ArticlePDF Available

All-Woman Jazz Bands and Gendered Beboppers: Gayl Jones and Gloria Naylor's Jazz Fiction



Traditionally, jazz has been identified with male performers and writers. Thus, the aim of this article is twofold: on the one hand, it underlines the significant role of women instrumentalists and bandleaders in the formation of a jazz counterculture, particularly during World War II; on the other, it connects the cultural meanings and the technical devices of 1940s bebop to Gayl Jones's novels Corregidora (1975) and Eva's Man (1976), and Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place (1982) and Bailey's Cafe (1992). This essay places special emphasis on bebop quoting, a jazz technique that has conventionally represented a site for the performance and signification of masculinity, but also allows female musicians and writers to deconstruct and question identity stereotypes associated with black womanhood.
Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos, nº 19 (2016), Seville, Spain, ISSN 1133-309-X, pp. 13-28
Universidad de Cádiz
Received 14 April 2015
Accepted 7 August 2015
All-Woman Jazz Bands; gender; bebop; Gayl Jones; Gloria Naylor.
Bandas de jazz de mujeres; género; bebop; Gayl Jones; Gloria Naylor.
Traditionally, jazz has been identified with male performers and writers. Thus, the
aim of this article is twofold: on the one hand, it underlines the significant role of
women instrumentalists and bandleaders in the formation of a jazz counterculture,
particularly during World War II; on the other, it connects the cultural meanings
and the technical devices of 1940s bebop to Gayl Jones’s novels Corregidora
(1975) and Eva’s Man (1976), and Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place
(1982) and Bailey’s Cafe (1992). This essay places special emphasis on bebop
quoting, a jazz technique that has conventionally represented a site for the
performance and signification of masculinity, but also allows female musicians and
writers to deconstruct and question identity stereotypes associated with black
El jazz se ha identificado tradicionalmente con instrumentistas y escritores varones.
Por ello, este artículo se propone un doble objetivo: por un lado, subraya el
importante papel de las mujeres como instrumentistas y directoras de bandas en la
formación de una contracultura del jazz, en particular durante la Segunda Guerra
Mundial; por otro, conecta las técnicas del bebop y sus significados culturales con
I would like to thank Professor Francie Cate-Arries for her helpful edits. We have opted for the term
“all-woman,” instead of the more widely employed “all-girl” or “female” bands. Sherrie Tucker explains
in the Introduction of Swing Shift that she decided to employ the label “all-girl” hoping that it would
“resound with historic dissonance” in a jazz sphere that tended to naturalize girlishness in the 1940s
women’s bands and in the music that they played (2). Elsewhere, Tucker also opts for the designation
“all-woman bands.
14 Rocío Cobo Piñero
Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos, nº 19 (2016), Seville, Spain, ISSN 1133-309-X, pp. 13-28
las novelas Corregidora (1975) y Eva’s Man (1976), de Gayl Jones, y The Women
of Brewster Place (1982) y Bailey’s Cafe (1992), de Gloria Naylor. El presente
artículo presta especial atención al bebop quoting, técnica jazzística que
tradicionalmente ha representado un lugar de significación masculina, pero que
también permite a las instrumentistas y escritoras deconstruir y cuestionar
estereotipos asociados a la identidad/identidades de las mujeres negras.
Until recently, the narrative of jazz history accorded a place of honor to
male instrumentalists and ignored the contributions and achievements of women; the
exceptions were the singers, who were somehow more accepted and tolerated in the
musical arena. Jazz critic George Simon voiced the belief of many when he wrote
that “only God can make a tree, and only men can play good jazz (qtd. Tucker,
Swing Shift 12), an assertion that underlines not only the construction of a male-
centered jazz canon, but also how this ideology falls into a broader sexualized and
gendered discourse.
However, women have been involved with jazz since its
inception at the turn of the 20
century in New Orleans. Scholars such as Linda
Dahl, Antoinette Handy and, more recently, Sherrie Tucker, Nicole Rustin, and
Kristin McGee have published landmark studies on the presence of women in jazz.
According to Dahl, female pianists had more opportunities to break into the New
Orleans jazz scene, and Handy also refers to a number of female wind players in the
early marching bands and ensembles that prefigured jazz. Another important feature
of the music is that in these early years it was associated with the low-down
undesirable aspects of life. The Storyville district of New Orleans (1898-1917)
provided jobs for musicians (mostly male) and, at its height, boasted more than two
hundred saloons, bars, dancehalls, and brothels.
Kathy Ogren remarks that by that
time blues and jazz were dubbed “devil music, a label that circulated both within
and beyond the black community. Hence, women had to contend not only with
sexism but also with all the prejudices surrounding the music, and of course, with
When the police shut down the Storyville district in 1917, most of the
musicians migrated north to Chicago and New York. In Chicago, pianists such as Lil
Hardin or Lovie Austin developed jazz and led their own bands; in New York,
organist Hallie Anderson, pianist Mattie Gilmore, or trombone player and arranger
Marie Lucas trained orchestras for theaters. Nevertheless, the definitive presence of
The masculinization of jazz is even more notable when dealing with bebop. See, for example, Ake,
DeVeaux or Owens.
Tucker’s four-year research on New Orleans jazzwomen uncovers a few of the female musicians,
mainly pianists and self-trained instrumentalists, who worked in the red light district: cornet Antonia
Gonsalez, as well as pianists Mamie Desdunes, Dolly Adams, Camilla Todd, Edna Mitchell and Rosalind
Johnson, who was also a song writer and received formal musical training.
