The obvious struggle by Republican candidates in their most recent debate to think of an American woman deserving to be on the $10 bill once again illustrated the dearth of awareness of women’s role in our history.
This issue is brought home to me almost every time I map out music for my New Orleans show. Perhaps because my knowledge and music library is not as extensive as I would like, I struggle to bring gender balance to my shows, particularly when I play early jazz, R&B, funk and brass bands. But I also sense that New Orleans is no different than the broader music world where female musicians have struggled to get into the spotlight.
Finding music I can play that feature early New Orleans jazz women is pretty much impossible. I only have a little more luck when I move into the New Orleans R&B era. Lots of great music recorded out of J&M Recording Studio heyday, but with the huge exception of Irma Thomas, and also Shirley Goodman, its mostly guys.
With the help of Jeff Hannusch’s book “The Soul of New Orleans – A Legacy of Rhythm and Blues,” I have learned about Jean Knight (Mr. Big Stuff), Martha Carter, Mathilda Jones, and Barbara George. And, of course, the Dixie Cups.
If you don’t recognize some of those names, you’re not alone. Finding their music to play on the radio takes work.
Similarly you might recognize Marva Wright and Charmaine Neville but what about Leigh Harris (Little Queenie) or jazz singer Germaine Bazzle? Many excellent female musicians worked in New Orleans during the 20th Century but their recordings are sparse and scarce.
Fortunately, change is happening. While it still doesn’t feel balanced, there is an increasing number of New Orleans-based women musicians who are getting recognized in our new century. Helen Gillet, Aurora Nealand, Kelcy Mae, and Ingrid Lucia are carving a living out of the NOLA music landscape. Perhaps the most well-known in recent years is Alynda Lee Segarra who is the driving force behind Hurray for the Riff Raff.
And there’s growing recognition. New Orleans Women In Music, founded in 2007, promotes the careers of women musicians through information, network and other support.
The New Orleans Nightingales is a marketing collective with whom Ingrid Lucia has produced a compilation featuring 19 female musicians. Here’s the website description: “Steeped in the musical traditions of early American music, the ladies of the New Orleans Nightingales bring new life to this hundred year art form through new compositions, vibrant live performances and a commitment to the idea that traditional jazz and folk music is still evolving.”