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Women in Jazz

Jazz is neither male nor female. Yet for a long time the focus was on the male musicians…

Jazz is now some 120 years old, and with the exception of a handful of great female jazz singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, it remained an exclusively male preserve until the 1950s. Only then did individual women embark on a career in jazz: mention should be made of German jazz pianist Jutta Hipp, who managed to make a name for herself in America in the 1950s. Composer and pianist Carla Bley likewise started off at the same time, and remained pretty much the only woman in the jazz world for a long time. Not until the advent of feminism in the 1970s did women like saxophonist Barbara Thompson begin to make a mark on the international jazz scene, independent of the singer's microphone or the piano stool.

But only in the last 20 years has the picture really undergone a fundamental change. Today, jazz women do not only hail from the USA by any means, and they now excel on all manner of musical instruments. Reflecting this trend, numerous top-ranking female jazz musicans will appear on stage at the Elbphilharmonie and the Laeiszhalle in the 2019/20 season, among them Carla Bley, Mary Halvorson, Hiromi, Lizz Wright, Julia Kadel, Angelika Niescier, Sylvie Couvoisier and Myra Melford.


Is there such a thing as female jazz? Goodness, no! Like other musical genres, jazz is certainly not gender-specific. Music is universal, all-embracing, cosmic even! Nonetheless, one would have to be blind not to see that the history of jazz is first and foremost a male history. A glance at the two-volume German compendium »Jazz Klassiker« for instance, published by Reclam in 2005, reveals that only five women feature among the 100 biographies of the most important jazz musicians. Three of these are singers (Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald), while the other two are pianists or bandleaders (Mary Lou Williams, Carla Bley). And all of them hail from the USA.

Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald © IISG / Wikimedia Commons

Extra Hard Work

In Germany, 1976 marked the establishment of the Berlin feminist magazine »Courage«, and a year later women's magazine »Emma« appeared for the first time. Notwithstanding, it was something of a shock when the saxophonist Barbara Thompson joined the legendary United Jazz & Rock Ensemble at about the same time. Ms Thompson had to work extra hard in the band to prove her mettle, just as women do in general in the male-dominated working world.

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Women in Jazz

Carla Bley

But the time when women began to find themselves and find fulfilment in jazz is actually some years earlier. Needless to say, the story is set in the USA, and it is basically a love story! In 1956 in New York jazz club Birdland the 20-year-old Karen Borg, born to a piano teacher father in California, met Paul Bley, a gifted Canadian jazz pianist. She was working as a cigarette girl, while Bley had a longer engagement at Birdland. Karen Borg, who chose to go by the name of Carla in New York, was not so impressed by his piano playing. The fact that they soon got married only reduced her inferiority complexes as a musician because Paul Bley included pieces in his programme that his new wife had written.

Jumping forward to 2019: Carla Bley has made an international career for herself in jazz – chiefly as a composer, arranger and leader of larger formations from sextets to big bands. And last but not least – as a stylist at the piano keyboard.

Interview: 5 Questions for Carla Bley
Carla Bley
Carla Bley © Peter Purgar


Japanese pianist Hiromi can justly be called a complementary contrast to Carla Bley. Anyone who hears her blazing improvisations, with their technical bravura and boundless musical imagination, feels nothing short of electrified by the mixture of power and obvious delight with which Hiromi infuses the history of jazz piano from Art Tatum to Chick Corea. Every note she plays radiates her immense pleasure in playing the piano.

Hiromi © Muga Miyahara

Myra Melford

Somewhere between the two diametric opposites of Bley and Hiromi, American pianist Myra Melford unfolds an artistic history unmistakeably her own. After a magnificent gig with her quintet Snowy Egret in the »Jazz Piano« series in autumn 2019, the Elbphilharmonie did not hesitate to invite her back for the 2019/20 season. Melford's freestyle dances at the keyboard vary between butoh and ecstasy. Her music offers space for dark and austere poetry as much as for abstractions that she hammers out of the keys and for the smudged and fleeting realm of free improvisation.

Myra Melford
Myra Melford © Bryan Murray

Mary Halvorson

The sextet Code Girl, with which American guitarist Mary Halvorson makes her first appearance in the Elbphilharmonie Recital Hall, consists of three men and three women. Code Girl likewise maintains a polished dynamic of extremes between individual freedom and team spirit. The bandleader often retreats into the background to give more space to the other musicians and to the Indian-American singer Amirtha Kidambi. But Ms Halvorson also has plenty to say for herself with her distinctive and angular playing on the semi-acoustic guitar, originally derived from the energy of rock and blues.

Mary Halvorson
Mary Halvorson © Amy Touchette

Angelika Niescier

It continues to be almost a political issue when a modern jazz musician neither American nor male manages to turn colleagues who are among the best in their field into long-term sidemen for her own projects. Polish native Angelika Niescier, almost bursting with the fullness of life and driven by impatience, visits Hamburg accompanied by Chris Tordini on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Ms Nescier (alto sax) embodies in her playing the restless energy and dizzying high level of the New York improvisers, but she still lives mainly in Germany.

Angelika Niescier New York Trio
Angelika Niescier New York Trio © Arne Reimer

Sylvie Courvoisier

Since she began her career some 25 years ago in Lausanne, Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, who has long since relocated to New York City, has constantly evolved her style of jazz, a music always in fluid and unpredictable motion. Courvoisier's music is stirring and enormously physical, clearly marked by her instrument, from which she coaxes sounds far beyond conventional playing techniques. The other members of her trio accompany her for her guest appearance in Hamburg: Drew Gress (bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums).

Sylvie Courvoisier Trio
Sylvie Courvoisier Trio © Caroline Mardok

Julia Kadel

The most recent example for an unorthodox treatment of the piano and of jazz itself is Berlin musician Julia Kadel, who makes her debut in January 2020 in the Laeiszhalle Recital Hall together with her longstanding trio colleagues Kalle Enkelmann (bass) and Steffen Roth (drums). Kadel rejects mainstream jazz with every fibre of her unconventional music. In the meantime, her fascinating and impenetrable improvisations have brought her a recording contract with the traditional MPS label.

Interview: 5 Fragen an Julia Kadel
Julia Kadel
Julia Kadel © Lisa Wassmann

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