All-Woman Jazz Bands and Gendered Beboppers 15
Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos, nº 19 (2016), Seville, Spain, ISSN 1133-309-X, pp. 13-28
women in jazz occurred after the outbreak of World War II. Seen by many as
“wartime substitutes” (Tucker, Swing Shift 44), all-woman jazz bands bloomed
during the 1940s in the United States, mainly for entertainment in ballrooms,
theaters, and military audiences during wartime.
The most popular, out of the more
than a hundred all-woman jazz bands, were The International Sweethearts of
Rhythm and The Darlings of Rhythm. While their names suggest a willingness to
commercialize with a socially constructed femininity, the all-man bands usually
honored and recognized their leaders, holding names such as The Cab Calloway
Orchestra or The Ellington Orchestra.
In this regard, Tucker underlines the pressure the all-girl bands had to bear,
having to “look glamorous” and wear feminine attire, which often consisted of
strapless dresses and high heels, for a public that usually “looked first, listened
second” (Swing Shift 56, 68). A fact that accounts for the sexualization and the
patriarchal commodification of women’s bodies is that discographies were reluctant
to record them, and there were very few albums made. Conversely, they appeared in
a number of Hollywood short films, a more visually centered medium that also
disclosed racial prejudices, since the majority of female black musicians in the
bands were light-skinned, a selling point in a white dominated industry. An
additional marketable feature is that some female bandleaders were prompted to sing
and dance while conducting the orchestra. As Kristin McGee asserts, black “all-girl”
bands were often peripherized and trivializedprecisely for their assumed purely
physical and visual appearance” (166).
The International Sweethearts was the first integrated band with seventeen
Puerto Rican, Mexican, Chinese, Native American, white, and mostly U.S. African
American women musicians, who contested gender and racial barriers in a Jim Crow
society at home and while touring Europe abroad.
Moreover, all-woman jazz bands
challenged the gender stereotypes associated with instruments and they included
trombone, trumpet, and drummers, popularly considered “masculine.
example of a recodification of masculinity is the rough-looking of The Darlings of
Rhythm, whose members typically wore suits, no makeup, and produced
“unladylike sounds [. . .] through an emphasis on an aggressive approach to the
music, on thunderous volume, on authoritative horn and saxophone soloists”
The documentary The Girls in the Band, directed, written, and produced by Judy Chaikin, gives voice to
1930s and 1940s jazzwomen.
For a thorough study of the band, see Antoinette Handy’s The International Sweethearts of Rhythm and
the award-winning documentary directed by Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss. Although the term
“African American” is more widely used, I have preferred to employ the designation “U.S. African
American” (also employed by historian Millery Polyné) to refer to African descendants in the United
States, so as to avoid identifying an entire continent with a specific country.
Linda Dahl refers to a study conducted by musicologists Susan Porter and Harold Abeles that
highlighted the stereotyping of instruments; the flute, violin, and clarinet were perceived to be the most
feminine, whereas the trumpet, trombone, and drums were considered more masculine (35-44).
16 Rocío Cobo Piñero
Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos, nº 19 (2016), Seville, Spain, ISSN 1133-309-X, pp. 13-28
(Tucker, Nobody’s Sweethearts” 257, 270). Maybe for these reasons and for hiring
dark-colored musicians, they never made it to Hollywood, but were a major success
within black audiences.
With the end of the war, a new jazz style emerged, one that granted
improvisation and virtuosity even more importance than big-band swing, and was
mostly played in small ensembles (quartets, quintet, sextets): bebop, or modern jazz,
as Ralph Ellison preferred to call it.
An additional difference with swing was that
bebop melodies were more dissonant and bebop’s rhythmic sections more
polyphonic, qualities that, according to Thomas Owens, added complexity to the
new style and distanced it from the mainstream, dancehall swing that was so popular
among white audiences. Yet, the feature that is especially suggestive for my
purposes of analysis is a technique that undermined distinctions between high art
and low art based on power relations. To achieve this, beboppers inserted fragments
of European music in their solos, jazzing them up, and reinforcing the value of black
music. This practice of “citing” popular Western standards, or any popular music, is
referred to in jazz as “quoting.” One of the examples Krin Gabbard mentions to
illustrate this playful resource is how Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker inserted
notes of George Bizet’s Carmen in their jazz composition “Anthropology” (104).
The art of quotation in jazz did not originate in the bebop era, but by then
the practice was steeped in irony. If we delve into the history of bebop, women are
once again underrepresented; male jazz historiographers coincide in giving
unanimous credit to saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and
pianist Thelonious Monk. As for female instrumentalists, Dahl recovers the
contributions of under-recorded trumpeters Norma Carson and Clora Bryant,
saxophonist Elvira “Vi” Redd (compared to Parker by some jazz critics), trombonist
Melba Liston, and pianists Hazel Scott, Beryl Booker, and Marjorie Hyams. A child
prodigy born in Trinidad, “at the age of sixteen Hazel Scott had her own radio show,
and at eighteen she was fronting a band, singing popular songs in several languages,
and writing most of her arrangements” (Dahl 72).
