Expressions of African American Feminisms in Jazz

From abolition to womanism, there is a very rich history of feminist expression among African American women and in jazz that is no different. It could be argued that the lyrics to “Crazy Blues” are feminist by the nature of their quest to disrupt, but this is achieved more so through Mamie Smith’s performance. Billie Holiday’s “You Let Me Down” also explores the measurement of the difference between attainment and possession and it can be observed that feminist expression is centered in the song. This paper will seek to unravel feminist expressions and demonstrate that those feminist expressions are just as relevant today as they there were when first performed.

African American feminisms can be seen in expressions of overt political action as well as more masterful and subtle considerations of love lost and power of the self magnified. Black feminist scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks both write about centering Black women. Doing so musically, both through historical recordings and in the small venues and large concert halls today, works to add life to our musical experiences and worldly experiences. A history of overpowering exploitation can be expressed in a love song, or perhaps the notes of a brass instrument. Listening with a more informed perspective uncovers that sometimes-subtle juxtapositions and often clear and precise tuning of the measure of our national experience. 

            Hunter and Sellers (1998) put forward that it is largely agreed upon that race barriers are more prominent that gender barriers (p. 81). They also posit that when groups identify as “outsider within” and members of a minority there is a greater tendency to identify with feminist models and perspectives (Hunter and Sellers, 1998, p. 81). There is an important distinction to be made that although “Black women’s gender role attitudes are largely consistent with feminist ideology,” there is still relatively few who identity as feminist (Hunter and Sellers, 1998, p. 82). There has been a great deal more research and writing about African American women and gender roles, including identification with feminism since the Hunter and Sellers wrote their research in 1998. Also, feminist and womanist teaching have expanded in the humanities since that time. Still, it is worth considering, as it was a long-standing consistency that can hold us to a captured moment in American sociological history. Likewise, when considering the feminist motivations of Jazz women from earlier in the twentieth century, one must take care to consider purity and project in presentism and how one surmises the role of feminist agendas in their music.[1] The long struggle for gender equality has not always been directly in sync with overt feminist identifying ideology, however, we can still see the development and expression of these motivations at the heart and pulse of the music.

            Evelyn M. Simien (2004) notes that we must consider that African American women are “doubly disadvantaged in the social, economic, and political structure the United States” (p. 315). She is calling into her discussion UCLA and Columbia School of Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw’s well noted and much discussed notion of intersectionality. Intersectionality essentially states that there are competing intersections of corporations of oppression.[2] Simien also cites studies that note that African American women are “more supportive of feminist ideology and more sympathetic to women’s liberation groups than […] white women. At the same time, […] many African American women rejected the women’s movement because of its failure to address issues relevant to all women” (Simien, 2004, p. 316). This marks one of the major issues Third Wave Feminism from the 1990s to today have continued to strive to address in the centering of multiculturalism and othered voices.

            In some respects there was progress. Legendary scholar Patricia Hill Collins wrote in 1996 that Black women were “at a standing point” and that “African American women’s ideas and experiences have achieved a visibility unthinkable in the past” (p. 9). Still, with this new location of African American women’s voice “come a new series of concerns” (Hill Collins, 1996, p. 9). In reality, the last two decades of feminist thought and women’s studies have worked to articulate and elevate this as a predominant discourse. How are we to express notions of feminist thinking in jazzwomen when that conversation and historical musical expression does not always pair itself directly with the historical placeholders of feminist thought? Hill Collins cites Pearl Cleage’s 1993 definition of feminism that is “the belief that women are full human beings capable of participation and leadership in the full range of human activities – intellectual, political, social, sexual, spiritual and economic” (p. 12). With such a directing and collective embrace of inclusivity and expressiveness it becomes easier to elevate past jazzwomen initiation embedded discourses as emblematic of feminist thought, if not in name than at least in deed.

