Women in Jazz / Feminine Hip: a statement of strength


Photo of Ada Rovatti at The Blue Note in New York City / by Mark Bergin

Photo of Ada Rovatti at The Blue Note in New York City / by Mark Bergin

One of my recent Enchanté columns

By Mark Bergin

Jazz, that uniquely American musical genre, has grown far beyond the US border. Today, you’ll find major jazz centers in such diverse locales as Scandinavia, Europe and Japan.

From the early days of jazz, women have played an important role. Dating back to ragtime at the dawn of the 20th century, women jazz musicians have been present. Mixed with names like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington are artists like singer Ella Fitzgerald, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong (married to Louis Armstrong), and, perhaps the most iconic performer, Billie Holiday.

Italians helped bring jazz sounds into the mainstream. Italian women are numerous: Simona de Rosa, Grazia DiGiorgio, Roberta Gambarini, Simona Premazzi, Ada Rovatti, Patrizia Scascitelli and Daniela Schächter. Italian jazz is like a perfect Manhattan, made with bourbon: smooth, but so intense.

Women in the jazz scene, especially pre-1950s, were expected to have more than just instrumental skills. Their chances improved if they provided multiple services like singing and dancing for the price of one.

Then there was Valaida Snow. In addition to her reputation as Queen of the Trumpet, she played cello, guitar, banjo, harp, accordion, bass, violin, guitar, clarinet and saxophone. That’s a lot of skills for the price of one musician. But to break into the scene, she was also expected to dance and sing.

By the 1920s, she’d hit the international scene and toured Asia and Europe. On one of her tours, she received a gold plated trumpet from queen of Netherlands.

After successful headline performances at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, she traveled to Europe to tour as bandleader. Sadly, when Denmark fell to Nazis, Valaida Snow was captured and became a prisoner of war. In addition to being female and black, as well as a “degenerate” musician, she maintained “friendships” with German women musicians, the implication: lesbian.

She spent almost two years in a German internment camp. When released in a prisoner exchange, she weighed only 65 pounds. She eventually returned to the stage in New York, but the joie de vivre was gone. Her brutal treatment under the Nazis deeply wounded her soul. On May 30, 1956, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while performing at the Palace Theatre in New York. She died a few days later. This is a musician who deserves to be more than a footnote in jazz history.

On the Canadian scene, there us some great female talent. Diana Krall and Chantal Thompson top the list. Thompson’s recently released album, Sirens and Stars, is a masterful blend of vintage, sexy and cool. Thompson, who grew up in Kingston and attended Queen’s University, now calls Gananoque, Ontario home, after spending several years with jazz masters in New York City, where she recorded Sirens and Stars.

Thompson explains that part of her struggle as a musician and woman is having her voice accepted as an instrument.

“Often, when people ask me what I do, I say I’m a musician. Once they find out I’m a vocalist, they inevitably say, ‘But I thought you said you were a musician?’ As if your voice is not an instrument, or as if you don’t have any knowledge or training as a musician. As a band leader I’m selecting the material, the arrangements, the players and very much shaping the whole sound. I reinterpret the standards from my set list and write my own pieces, I trade bars with the other players and harmonize with them creating chords and treat my voice not just as a centerpiece but as one of the instruments.”

Thompson says that what draws her to jazz is the spontaneity.

“Jazz is less about sex appeal and more about, ‘what are you going to say in this moment?'”, she says. “How are you going to blow our minds with the myriad of possible patterning and years spent in exploration? And exactly what is the meaning of words that can make the music even more evocative? Another reason I was drawn to jazz was that it seemed to be the music of choice of artists in general when I think of the beats, the poets, the cubist painters.”

In late July, Thompson performed at a Jazz Fest in North Carolina. The festival honored her friend, Joshua Wolff, who died suddenly of cancer. Wolff, a great pianist, performed on Sirens and Stars, but died before he heard the CD.

“I imagine it will be incredibly cathartic for me to be part of this festival at a wonderful venue that houses the NC Philharmonic.”

She’ll also be performing a duet with NY jazz vocalist Jay Clayton. When she lived in New York City, Thompson attended Clayton’s scatlabs.

Thompson’s jazz goal: “I will be searching for the opportunities that will allow me to be who I am in a respectful environment with no unnecessary apologies.”

Another modern musician to keep your ears open to is Italian-born saxophonist Ada Rovatti.

When she steps on stage with her sax, she’s all out there, abandoned.

I first saw her perform at New York’s Blue Note in a mid-March gig a few years ago. With toenails painted green, she played what she termed Celtic jazz. Seriously. The evening opened with the Irish uilleann pipes morphing into jazz fusion. Just when you think you’ve heard everything, along comes the brilliant Ada Rovatti.

Her Green Factor album features a pleasantly strange combination of Irish, Celtic, jazz and fusion influences. Drive magazine has heaped praise on Ada, calling her a “graceful Italian jazzista.”

She began playing jazz in high school, where she was the only female in a jazz program.

“I always felt out of place, especially by the fact that I grew up in Italy where still today it’s quite a misogynistic environment,” she says. “When I came to the USA, I finally found other women jazz instrumentalists and I was very inspired by their high level of musicianship….Women need to work harder than men in order to be accepted—by both genders! There are still too many misconceptions about what a woman should and could do.”

Despite the trailblazing by many jazz greats over the past century, female jazz musicians continue to battle stereotypes.
“I heard too many times that ‘clearly saxophone is too heavy for a woman,'” says Ada Rovatti. “I’ve also heard that saxophone is too masculine of an instrument for a woman. There is still the novelty aspect, so the spots are limited, since festivals would only hire a woman or two as band leaders in relation to maybe 20 and more male leader-acts.” She says that record labels are likewise hesitant, saying, “‘We already have a female jazz musician on our roster,’ like we are some kind of circus weirdo act.”

Her attitude helps her survive and thrive.

“It’s still a tough world out there, and as with every woman, I deal daily with ignorance, bad attitudes and stereotypes. The only thing I can do is keep working hard and try my best in doing what I love to do and bring my ‘femininity’ to the band stand, not as an adjective wrongly associated with weakness or inferiority, but as a statement of strength, determination, fierceness and passion towards life and music.”

It’s safe to say that Ada Rovatti brings that strength and creative fierceness to every performance.

Women have been trailblazing in the jazz scene for more than a century, despite history repeatedly placing them on the back burner.

Next, a look at jazz star Madeleine Peyroux and rising star Simona de Rosa.

About Mark Aidan Bergin

Writer, editor, photographic artist specializing in dance, theater, concert, fashion and street photography....sometimes musician. Explorer of arts, culture and world, and all things Celtic and Gotham. On a good day, or perhaps a bad day, simply a mad (FOOBAR, not angry) scientist.
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