Ladies Of Jazz Guitar
Emily’s place in the history of women jazz musicians…
When asked how she would like to be remembered, she responds:
Good compositions, memorable guitar playing and my contributions as a woman in music….
but the music is everything, and it has nothing to do with politics or the women’s liberation movement. You have to rise above it all by being good. You don’t get angry, you don’t get bitter, and you don’t get feminist about the situation. You get so damn good that they’ll forget about all that garbage.
This is evident as her music advanced, that she was devoted to musical refinement and of broadening her understanding and potential. It was never about doing it to prove herself worthy of her gender or of deserving headlines with her male counterparts, it was simply about proving herself worthy of the music.
Emily was a pioneer for all women guitar players. Her Spirit will stay with me, and I will often think of her as I enter the stage, pick up my guitar and play.” ~ Leni Stern
And this we also know about those before her:
Marian Gange and Carline Ray are the very first names to surface.
Marian was part of many women only jazz bands, most notably with Ina Ray Hutton’s band the Melodears that were popular around Harlem and Manhattan in the 1920′s and ’30′s. Naturally the guitar was not a very significant part of big bands during that era because until Christian plugged his guitar in there was little expected of the instrument except for background rhythm and comping, which Marian was superb at, as is evident in this Youtube clip:
After WW II started, Marian joined another all women trio that played USO tours and countless hospitals for the troops called, Eleanor Sherry and the Swing Hearts but there isn’t much information on her career following the end of the war. She was still an important and distinguished figure for early women guitarists.
Carline Ray is a talented multi-instrument (guitar, electric bass and piano) musician and vocalist with a degree from the Manhattan School of Music, who played for numerous bands throughout her career, first gaining recognition from her guitar work with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and as lead singer for the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra. She has performed internationally with every size group conceivable, ranging from the big band of Duke Ellington to small combos led by Mary Lou Williams. Carline has always been a steadfast activist and role model for many generations of jazz women both in the organization and the movement. Her contributions are immeasurable. Currently Ms. Ray still maintains a full schedule as a teacher at several schools and colleges in the New York-New Jersey area.
Carol Kaye is known as the first Lady of Bass but is the forgotten lady of jazz guitar who probably appeared as guest guitarist on more albums and with more artists than the combined appearances of all women guitarists in total. Yes, it’s that many.
Carol played and taught jazz guitar professionally starting in 1949 and was a regular at countless nightclubs around the Los Angeles area with groups such as Bob Neal. ( And she’s still burning it up, click here to see her take on F Blues with Marco Panascia at NAMM ’05 and this amazing footage from NAMM ’06 as she jams out with George Benson ! )
- Her contributions to jazz guitar were largely over shadowed by her mastery (from simply filling in for an absentee bassist) on the electric bass, which she devoted many years to in playing, teaching and composing. Those influenced by her methods include Jaco Pastorius, Christian McBride, Sting, John Paul Jones, Mo Foster and many, many more. I think her public influence was lost to most women over the years because she played with such anonymity while performing live and almost exclusively in studio situations with the film and music industry on the west coast where she quietly appeared on albums with Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones, Herb Albert, The Righteous Brothers, The Beach Boys and countless others.
Carol’s influence to the many musicians and groups she has worked with over the years is immense and why she cannot be overlooked here. Read her full story at Carol Kaye website and also don’t miss this excerpt on Youtube from a documentary about her life. Carol Kaye is one of the true legends of jazz and is still teaching and playing today.
The next and more prominent name you will see in the history of women jazz guitarists is Mary Osborne a mid-western girl from North Dakota.
Mary was fortunate enough to be given a few lessons by Charlie Christian himself, which makes her one of a select group of guitarists that can not only list him as an influence but a teacher as well. She was immediately taken by the sound of Christian, and recalls;
I had walked into the Dome Ballroom, where the Alphonso Trent Orchestra was playing, and heard what I took to be a tenor saxophone, I asked where the guitarist was at , then realized that the saxophone sound was coming from a crude amplifier attached to a guitar played by Charlie Christian. I was so inspired all I wanted to do was imitate him. From then on I had myself a mad little trio.
- She was just in the right place at the right time and believed in what she could do and where she wanted to go. Ms. Osborne also makes reference to a musician in Chicago in the late 30′s that was maybe the most impressive woman player she could ever remember hearing. They were jamming for warm up in one of the downtown theaters, and Mary remembers:
An older woman approached and asked, “Do you mind if I sit in?” I said okay and she got out the biggest Epiphone guitar I’ve ever seen. She didn’t look like a guitar player, but when she started to play, I was so surprised at how good she was that I started to laugh.
Her name was Sidney Bell and I’ve not seen her name mentioned or in print other than Mary’s recollection.
This was all taking place mid 1940′s through the 60′s, when she worked with some of the great names of the times: Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Mercer Ellington, Mary Lou Williams and Billie Holiday and appeared many times on the Arthur Godfrey show. Here is a rare clip from Billie that shows Mary clearly in charge of the guitar despite being stuck behind a smoking trombonist !
Mary went on to form her own trio and also her own business the Osborne Guitar Company in Bakersfield, California where she lived and performed until her passing in 1992. Her recordings are mostly out of print and hard to find at reasonable prices but her A Memorial CD of her best is well worth having. Click Here to view her discography.
and all you beautiful ladies everywhere out there,
taking the lessons, putting in the time and passing it on.
For more information on women in jazz see these titles or websites:
Jazz Virtuosa: A Celebration of Women In Jazz
Nicole Williams Sitaraman
NPR Profiles Women In Jazz: Parts 1 & 2
American Women In Jazz
Jazz: Women Are Becoming Key Players
An article byLaura Barnett
To view these and other videos from ladies of jazz visit the Players page.