            Johnson-Bailey (2003) references Patricia Hill Collins in her discussion on whether African American women must prioritize race or gender movements, stating, “African American women are the mediators of the two movements, and [Patricia Hill Collins] rejects the notion that a choice must be made to place one agenda ahead of the other” (p. 84). Furthermore, and what is the position of this author, “African American women have always been about the business of feminism under the guise of resistance” and this is the case “from slavery to the present” (Johnson-Bailey, 2003, p. 84). In a discussion between Ira Gitler and Max Roach with Abbey Lincoln, after Gitler wrote a bad review of their album and stated that Lincoln was exploiting her race, Lincoln responded, “How can I sing as a black woman, as a Negro, if I don’t exploit the fact that I’m a Negro? (“Racial Prejudice in Jazz”, 1962, p. 21). Here we can see that Abbey Lincoln, in response to criticism that she is expressing her race in her music, does not quite prioritize race over gender or gender over race, but evokes both as central to identity in shaping her music. Both movements are necessary for expression of self and experience in music and one’s location in white dominant society.

            Jayne Caudwell (2012), in her interview and paper on two white women saxophonist, argues that jazzwomen continue to remain invisible and mostly sexualized. Caudwell puts forward that “it is jazzmen that are more likely to be valorized as jazz musicians” (p. 391). The terrain jazzwomen face is fraught to contentions as “[l]eisure activities and experiences, leisure spaces and places as well as representations and discourses of leisure remain gendered and sexualized. Women – more specifically jazzwomen – continue to negotiate this structuring” (Caudwell, 2012,  p. 390). Of course, this hasn’t been without great effort to the contrary. Melba Liston, who recorded with Dizzy Gillespie and played with John Coltrane, stated, “if it wasn’t for women there would be no [jazz] culture a-tall, a-tall” (Caudwell, 2012, p. 391). Negotiating the space of men’s dominant space is difficult for white women and mounted with more challenges intersectionally for African American women.

            Among avant-garde jazz movement in New York in the 1960s and among the Jazz Composers Guild there was a direct division of gender and sexuality, argues Benjamin Piekut (2010). Piekut cites Abbey Lincoln who wrote about Black women’s space in jazz in contrast to Black men seeking White women romantically, writing, “Our women are encouraged by our own men to strive to look like the white female image as much as possible” (p. 32).  In the jazz scene at that time, maleness and “‘manhood’ were often employed as equivalents for achievements of personhood, respect and dignity” (Piekut, 2012, p. 32).[3] Black jazzwomen were doubly faced with the obstacles of being women and being Black from White and Black men, creating a sense of rejection of false equivalencies to contend with.

            Tammy L. Kernodle (2014) notes an interesting dynamic in the perception of Black jazzmen and Black jazzwomen. Men’s competitive spirit is hailed as necessary in force to work together to create heroic achievements while Black women who are competitive are viewed is disruptive and destructive (Kernodle, 2014, p. 28). Kernodle cites Sherrie Tucker who states that for Black jazzwomen, “playing good enough means playing like men. Women who play like men are ‘exceptional women’ and exceptional women can enter the discourse without changing it” (Tucker quoted in Kernodle, 2012, p. 29).[4] Women are not supposed to change music like Charles Mingus or Ornette Coleman. To do so would be disruptive instead of innovative. Women are expected to play along to get along and in so doing maintain stereotypes and the culture that perpetuates difference.

            There are differences of opinion. Yoko Suzuki (2012) interviewed jazzwomen, mostly White jazzwomen with two Black jazzwomen who perform in New York. White men have the impression that there is a hierarchy to who is gets gigs, being: African American men, African American women, White women, and White men, in that order (Suzuki, 2012, p. 207). Of the two African American women interview one commented that though there are some advantages to being a woman there is the Whitewashing of the industry and the recoding business goes after White, westernized versions of jazz. The other African American woman interviewed was hesitant about commenting on race and gender but expressed her opinion that race and gender should not matter (Suzuki, 2012, p. 219). There was a consistency among the White female saxophonists and the Black female saxophonist that their race and gender both counted against them in the jazz scene, still Suzuki noted there were few African American women saxophonists (Suzuki, 2012, p. 221). It is interesting how race and gender are perceived more so than the actual success of getting gigs and potential recording deals. While Black women faced more obstacles, the White musicians interviewed felt that their race counted just as much against them. Again, for these women, race and gender were equally polarizing.

