A couple of weeks ago, an idea came to me one rainy, sleepless night. Staring restlessly at the ceiling, I was haunted by a familiar circle of thoughts. Dissatisfaction and frustration was on my mind. I was thinking of music history – the kind that is taught in the classroom. I was, and am bothered by one glaring omission in the courses I have taken and most of the books I have read on the subject. I was even more keenly aware of this omission in Jazz History. If you are a woman and you play an instrument, you know what I am talking about. And on the night that I lay awake trying to decide what to do with my feelings of unease, it occurred to me to start a new blog. Enter the Music Herstory Project. I must really like the word ‘project.’ This word keeps cropping up in my titles.
As you probably have already guessed, this blog is to feature the herstory of women musicians. The idea to re-educate myself came during my last semester at Cornish when I was considering doing my research project for Jazz History on the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. In response I was told that I should research Eric Dolphy instead because I am a flute player. While this advice made sense, I was puzzled by the fact that this person did not see how an all female jazz big band was just as relevant to me as a fellow flute player. But I did my project on Eric Dolphy anyway. Don’t misunderstand me. I enjoyed learning even more about Dolphy. But now I think it’s time for some serious girl power.
My intent is to update this blog once a week, featuring a new musician. I will do as much research as is reasonable in one week’s time and I will post any resources, videos and photos I find useful as an invitation to you, dear reader, to pick out what interests you and dig deeper. Who I research will obviously be subject to my own personal tastes, but I will seek to present as much diversity of style as I can and will be open to any recommendations. I will be taking this project to New York as well and, though no guarantees on posting every week while in school, I will strive to present here a steady stream of music made by women.
I am starting this project with – big surprise! – the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Originally formed in 1937 in Mississippi at Piney Woods Country Life School, the group went professional in 1941. Throughout the 40’s they toured the country, performing in places such as Apollo Theatre in New York City, Regal Theatre in Chicago, Howard Theatre in Washington D.C. and the Cotton Club in Cincinnati. Aside from being an all female big band in the forties I.S.R. was racially mixed, including African-American, Latina, Asian and Native American in its ranks. They were named “America’s No.1 All-Girl Orchestra in 1944 by Downbeat magazine (wikiwand.com). They performed in Battle-of-the-Bands concerts against bands led by Fletcher Henderson and Earl Hines. They enjoyed an enormous following among African-Americans and often broke records set by “the big name man-bands” (NPR). Unfortunately, few recordings survive. However, there are some available on youtube, which I have listed below. There is also a book by D. Antoinette Handy called The International Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Ladies Jazz Band from Piney Woods Country Life School.