Women in Jazz #MutualNight

(Quick reminder: if you’re curious why I’m writing about music on a Mormon blog, this post will summarize what #MutualNight posts are.)

We’re nearing the end of Women’s History Month; in light of both the month and the current environment of #MeToo, I thought it might be worth looking at women in jazz.

Because honestly, women have historically been excluded from jazz. Sure, you can point me to Billie and Ella and Nancy Wilson and maybe even Carmen McRae. And you know what? They’re all singers. They’re amazing singers, but, while “[w]omen singers were tolerated and even spotlighted, especially with the advent of the big band era, … [women] instrumentalists had a much tougher time of it.“[fn1]

Besides the gender disparity in jazz, jazz has recently had its own #MeToo moment, precipitated by Ethan Iverson’s interview of Robert Glasper. Both Iverson and Glasper are jazz luminaries, and deservedly so. In the interview, the two start talking about getting into a groove, as compared with soloing. And in the course of that discussion, Glasper says:

And I’ve seen what that does to the audience, playing that groove. I love making the audience feel that way. Getting back to women: women love that. They don’t love a whole lot of soloing. When you hit that one groove and stay there, it’s like musical clitoris. You’re there, you stay on that groove, and the women’s eyes close and they start to sway, going into a trance.

Iverson not only let the comment pass unchallenged, but in the heat of the controversy, he followed up touting his bona fides as a liberal and a feminist. Vijay Iyer, another jazz heavyweight, responded by pointing out that Iverson had done 42 interviews with men, and none with women. Which is to say, even without hypersexualizing women who listen to (or play) jazz, the gatekeepers were excluding them.

The interview also brought to the fore accusations of sexual harassment in the jazz world.[fn2]

I’ve been thinking about women in jazz recently, particularly because of a couple records I own: Women in Jazz v.1: All Women Groups and Women in Jazz v.3: Swingtime to Modern.[fn3] (I don’t have volume 2 because I haven’t seen it at local record stores yet.) The albums are excellent—the music ranges from big band swing to 50s bebop. Each of the musicians deserves her place, and yet until I bought these albums I’d never heard, or heard of, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm—an amazing band that broke not only gender, but also racial, barriers in the 1940s—or L’Ana Webster (who is virtually un-Googleable) or Marjorie Hyams or dozens of other women who played on these dates that, even today, are only available on used records. And why aren’t they better-known? The liner notes to Women in Jazz volume 1 give at least some hint:

For men, it’s always been a simple formula: a newcomer arrived, was tested against prevailing standards and heroes, and either accepted or rejected [sic]. “He plays good” was all the admission required to find work, camarderie [sic]and—perhaps above all—universal respect throughout the profession

Women have had to travel a different road. With a few notable exceptions—most of them pianists of determined and forceful ways—even the best female musicians have found that most of the time just being good wasn’t enough. A woman remained an outsider, even an intruder, sometimes a threat.

So are there any women jazz instrumentalists you should listen to? Of course. But I want to highlight two whom I’ve been listening to almost nonstop: Satoko Fujii and Leslie Pintchik.[fn4]

Satoko Fujii

Satoko Fujii turns 60 this year. And to celebrate, she’s releasing a new album every month.

For most musicians, that would mean at best a lot of filler. But I suspect it won’t for Fujii. She’s a prolific composer, pianist, and bandleader, and writes and performs in a huge spectrum of voices. All of them could be categorized as free jazz, but all of them have distinct sounds.

And, to be honest, with many of her albums (especially with her various orchestras), she’s more outside than my ears really enjoy. Those are albums I respect, albums I want to like, but albums I don’t find myself coming back to.

Other albums, though, are haunting and beautiful, and I don’t won’t to leave them. And right now, I have two that keep drawing me back in. The two are wildly different, but, to my ears, wildly successful.