            Scholar and activist, Angela Y. Davis’s book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, examines feminist motivations of these Blues women. David Suisman (1999) doubts the ingenuity of referring to Bessie Smith as a feminist. In fact he states that, “Davis’s often provocative contentions, her programmatic approach to the music and the singers has exactly” the same effect as what Ralph Ellison wrote about LeRoi Jones’s Blues People (Suisman, 1999, p. 72). With this statement he cites Ellison, “The tremendous burden of sociology that Jones would place upon this body of music is enough to give even the blues the blues” (Ellison quoted in Suisman, 1999, p. 72). [5]

            In Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1998), Angela Y. Davis comments on how “Strange Fruit” is unusually set apart from Billie Holiday’s “inconsequential love songs – which without her intervention probably would have ended up in Tin Pan Alley trash cans” (p. 162). Davis states that Holiday “often referred to herself as a ‘race woman’” and may have played a larger role in the U.S. communist new left had she not been forced not to express such sentiments in her music by the FBI (p. 162). Even for Holiday, whose majority of songs centered on love, she was political and did not elevate race or gender in the term “race woman.” Davis has very interesting comments to the lyrics of “You Let Me Down.” Davis states, Holiday “established an almost magical control of the tired words revitalizing them and pushing them toward a criticism of the very cultural context out of which they were born” (p 169). In the recording, Lady Day is never surer in her uncertainly. Disappointed, she surmises the dichotomy that placed her from elevated to low down.

I walked upon a rainbow

I clung onto a star

You had me up in heaven

That’s why I had to fall so far

I was even looking for a cottage

I was measured for a wedding gown

That’s how I got cynical

You put me on a pinnacle

And then you let me down, let me down  (in Davis, 1998, p. 169-170)

In her loss, there is another side to the story being told in “You Let Me Down.” That is the story of self-determination that still continues to rise after falling from heaven. Being dependent on a man, she realized the reality of being so limited in that dependence and in the end seems to return to her station of self-discovery and internal searching powers that hold true to measure the circumstance and pomp of the ordeal. Dependence is disappointment in an era of limited mobility. This story is understood by those who have experienced that disappointment while appearing to others who endorse divisions as being just another love song. Indeed, as Davis states, the song is a “criticism of the very cultural contexts” it stems from (p. 169). Certainly, this is a feminist expression in an era where subtlety is mastery and communication is selective.

Another early expression of jazz feminism that perhaps is not so subtle is the overt, bellicose blues of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues.” The success in sales for this recording had the collective consequence of opening doors for other Black artists (Dahl, 1984, p. 104). In this recording Smith shouts her delirious blues and the power of that shouting can perhaps be heard, if one listens closely, in an influence of bluesmen from the 1920s and 1930s. The opening lyrics initiate the site of discovery for Smith’s maddening ailment: “I can’t sleep at night / I can’t eat a bite / ‘Cause the man I love / He don’t treat me right.” Again, through lost love there is the potential to measure a state of affairs and in that assess how one has travels and the forces one must reckon with. The lyrics take a more serious turn with: “I went to the railroad / Set my head on the track / Thought about my daddy / I gladly snatched it back.” There is severity in love and this is an expression of will and power in that it is the power to take back one’s life – even if just to end it – after it has been disrupted by a former lover. With this in consideration of the violence of the ending lyrics it could be said that this song is about taking back power. In this context, it is about taking back the power that a lover takes away from you but, perhaps, it would be too easy to dismiss the larger context of measuring one’s location in the world through such an act. We should celebrate Smith’s contribution. Without her reach for power so many African American artists might not have been recorded, yet, she died penniless and was placed in an unmarked grave (Dahl, 1984, p. 119).[1] Perhaps her influence can best be measured by all the other artists who came after her and expressed something sacrificed and shared thanks to her initial contribution and expression of power and power-taking.