In her compelling biography of
Hazel Scott, Karen Chilton reminds us that she was the first black woman to host a
television show, and that she refused to play for segregated audiences. Scott was
also famous for giving a jazzy treatment to classical European composers such as
In his acclaimed collection of essays Shadow and Act Ellison praises the virtuosity of Charlie Parker as
the founder of “modern jazz” (226) and Minton’s Playhouse (New York) as its birthplace: “the jazzman’s
true academy” (208).
Nicole Rustin reveals that many female instrumentalists, like Hazel Scott, supplemented their incomes
through other musical activities, including singing, arranging, and teaching (446).
All-Woman Jazz Bands and Gendered Beboppers 17
Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos, nº 19 (2016), Seville, Spain, ISSN 1133-309-X, pp. 13-28
Chopin, Bach, or Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance, recorded in her 1941 album Swinging
the Classics.
Another example of an underrated bebop instrumentalist is Beryl Booker,
who in 1954 led her own female jazz trio and toured Europe. A particularly
interesting musical contribution was her variation of the bebop anthem “How High
the Moon,” which she recorded in 1949 with jazz guitarist Mary Osborne and bassist
June Rothenburg, calling the piece “Low Ceiling.” “How High the Moon” is an
exemplary instance of quotation and variation in jazz. Composed by white
Broadway songwriter Morgan Lewis as a commercial ballad, Charlie Parker, who
liked its chord changes, quoted and improvised on the original in his standard
“Ornithology” (1946), and popularized it among bebop soloists. Booker, Osborne,
and Rothenburg would quote it with new overtures, riffing on the leading melody,
and creating their own version.
Interestingly enough, Gabbard assigns quoting “avant-garde” and modern
qualities that “signified on” white bourgeois music and culture by deconstructing
and mocking cultural and social power relations (93). In the case of Scott and
Booker (Gabbard never mentions jazzwomen in his article, entitled “The Quoter and
His Culture”), they also signified on gender relations, proving that they could very
capably deconstruct and improvise on male classical standards. Gabbard revisits the
theory of black signification, developed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his influential
The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism.
According to Gates, signifying is a rhetorical self-defense strategy for African
descents in the U.S. and it epitomizes the double-voiced black vernacular tradition,
which is based on repetition and revision: “The language of blackness encodes and
names its sense of independence through a rhetorical process that we might think of
as Signifyin(g) black difference” (66).
Therefore, signification is inscribed within
black literature and music as a mode of formal revision and critique of canonical
texts through parody and pastiche, among other figures of speech.
Gates briefly references signification in jazz, stating that there are “so many
examples of Signifyin(g) in jazz that one could write a formal history of its
development on this basis alone” (63). As an instance, he refers to improvisation,
“so fundamental to the very idea of jazz, is nothing more’ than repetition and
revision” (64). Once again, the musical examples he mentions are of male signature,
such as pianist Jelly Roll Morton’s “Maple Leaf Rag” (1938) variation and
extension of Scott Joplin’s 1916 homonymous composition. Another feature of the
jazz arrangements he discusses is that they are all practices of intertextuality,as
gestures of admiration and respect among black musicians (64). It should be noted,
In jazz, a riff is a short, repeated pattern that supports a solo improvisation. Bebop favored this harmonic
device as well as longer improvisational phrasing.
In order to signal the oral quality of this trope, Gates omits the g ending, a mark that also differentiates
it from the term coined by Saussure.
18 Rocío Cobo Piñero
Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos, nº 19 (2016), Seville, Spain, ISSN 1133-309-X, pp. 13-28
then, that in Gate’s terms, the playful nature of Signifyin’/Signifyin(g) not always
entails parody.
Historically, jazz-influenced literature has been associated with male
writers such as Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Ralph Ellison, Michael Harper or
Amiri Baraka, who turned to jazz as a source of experimentation and cultural
affirmation, often replicating musical patterns of African origin like call-and-
response, improvisation, repetition, and syncopation.
From the 1970s, a decade
that marked the rebirth of black women in literature, female authors have
appropriated the codes of jazz in their own terms and written poetry, narrative, and
drama under the influx of the syncopated rhythms; examples of this musical
influence are Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz (1992), Sherley Anne William’s volume of
poems Some One Sweet Angel Chile (1982), Ntozake Shange’s play for colored girls
who considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (1976), and Toni Cade
Bambara’s short story “Medley” (1971).
Gayl Jones’s Liberating Voices (1991), a
groundbreaking volume of essays in which she theorized on the stylistic influence of
African vernacular culture and music in U.S. black literature, also established solid
parameters of analysis.
In this regard, Fritz Gysin states that postmodern fiction no longer uses jazz
as a “liberating device” (using Jones’s term) but as a “function of writing” (285).
However, he does not clarify what he considers “postmodern fiction” and, above all,
his approach to jazz fiction contests the legitimacy of the interface between jazz and
literature itself: As some of the recent critical and scholarly literature shows, the
crossing of boundaries between the two art forms seems to have become a favorite
pastime of writers and critics alike” (275).
It is my aim, however, to prove the
thematic and formal connections between music and literature, while pointing to
gender stereotypes in these associations, a challenging task in a field that has
embraced male-dominated musical ideologies. As an example of such gendered
assimilation, Kristin McGee recalls in the introduction of her brilliant study of jazz
women in mass-mediated texts, how a jazz scholar abruptly interrupted her in a
seminar, curious to know why she would work on something that had already been
written by Sherrie Tucker. Due to the lack of perspectives that have been published
on the subject of women in jazz, she wonders if she would have been asked that
While the term “improvisation” applied to literature is controversial, this essay underscores that a text
may render the spontaneity of jazz music. See Rob Wallace’s analysis of jazz improvisation in Langston
Hughes, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Wallace Stevens.