The first is last year’s Aspiration.[fn5] On Aspiration, she’s playing with a quartet. But it’s not a standard quartet—it features Fujii on piano, Wadada Leo Smith (another treasure) and Natsuki Tamura on trumpets, and Ikue Mori on electronics. The title track opens with a floating solo piano; at some point, almost unnoticed, electronic sounds enter in. And then you have a trumpet over piano vamps and skittering electronic sounds. The players’ performances sound organic—the lines and sounds develop together, climax, come down, rise again. (Listen to the title track here.)

And for me, I think that organic, collective nature is what makes this album so appealing. The music pulses, it grows; sometimes the various instruments seem to flow together, while other times they push each other apart. Sometimes everybody plays at once; other times we hear solo piano, or a trumpet by itself in an extended cadenza, though the move into cadenza is so natural that it might take thirty seconds to realize that the other instruments have dropped out.

I think that the glue that makes this album work, though, is the electronics. They somehow function as a connective tissue, a thread that ties each of these musicians together and prevents them from soaring away into their own dimensions.

The second album is Ninety-Nine Years. Fujii released it a couple days ago, as the March iteration of her album-per-month. The album features her Orchestra Berlin, a ten-piece ensemble she first put together two or three years ago. This album features the first music she’s written specifically for this group.

When Fujii writes for large ensembles, she (in my experience, at least) uses a lot of extended techniques. Wind players blow through their horns without producing tones, or they play in ranges far above what’s natural, or they honk or otherwise produce noise.

And all of that happens on this album, but it happens in exciting and melodic and accessible ways. The album opens with “Unexpected Incident,” the title a reference to the Japanese government’s euphemism for the Fukushima disaster. And the song traces that, opening with percussion that, after a little while, brings to mind clanging of metal on pipes, or perhaps emergency warnings. After a couple minutes, the instruments all enter, a chaotic cacophony of trilled horns and shredding guitar. A saxophone keeps the aggressive, chaotic lines over an organized, catchy line of syncopated horns. We move into two horns attacking each other.

And that kind of encapsulates the album. (Listen to the title track here.) It’s chaotic, but it’s also funky. We have unity, but we also have battles. But above all, it’s energetic—the musicians propel the songs forward, building and building until you don’t think they could possible go any higher. And then, often, they do. As of this writing, I’ve only had this album for one day, but it is includes some of the most interesting and listenable free jazz I’ve heard.

Leslie Pintchik

Like Satoko Fujii, Leslie Pintchik is a contemporary pianist. Her album You Eat My Food, You Drink My Wine, You Steal My Girl!, while significantly different stylistically from Fujii’s albums, is similarly indispensable. (You can stream it on Spotify.)

The first song starts with a two bold notes in the left hand, followed by a seven-note line in the right. The pattern continues and evolves over a funky drum line, and after a couple iterations, a horn section comes in with a line that hints at 1970s Brecker Brothers. And the song continues, funky, solid, and aggressive, a modern take on hard bop with a hint of fusion underlying it.

Much of the album is original compositions; not all are, though. The third songs transitions from a strong bass line, and a Latin feel in the percussion and piano, into the jazz standard “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Although I’ve listened to the album countless times—especially on my commute—when the third song passes through my headphones on the El, it still surprises me. The song is immensely familiar, and yet she makes it her own.

The whole album evinces Pintchik’s sense of humor. It comes through on the song’s titles, including not only the title track (a phrase, she says, she heard yelled in Soho in New York), but the fifth track, “Your Call Will Be Answered by Our Next Available Representative, In the Order in Which It Was Received. Please Stay on the Line; Your Call Is Important to Us” (a title so long that, when I downloaded the album, my computer was initially unable to recognize the file name).

It’s not just the titles, though. Her sense of humor underlies her playing and arrangements. She plays solid, with a tone and power that certainly match Ethan Iverson’s, but with a different goals and different motivations. Although the album is thoroughly modern, it’s also thoroughly accessible. And I don’t mean that in any way to insult the music; she’s made an album that is both listenable and surprising. (Shoko Nagai, another female musician, adds some fun color to some of the songs on accordion. And no, it’s not polka-esque; it’s more texture than anything.)

