Jazz is the quintessential form of American music, a completely new genre generated from within and dispersed internationally. The unique origins of jazz music illuminate the contributions and musical voices of the rural South, particularly the voices of African American women. Jazz’s combination of European melodies, African rhythms, and slave songs gave rise to the acknowledgement of the most marginalized and oppressed groups of America, finally letting their feelings be heard, if not acted and reacted upon. The blues remains the most long-lasting and influential element of jazz music, with its simple melodies and poignant, heartfelt lyrics. Bessie Smith was one of the first African American women to generate a career in blues, touring the South with her legendary voice and forging the way for black women’s careers in music. Beginning with her career in minstrelsy and vaudeville shows, Smith generated a name for herself traveling and preforming to black audiences, later transitioning to nationwide recognition, praise and the distribution of her own phonographs. The vaudeville stage allowed Smith to refine her voice as a distinct trademark of American blues, despite the lack of any formal training or voice coaches. Smith instead infused her singing with emotion, soul, and rich, careful diction that separated her from typical female performers and singled her out as a meaningful artist not only within the black communities and audiences, but within the entirety of American music as well. Listen to the care and emphasis Smith incorporates into lyrics as she sings “St. Louis Blues” here.
Fellow blues legend Gertrude Rainey similarly created her voice through self-development before garnering integrated audiences, focusing more on the experiences of black Southern Americans and generating a sociological consciousness for this demographic that united black communities through their common problems. Topics covered my both Smith and Rainey ranged from economic depression, racism, and sexuality, many songs being heavily political. Take the economic plight as described in “Ma and Pa Poorhouse Blues,” sung by Gertrude Rainey and Charlie Jackson in 1928, eerily close to the Great Depression. The lyrics “Oh, here I’m on my knees/Pa, here I am on my knees/ I want the whole world to know mama’s broke and can’t be pleased.” These lyrics hearken back to the songs of slavery, and thus unify the African American community of the 1920’s by illustrating specific political, economic, and social issues experienced by slaves. The power of women appealing to marginalized groups is a common theme over time, seen throughout the proceeding eras, especially in the counterculture and punk movements of the late twentieth century. The power of women, especially in blues artists like Smith and Rainey that set the tone for African American women in music, transcends time and distance to unite people with common issues and instigate political change.
The blues matriarchs soon gave way to a new era of jazz music, characterized by predominantly male Swing bands, both black and white. Fronting these bands, however, were the female “songbirds” of the Swing era, attractive women meant to bring attention to the the melodies of bands while not entirely drawing attention away from the music itself. The rise of instrumentalist jazz, diverging from blues, diminished the role of the vocalist into a much less focused element of jazz and more of an afterthought or garnish to the instrumental music, especially of swing bands. Prior to 1939, jazz vocalist Billie Holiday exemplified the notion of a “songbird,” using her voice to blend with jazz instrumentalists. However after this time period, Holiday exercised agency in manipulating her voice as an instrumentalist would, thereby establishing herself as a jazz artist and elevating the status of vocalist. Like Bessie Smith and Gertrude Rainey, Holiday had no formal training but rather listened to and imitated the records of Smith and Louis Armstrong. Holiday’s lack of formal musical education is impressive in the highly professional and trained swing bands of the 1930’s and 1940’s, the music itself being highly regimented and a “perfected” form of jazz in contrast to the more improvisational styles of New Orleans jazz. Although Holiday’s range was limited and her power less than ideal, she used her transformed her weaknesses into strengths utilizing swift changes in pitch, repetition to create an illusion of power, and exaggerated dynamics and tone. Holiday also contrasted her voice against the defining instruments of the bands she fronted, for example, singing melodically and contemplatively against the brash tones and range of piano solos. While Holiday’s main repertoire revolves around romance, her arguably most profound performance is of “Strange Fruit,” a haunting song about African American lynchings in the deep South. This politically charged song was heavy and somber in tone, with Holiday’s attention to the words further intensifying the message. The release of Holiday’s recording of the song in 1929 directly reflected
Female jazz singers are admirable for their championing of both racism and sexism, dealing with issues of femininity while harboring the heavy history of race in America in the face of the scrutinizing music industry and merciless audiences. Artists like Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Gertrude Rainey paved the way not only for women in music, but also the way for Civil Rights.