“Medleyis included in Sascha Feinstein’s The Jazz Fiction Anthology, which collects thirty-two short
stories signed by twenty-nine U.S. and international authors; only seven of these are women.
See also Alan Muton’s response to what he considers the “misreading” of Toni Morrison’s Jazz through
the lens of musical associations.
All-Woman Jazz Bands and Gendered Beboppers 19
Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos, nº 19 (2016), Seville, Spain, ISSN 1133-309-X, pp. 13-28
question had she presented a paper on Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker (6).
Comparatively, there are still very few jazz histories written by women and/or about
In her debut novel Corregidora, Jones depicts a complex representation of
slavery through four generations of women, who decide to keep the slave-owner’s
last name, Corregidora, to leave evidence of the incestuous daughters he engendered
in Brazil. The legacy of sexual and physical abuse brings about inevitable traumas
that Ursa, the youngest of the lineage, will have to confront in the United States.
From childhood, Ursa is constantly reminded of the family’s mission of engendering
testimonies that will be able to retell the atrocities suffered under bondage, in order
to counter historical erasure. The riff is introduced at the beginning of the novel:
“Ursa, you have to make generations” (Corregidora 10).
This refrain is repeated
throughout the text as Ursa retells, with variations, the history of her family by
means of long improvisational solos, which Gysin would prefer to call “stream-of-
consciousness” (275), but whose thematic and rhythmic connections with the music
allow for a jazz term (solo) that highlights the improvisation of a section by a single
I wanted a song that would touch me, touch my life and theirs. A Portuguese song,
but not a Portuguese song. A song branded with the new world. I thought of the girl
who had to sleep with her master and mistress. Her father the master. Her
daughter’s father. The father of her daughter’s daughter. How many generations?
Days that were pages of hysteria. Their survival depended on suppressed hysteria.
Learning about the history of her female ancestors in Brazil and how they, and she,
still experienced abusive relationships with men in post-slavery U.S., Ursa gradually
changes the pattern of violence and ultimately breaks with the mission imposed by
Corregidora women. Instead of making generations, she composes music that will
leave evidence of their stories and allow her to improvise open-ended versions. In
addition, her piano playing symbolically appeals to the invisibility of female jazz
instrumentalists who often had to combine their playing skills with singing: “I’d take
the job. I had a two-hour show playing the piano and singing” (Corregidora 85).
As a professional singer, composer and pianist, her voice is compared to
Billie Holiday’s, her contemporary, since the novel starts in 1947, at the peak of
bebop: You got a hard kind of voice [. . .] like callused hands. Strong and hard but
gentle underneath. The kind of voice that can hurt you. I can’t explain. Hurt you and
make you still want to listen (Corregidora 96). This description of Ursa’s voice
coincides with the qualities frequently emphasized in Holiday’s tonalities, and how
I have used italics for musical terms applied to the analysis of literature.
20 Rocío Cobo Piñero
Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos, nº 19 (2016), Seville, Spain, ISSN 1133-309-X, pp. 13-28
she made those hardand softswung notes sound (O’Meally 96). Moreover,
her renditions of commercial, popular songs acquired totally different connotations:
Billie was so often mocking what she rendered up, simultaneously satirizing as she
was celebrating romance. She was indeed doing a certain kind of riffing satire that is
quite close to signifying. This vocal one-butt shuffle on the sentimental lyrics that
Lady Day was simultaneously serving up forms one of the veiled delights of
sarcastic slurs, and innuendos, behind Lady Day’s bewitching art. (Forrest 346)
Resembling Billie Holiday, Ursa Corregidora undertakes a musical revision of the
sexualized roles reserved for women in her family.
Formally, Gayl Jones plays with a flexible chronological timeline through
Ursa’s solos, which fuse past and present, reality and fiction, as well as different
geographical locations in the United States and Brazil; the author has explained that
“the ordering of the events is primarily improvisational. I wanted to get the sense of
different times and different personalities coexisting in memory” (Tate/Jones 142,
emphasis added to the original). The text’s fragmentation and limited dramatic
action permit its release from narrative convention, “further adding to its evocation
of the musical” (Brown 122). Another stylistic device that intensifies the sound and
the musicality of the text is the use of repetition, which also deepens in the inherited
traumas caused by the systematic abuse of Corregidora women during slavery:
‘Yes, if you understood me, Mama, you’d see I was trying to explain it, in blues,
without words, the explanation somewhere behind the words. To explain what will
always be there. Soot crying out of my eyes.’ O mister who come to my house You
do not come to visit You do not come to see me to visit You come to see me sing with
my thighs You come to see me open my door and sing with my thighs Perhaps you
watch me when I am sleeping I don't know if you watch me when I am sleeping. Who
are you? I am the daughter of the daughter of the daughter of Ursa. (67)
While the punctuation is omitted, the rhythm of the text speeds up. The references to
blues and its melodic twelve-bar framework were common among bebop musicians,
who found their roots in this musical genre; DeVeaux refers to Lester Young as a
“bluesy player” because he had a “blues frame of reference” (112). Likewise, female
beboppers rendered blues as the cornerstone of their repertoire, more so if we
consider that instrumentalists like Hazel Scott had to combine their music playing
with blues singing.
