that women played in jazz, allowed female artists" in the 20s and 30s "a degree of social acceptance." In those years, "female instrumentalists usually formed all-women jazz bands or played in family-based groups." One early standout musician, Dolly Hutchinson, née Jones, played the trumpet and cornet in bands all over the country. Hutchinson doesn't appear in the Women of Jazz playlist below, but you can see her at the top in a clip from Oscar Michaux's 1938 film Swing!