The role African American women have played in jazz, historically, and in the present, is still a story of ordeal and crazy blues. Perhaps, there is even ongoing exploitation. What is obvious is that the story that has unfolded has not only been the story of the search for creative expression, but also for parity in the language of music. It has also been the search for parity in the business of music as can be seen in Mamie Smith’s attempted comeback in the 1940s (Dahl, 1984, p. 119). This search for parity in the business side of things can be seen, too, in Abbey Lincoln’s discussion with Ira Gitler in 1962. With each passing decade African American women are told they are the center of the movement, that which everything revolves around, but are often left out of the discussion as can be seen by the perceptions of White male and female jazz musicians measured against the reality of African American jazz women getting few gigs and recording contracts (Suzuki). Cindy Blackman, whose success stretches across genres, also elevates both race and femininity in her album Music for the New Millennium with tracks titled “Black Town (For Harlem)” and “The Infinite (For My Grandmother).” Still, there must be movement towards change. Those with the power – taking power – to alter the conversation must not let Nine Simone’s “Four Women” continue merely being bittersweet. It is not about speaking on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves, as White, male centered notions always have it. It is about allowing those to speak whom are the most shouted over. Centering African American women has long been the argument of expressions of feminism by the likes of Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks. Doing so musically only serves to enrich one’s musical survey and lifts oneself closer to the bonds of justice.


[1] The life of Mamie Smith illustrates the African American tradition of lifting up ancestors and those who sacrificed for the many. Smith’s early success and the influence that had on recording other Black artists gave us countless cultural memorials

Caudwell, Jayne. “Jazzwomen: Music, Sound, Gender, and Sexuality.” Annals of Leisure Research, 15:4, 13 Dec 2012. 389-403.

Collins, Patricia Hill. “What’s in a Name? Womanism, Black Feminism, and Beyond.” The Black Scholar, Vol 26, No. 1, The Challenge of Blackness (Winter/Spring 1996). 9-17.

Dahl, Linda. Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen. New York: Limelight Editions, 1984. Print.

Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. Print.

Hunter, Andrea G. and Sherrill L. Sellers. “Feminist Attitudes among African Amerinca Women and Men.” Gender and Society, Vol 12, No. 1 (Feb., 1998). 81-99.

Johnson-Bailey, Juanita. “Everyday Perspectives on Feminism: African American Women Speak Out.” Race, Gender, and Class, Vol 10, No 3 (2003). 82-99.

Kernodle, Tammy L. “Black Women Working Together: Jazz, Gender, and the Politics of Validation.” Black Music Research Journal, Vol 34, No 1. Spring 2014. 27-55.

Piekut, Benjamin. “New Thing? Gender and Sexuality in the Jazz Composers Guild.” American Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 1 (March 2010).  25-48.

“Racial Prejudice in Jazz.” Down Beat. 15 Mar 1962. 20-26.

Simien, Evelyn M. “Gender Differences in Attitudes toward Black Feminism among African Americans.” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 119, No. 2 (Summer 2004). 315-338.

Suisman, David. “Music: Was Bessie Smith a Feminist?” Souls, 1:1. 5 Jun 2009. 71-75.

Suzuki, Yoko. “Two Strikes and the Double Negative: The Intersections of Gender and Race in the Cases of Female Jazz Saxophonists.” Black Music Research Journal, Vol 22, No 2. Fall 2013. 207-226.


[1] It is appropriately challenging to offer a feminist analysis of those might not have overtly identified as feminist. However, there should be an appropriate context given as First Wave Feminism began with the abolition movement and certainly would not have been new or too foreign to jazzwomen in the early twentieth century. 

[2] To be a woman is to be subject to one domain of social opposition. To be an African American woman is to be subject to two domains of oppositions. If one were a queer, disabled, Black woman that would be four intersecting, competing venues of oppression with which they would have to contend with.

[3] In writing that “maleness” was prioritized and artistically valorized at that time is not to suppose that this is limited to a historical condition and that it is no longer the case. There has been progress, particularly the last two decades, but we are not at an eclipse.

[4] The dynamics at play here with women feeling pressured to play like men must be taken out of the abstract. Certainly, since there is no one standard of what men play like this should be understood to read, “play like certain men.” What men, specifically, can be guessed as those most emulated. With just a few stepping-stones intended to functions as an umbrella for a vast movement, women are double stressed and limited.

[5] Suisman is a White, male professor and author currently at the University of Delaware. It must not be taken blindly that the author of a few books can escape the dominant prejudices of White society – and maleness – that would yield the opinions he states in his review.

[6] The life of Mamie Smith illustrates the African American tradition of lifting up ancestors and those who sacrificed for the many. Smith’s early success and the influence that had on recording other Black artists gave us countless cultural memorials.