In her second novel, Eva’s Man, Jones takes jazz time and prose even
further, producing a highly fragmented text. Thus, the novel is comprised of pieces
of conversations that the protagonist, Eva Medina, recalls while she is in jail for
having castrated the last man who sexually and verbally attacked her. She quotes
different sexist sayings that her family and neighbors used to repeat as part of a
shared common knowledge on women’s sexualized nature, “once you open your
All-Woman Jazz Bands and Gendered Beboppers 21
Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos, nº 19 (2016), Seville, Spain, ISSN 1133-309-X, pp. 13-28
legs, Miss Billie said, it seems like you caint close them” (15); on women’s moral
values, “Naw, she’s nothing but a little bitch just like all the rest of em. Think they
wont your love, and they wont your money (138); on their behavior, “IS THIS the
savage woman? (141), or on their bodies: I don’t like a woman bleeding, it’s
nasty” (148). Like female bebopper Clora Bryant did in her album Gal with a Horn
(1957), Eva appropriates the codes of a sexually and gender biased discourse,
improvising situations that ultimately show its devastating effects. She is also
compared to Medusa, the biblical Eve, and the lethal local widow “queen bee. Yet,
the protagonist perversely questions and overturns these myths and legends,
conceived of stereotyped ideas of womanhood: “the sweet milk in the queen bee’s
breasts had turned into blood” (131).
Gayl Jones plays with the narration and with the readers; “Let’s PLAY” is
the invitation in capital letters that opens section V, of part Two. In so doing, the
narrator and the characters tell the same event in different ways, varying the rhythm
and its content. To that aim, Jones uses personal pronouns with ambiguous
intentions, alternates the indirect speech with the direct reproduction of
conversations or, at times, employs the same quotation for different characters:
‘I bet he wasn’t even that good. I bet you just hadn’t had a man in a long
‘How long has it been, Eva?’
‘A long time. A long time…I thought you knew already.’ [Elvira and Eva]
‘He went in like he was tearing something besides her flesh.’ [Davis]
‘The trouble with you is you don’t feel nothing,’ Elvira said.
‘A real long time,’ I told him.
‘Has the woman talked yet?’ [Policeman]
‘Naw, Captain, she ain’t said a word,’ the detective said. (51)
As the narration progresses, Eva conjures up longer assortments of quotations that
signify on culturally-constructed discourses on gender roles and their destructive
effects; see, for example, section V of part Three: “Yes, I was hurt by love. My soul
was broken. My soul was broken . . . When he leaves her, her memory turns into
blood” (143). In her violated mind, reality and delusion coalesce: “She stands naked
on the street. She asks each man she sees to pay her her debt. But they say they owe
her nothing” (144). These improvised textual quotations and musings function like a
bebop performance, defined by Gabbard as “solos constructed on little more than
perversely truncated medleys of popular songs with brief interludes of more
conventionally improvised material” (104).
Gloria Naylor and her polyphonic, choral novels take the reader to a literary
jam session or group improvisation. Her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place,
I have added the names of the characters to guide the reader.
22 Rocío Cobo Piñero
Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos, nº 19 (2016), Seville, Spain, ISSN 1133-309-X, pp. 13-28
sets the tone and the leading melody: the “broken dreams” of seven women in a grey
brick neighborhood (Brewster Place 131).
The story that better depicts the
musicality of the text is Etta Mae Johnson’s (55-88), in which fragments of
significant blues, jazz, spirituals, and biblical passages are quoted: Ma Rainey’s
“Lost Wandering Blues” (56), Bessie Smith’s “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do
(57), Billie Holiday’s “My Man” (55), “God Bless the Child,and “Strange Fruit”
(60), Ella Fitzgerald’s “Detour Ahead” (71), and the celebrated spiritual “Go Down
Moses” (63). These quotations prove the relevance of black music for the
community and how it voiced the cry of the disenfranchised: “Lost Wandering
Blues” (1924) portrays the difficulties of migrant women; “Strange Fruit” (1939)
depicts the horror of lynching; and “It Ain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do” (1923) is
the outcry of a woman who longs for empowerment:
Slowly, she carried herself across the streethead high and eyes fixed
unwaveringly on her destination. The half-dozen albums were clutched in front of
her chest like cardboard armor.
There ain’t nothing I ever do
Or something I ever say
That folks don’t criticize me
But I’m going to do
Just what I want to, anyway.
And don’t care just what people say
If I should take a notion
To jump into the ocean
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do…(57)
The nine verses quoted from Bessie Smith’s blues, as well as the other songs
mentioned, are inserted within the narration with no quotation marks, which requires
an attentive reader/listener to be able to participate in the intertextual dialogue with
In addition, these quotations emphasize the relevance of women in music,
bringing forth the names of pioneers in blues and jazz. Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith
were among the first to record the blues in the 1920s and their unprecedented sales
inaugurated the style of Classic Blues, a distinctively female genre. These singers
became icons for other working class black women for raising their voices against
social injustices, portraying sexual taboosincluding homosexuality, a topic that
Naylor also tackles in “The Two” (129-173)and breaking with the limits of social
Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald were the divas of vocal jazz:
Holiday jazzified and re-codified popular love ballads, while Fitzgerald popularized
The novel was adapted into a musical in 2007, directed by Molly Smith.
For more information on the social impact of female blues singers, see Davis and Harrison.