Successful and recognized jazz musicians are invariably virtuosic. And, while it’s unfair that women should have to be more than normally virtuosic to gain recognition in the jazz world, these three albums are more than virtuosic. They are great on their own account, and serve as sharp rejoinders to anybody who believes that somehow women are unworthy to enter into the jazz pantheon.[fn6]

[fn1] It’s not unique to jazz, of course. Think about concert music: how many female classical composers are you aware of? Or look at rock and pop music: how many major acts feature women in any role other than vocalist? I mean, there are a few, but in comparison with the total number of acts, women are grossly underrepresented.

[fn2] I should note here that, while I listen rabidly to jazz, I don’t follow closely the ins and outs of the jazz world. I became aware of these things listening to the New York Times Popcast.

[fn3] I wish I could give you a link to the songs, but these albums appear to by vinyl-only. I searched for a couple of the songs on Spotify and couldn’t find them. Some background: the albums were released on Stash Records in the 1970s. Stash got its start with an album of novelty marijuana songs, which sold well enough that the record label was able to produce legitimate (non-pot-themed) jazz. (If you don’t have a record player—or access to a good used record store—Stash released Forty Years of Women in Jazz under its Jass Records imprint, and that album is available on CD.)

[fn4] As an aside, if you want to understand how the toot of a flute can be more exciting than the grandeur of an orchestra, look no further than Elena Pinderhughes, easily the most exciting young flautist out there, and probably one of the most exciting young jazz musicians, period.

[fn5] It’s shockingly hard to figure out where to buy Fujii’s albums, and Spotify has a limited number. You can buy her albums here; while the website is offputting, I promise the music is worth it.

[fn6] An addendum of sorts: I wrote this post Saturday night; Sunday, before it went live, I wanted to listen to some sacred jazz. Based on an NPR blog post, I streamed Mary Lou Williams’s “Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes” (available on Spotify here). If you like to listen to worshipful music on Sundays, you need to listen to this album. Williams’s was another voice I hadn’t listened to. But her piano playing and her composing are excellent, and are clearly infused by her adopted Catholicism. Her piano is definitely another that needs to be in the pantheon, both of excellent women jazz musicians and of excellent jazz musicians, period.


  1. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    FWIW two of the most critically acclaimed jazz albums of 2017, Yazz Ahmed’s La Saboteuse and Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die, have female leaders. The Branch record isn’t quite to my tastes, but the Ahmed one is. She’s played with Radiohead (on The King of Limbs and a number of the live shows) and is quite excellent at creating an electronic context that both calls back to the early ’70s (e.g. Miles’ post-Bitches Brew bands and Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band) yet sounds utterly modern. Her trumpet and especially flugelhorn playing are in the vein of the excellent Kenny Wheeler.

  2. Awesome; thanks. I’ll give them a listen when I get home tonight.

  3. Check out Hiromi Uehara and Esperanza Spalding. Not only are they brilliant female musicians–they’re young! They spell hope for the rising generation of talent. Music is in good Hands.

  4. Esperanza Spalding is a stunningly good bass player, and excellent singer, and an interesting composer. I’ve enjoyed listening to here up until now, and look forward to her future work. I haven’t heard Hiromi Uehara, but I’ll take a listen for her.

  5. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Sam, you’ve probably heard of Hiromi by first name alone; she’s been around a minute because she started performing when she was very young. She’s in the vein of Chick Corea’s ’70s and ’80s work, with even more astonishing technique. This may or may not be your bag.

    Another recommendation from a very strong 2017: the English saxophonist Camilla George, whose debut as a leader Isang is some excellent modern post-bop.

  6. Thanks for the heads up, Sam. I would mention Diana Krall. Besides being a silky, smokey jazz singer, she’s a very competent pianist, which was her entry into jazz before somebody told her she should also sing.

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