All-Woman Jazz Bands and Gendered Beboppers 23
Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos, nº 19 (2016), Seville, Spain, ISSN 1133-309-X, pp. 13-28
a highly complex vocal jazz technique, called scat, that implied the use of wordless
vocables to improvise on standards, such as the already mentioned “How High the
In her new rendition, which the singer performed and recorded at a live
concert in Berlin (1960), she quoted with humor the melodies of more than a dozen
popular tunes that included “Deep Purple” or “Poinciana.”
As Naylor has acknowledged, Bailey’s Cafe is a “set of jazz” (Perry/Naylor
95) and the structure follows a jazz composition in four parts. The novel begins with
a solemn introduction, “Maestro, if you please,” that ironically puts jazz on a par
with European classical music; I referenced this device earlier in relation to
beboppers and their deconstruction of classical music with their solos. It would have
been even more disruptive if the leader were a woman, like in the 1940s all-woman
bands. The cafe functions as the stage where the jam session progresses while each
character improvises his or her story of broken dreams” (Bailey’s Cafe 114). In
each solo there are quotes that repeat a certain refrain, transcribed in italics; a prime
example is the first solo of the cafe owner, a former soldier in World War II, who
accounts for his traumatic experience in the war and repeats five times along his
solo: We weren’t getting into Tokyo. This refrain heralds the outcome of the war:
the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Frank Money, a war veteran in Toni
Morrison’s Home (2012), asserts: After Hiroshima, the musicians understood as
early as anyone that Truman’s bomb changed everything and only scat and bebop
could say how” (109).
The musical introduction of the narrator, the owner of the cafe, precedes a
chapter called “The Vamp,” which in jazz is the initial improvisation, and it is
followed by The Jam, with remarkable narrative solos such as Sadie’s “Mood:
Indigo” or “Eve’s song.” These individual stories, inscribed in a jazz pattern,
indicate “the destruction of either men or women who accept a patriarchal vision of
women’s reality” (Byerman 88). Thus, Sadie looses the home she had kept for her
husband upon his death and ends up in the street: “You see, Sadie was a wino. And
Sadie was a twenty-five cent whore” (Bailey’s Cafe 40). Eve, on the other hand,
owns a brothel and boarding house that serves as a space where the suffering of
other women is witnessed and perpetuated: And she could have used a place to stay
too. Had left Mr. Lucky Strike for a new man who’d gotten her pregnant before
going back to his wife. From there on in, her story shifted into the familiar key of
and-nobody-loves-you-when-you’re-down-and-out, so that my mind began to
wander” (Bailey’s Cafe 82, emphasis added to the original). Eve’s exasperation
See Brent Hayes Edward’s convincing study on the complexities of scat, in which he analyzes Louis
Armstrong’s performances and records.
Published in 1933 as a piano composition, the U.S. conductor Paul Whiteman, who proclaimed himself
“The King of Jazz,” had “Deep Purple” scored for his all-white and all-male swing band, and it was an
immediate hit. Based on a Cuban folk song, “Poinciana” (1936) was interpreted by Glen Miller’s swing
orchestra, whose commercial appeal among white audiences was undisputed.
24 Rocío Cobo Piñero
Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos, nº 19 (2016), Seville, Spain, ISSN 1133-309-X, pp. 13-28
regarding self-victimization underscores that women might also get caught in
exploitative practices. Her quotation of Bessie Smith’s standard “Nobody Knows
You When You Are Down and Out” (1929) serves to problematize certain cultural
messages that function as subterfuge.
Quoting the blues might indeed serve as a
source for female wisdom, like in The Women of Brewster Place or Corregidora,
but Naylor is also cautious and critical about its possible misuse.
Every cafe customer is a soloist and the readers (audience) are invited to
listen for layers and interconnections between the solos(Drieling 57). Bailey, as
the leader of the jam session, prompts the reader to listen thoughtfully: “Here, I’ll
show you; let’s just take ‘em one key down . . . And when you take it one key down
to even a lower key, youll hear. . . . Anything really worth hearing in this greasy
spoon happens under the surface. You need to know that if you stick around here
and listen while we play all out” (Bailey’s Cafe 34-35). Again, the musical terms
highlight the resonance of the text. Naylor also provides visual cadence to the novel,
including double spaces between certain paragraphs within the solos, which suggest
jazz breaks, that is, transitional passages in which the soloist plays unaccompanied.
The jazz composition ends with “The Wrap(Bailey’s Cafe 218-229), which goes
back to the cafe owner: “If life is truly a song, then what we’ve got here is just
snatches of a few melodies” (219).
The protagonists of the four novels under consideration are black, working-
class women, whose voices had long been muffled. The oral and musical qualities of
the texts produce stories never heard before. In this sense, after reading Jones’s first
novel, Toni Morrison, her editor at the time, commented: “no novel about any black
woman could be the same after this [. . .] Ursa Corregidora is not possible. Neither is
Gayl Jones. But they exist” (What Moves 109-10). Gayl Jones and Gloria Naylor
signify on the lives of different women, thus questioning monolithic representations
of black womanhood. However, Jones and Naylor somehow assume in their fiction
the iconic role reserved for women as singers and devote less attention to
jazzwoman instrumentalists, which might stem from a blatant omission of their
contributions in jazz historiography as well as the lack of archives dedicated to
Jazzwomen searched for spaces to be heard and reconfigured male-centered
bebop strategies, such as quotation, to deconstruct patriarchal and formal European
paradigms. Female beboppers also privileged the practice of improvisation, which in
the novels under study takes the form of the musical rhythm of conversations or the
flexibility of a non-chronological, syncopated order of events(Jones, Liberating
Composed in 1923 by Jimmy Cox, this blues revolves around a one-time-millionaire who loses his
money and friends.
All-Woman Jazz Bands and Gendered Beboppers 25
Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos, nº 19 (2016), Seville, Spain, ISSN 1133-309-X, pp. 13-28
Voices 200). The alliance of jazz and literature results in the conception of
distinctive black voices that tell their stories from the women’s collective point of
view. If we give credit to the contributions of jazzwomen, the connections are even
more inspirational. Even though critical interest in highlighting the presence of
women in jazz has increased in the last decade, there is still a remarkable deficiency
of studies in the field that deconstruct gender-oriented stereotypes.
AKE, David Andrew. Jazz Matters: Sound, Time, and Place since Bebop. Berkeley:
U of California P, 2010.
BAMBARA, Toni Cade. “Medley.” The Jazz Fiction Anthology. Ed. Sascha
Feinstein and David Rife. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009.
BROWN, Caroline. “Of Blues and the Erotic: Corregidora as a New World Song.”
Obsidian III 5 (2004): 118-138.
BRYANT, Clora. Gal with a Horn. 1957. VSOP, 1996. CD.
BYERMAN, Keith. Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American
Fiction. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2006.
CHAIKIN, Judy. Dir. The Girls in the Band. Artist Tribe, 2011. DVD.
CHILTON, Karen. Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist, from
Café Society to Hollywood, to HUAC. Ann Arbor: UP of Michigan, 2010.
DAHL, Linda. Stormy Weather: The Musical Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen.
1984. New York: Proscenium, 1996.
DAVIS, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey,
Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon, 1998.
DEVEAUX, Scott. The Birth of Bebop: Social and Musical History. Berkeley: U of
California P, 1997.
In a May 2015 conversation with British jazz critic and practitioner Tony Whyton, he acknowledged
the need to revisit the narrative of jazz, constructed under male-oriented terms. Whyton led a
groundbreaking interdisciplinary project (2010-2013), “Rhythm Changes: Jazz Cultures and European
Identities,” that examined national identities, representations, and stereotypes in jazz. See the project site
26 Rocío Cobo Piñero
Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos, nº 19 (2016), Seville, Spain, ISSN 1133-309-X, pp. 13-28
DRIELING, Claudia. Constructs of ‘Home’ in Gloria Naylor’s Quartet. Würzburg:
Verlag Königshausenn & Newmann, 2011.
EDWARDS, Brent Hayes. “Louis Armstrong and the Syntax of Scat.” Critical
Inquiry 28 (2002): 618-649.
ELLISON, Ralph. Shadow and Act. 1964. New York: Vintage, 1995.
FITZGERALD, Ella. The Complete Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife. Verve, 1960.
FORREST, Leon. “A Solo Long-Song: For Lady Day.” Callaloo 16 (1993): 332-
GABBARD, Krin. “The Quoter and His Culture.” Jazz in Mind: Essays on the
History and Meanings of Jazz. Ed. Reginald T. Buckner and Steven
Weiland. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1991. 92-111.
GATES, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American
Literary Criticism. 1988. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.
GYSIN, Fritz. “From ‘Liberating Voices’ to ‘Metathetic Ventriloquism’: Boundaries
in Recent African-American Jazz.” Callalloo 25 (2002): 274-287.
HANDY, Antoinette D. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Ladies Jazz
Band from Piney Woods Country Life School. 1983. New Jersey: Scarecrow
P, 1998.
HARRISON, Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Queens of the 1920s. 1988.
New York: Rutgers UP, 2000.
JONES, Gayl. Corregidora. 1975. Boston: Beacon, 1986.
---. Eva’s Man. 1976. Boston: Beacon, 1987.
---. Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature. Boston:
Harvard UP, 1991.
MCGEE, Kristin A. Some Liked It Hot: Jazz Women in Film and Television, 1928-
1959. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2009.
All-Woman Jazz Bands and Gendered Beboppers 27
Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos, nº 19 (2016), Seville, Spain, ISSN 1133-309-X, pp. 13-28
MORRISON, Toni. Home. New York: Vintage International, 2012.
---. Jazz. New York: Penguin, 1992.
---. “Toni Morrison on a Book She Loves: Gayl Jones’s Corregidora. Toni
Morrison: What Moves at the Margin. Selected Nonfiction. Ed. Carolyn C.
Denard. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2008. 108-110.
MUTON, Alan. “Misreading Morrison, Mishearing Jazz: A Response to Toni
Morrison’s Jazz Critics.” Journal of American Studies 31 (1997): 235-251.
NAYLOR, Gloria. Bailey’s Cafe. New York: Vintage, 1992.
---. The Women of Brewster Place. 1982. New York: Penguin, 1983.
OGREN, Kathy J. Jazz Revolution: Twenties America and the Meanings of Jazz.
New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
O’MEALLY, Robert G. Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday. New York:
Da Capo, 1991.
OWENS, Thomas. Bebop: The Music and Its Players. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.
PERRY, Donna. Gloria Naylor.” Conversations with Gloria Naylor. Ed. Maxine
Lavone Montgomery. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2004. 76-104.
POLYNÉ, Millery. From Douglass to Duvalier: U.S. African Americans, Haiti, and
Pan Americanism, 1879-1964. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2010.
RUSTIN, Nicole. T. “‘Mary Lou Williams Plays like a Man!’ Gender, Genius, and
Difference in Black Musical Discourse.” South Atlantic Quarterly 3 (2005):
SCOTT, Hazel. Swinging the Classics. Decca, 1941. CD.
SCHILLER, Greta and Andrea Weiss. Dir. The International Sweethearts of
Rhythm. Jezebel Productions, 1986. DVD.
SHANGE, Ntozake. for colored girls who considered suicide / when the rainbow is
enuf. 1975. New York: Scribner Poetry, 1997.
28 Rocío Cobo Piñero
Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos, nº 19 (2016), Seville, Spain, ISSN 1133-309-X, pp. 13-28
TATE, Claudia. Corregidora: Ursa’s Blues Medley.” Black American Literature
Forum 13 (1979): 139-141.
TUCKER, Sherrie. A Feminist Perspective on New Orleans Jazzwomen. New
Orleans: New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, 2004.
---. “Nobody’s Sweethearts: Gender, Race, Jazz, and The Darlings of Rhythm.”
American Music 16 (1998): 255-288.
---. Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s. Durham: Duke UP, 2000.
TUCKER, Sherrie, and Nicole T. Rustin, eds. Big Ears: Listening for Gender in
Jazz Studies. Durham: Duke UP, 2008.
WALLACE, Rob. Improvisation and the Making of American Literary Modernism.
New York: Continuun International, 2010.
WILLIAMS, Sherley Anne. Some One Sweet Angel Chile. New York: Morrow,
Created in the jazz clubs of New York City, and initially treated by most musicians and audiences as radical, chaotic, and bewildering, bebop has become, this book states, "the lingua franca of jazz, serving as the principal musical language of thousands of jazz musicians." It takes an insightful, loving tour through the music, players, and recordings that changed American culture. Combining vivid portraits of bebop's gigantic personalities-among them Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis-with deft musical analysis, this book offers an instrument-by-instrument look at the key players and their innovations.
Haiti has long been both a source of immense pride--because of the Haitian Revolution--and of profound disappointment--because of the unshakable realities of poverty, political instability, and violence--to the black diasporic imagination. Charting the long history of these multiple meanings is the focus of Millery Polyne's rich and critical transnational history of U.S. African Americans and Haitians. Stretching from the thoughts and words of American intellectuals such as Frederick Douglass, Robert Moton, and Claude Barnett to the Civil Rights era, Polyne's temporal scope is breathtaking. But just as impressive is the thematic range of the work, which carefully examines the political, economic, and cultural relations between U.S. African Americans and Haitians. From Douglass to Duvalier examines the creative and critical ways U.S. African Americans and Haitians engaged the idealized tenets of Pan Americanism--mutual cooperation, egalitarianism, and nonintervention between nation-states--in order to strengthen Haiti's social, economic, and political growth and stability. The depth of Polyne's research allows him to speak confidently about the convoluted ways that these groups have viewed modernization, "uplift," and racial unity, as well as the shifting meanings and importance of the concepts over time.
Women have been involved with jazz since its inception, but all too often their achievements were not as well known as those of their male counterparts. Some Liked It Hot looks at all-girl bands and jazz women from the 1920s through the 1950s and how they fit into the nascent mass culture, particularly film and television, to uncover some of the historical motivations for excluding women from the now firmly established jazz canon. This well-illustrated book chronicles who appeared where and when in over 80 performances, captured in both popular Hollywood productions and in relatively unknown films and television shows. As McGee shows, these performances reflected complex racial attitudes emerging in American culture during the first half of the twentieth century. Her analysis illuminates the heavily mediated representational strategies that jazz women adopted, highlighting the role that race played in constituting public performances of various styles of jazz from "swing" to "hot" and "sweet." The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Hazel Scott, the Ingenues, Peggy Lee, and Paul Whiteman are just a few of the performers covered in the book, which also includes a detailed filmography.
The powerful novelist here turns penetrating critic, giving us in lively style both trenchant literary analysis and fresh insight on the art of writing. When African American writers began to trust the literary possibilities of their own verbal and musical creations, writes Gayl Jones, they began to transform the European and European American models, and to gain greater artistic sovereignty. The vitality of African American literature derives from its incorporation of traditional oral forms: folktales, riddles, idiom, jazz rhythms, spirituals, and blues. Jones traces the development of this literature as African American writers, celebrating their oral heritage, developed distinctive literary forms. The twentieth century saw a new confidence and deliberateness in African American work: the move from surface use of dialect to articulation of a genuine black voice; the move from blacks portrayed for a white audience to characterization relieved of the need to justify. Innovative writing such as Charles Waddell Chesnutt s depiction of black folk culture, Langston Hughes s poetic use of blues, and Amiri Baraka s recreation of the short story as a jazz piece redefined Western literary tradition. For Jones, literary technique is never far removed from its social and political implications. She documents how literary form is inherently and intensely national, and shows how the European monopoly on acceptable forms for literary art stifled American writers both black and white. Jones is especially eloquent in describing the dilemma of the African American writers: to write from their roots yet retain a universal voice; to merge the power and fluidity of oral tradition with the structure needed for written presentation. With this work Gayl Jones has added a new dimension to African American literary history.