As you may know, I created and maintain a Women in Jazz Directory, which includes the most comprehensive (and ever-growing) list of past and active women in jazz that I have been able to find on the internet or elsewhere. I created this resource because it is something I wish I would have had earlier in my development when I was first becoming conscious of how my gender influenced the way potential colleagues, mentors, and other industry members would see me. My hope is for this tool to be empowering and educational, to show other women that this can – and has – been done by women many times over, even if they don’t want to admit it in jazz history class.
I first read about tenor saxophonist Willene Barton in the book Madame Jazz (Leslie Gourse). I was compelled to learn more about her and found what little information I could.
Willene Barton (1928-2005?) was born in Oscilla, Georgia and later moved with her family to New York City where she taught herself to play the saxophone. She played primarily with all-women groups including The Coronians and groups led by former members of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. There seems to be some discrepancy about whether she was ever a member of the Sweethearts or if they had disbanded by the time she was on the scene. Barton particularly looked up to tenor saxophonists Vi Burnside, who had made her career with the Sweethearts.
When listening to Barton, I am strongly reminded of the husky, growling sounds of saxophonists Ben Webster and Illinois Jacquet. Ironically, after reading the information I could find, it appears she played with them, along with others including Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons. Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis managed her career for a time. It is a wonder how someone so well-connected has been left out of the retelling of this lineage.
While Barton’s discography is not extensive, her entire album There She Blows! is available on YouTube. (I have not been able to figure out why the album cover has her on alto even though I can only find recordings of her on tenor.)
I also found this wonderful live performance as part of a Spanish program about women in jazz. (Starts at 13:25)
Here is her single “Rice Pudding,” more in the rhythm and blues vein.
I was also able to find record of Barton collaborating with trombonist/composer/arranger Melba Liston, who has, along with Mary Lou Williams, posthumously become an icon for the women in jazz movement that was reignited by the larger #MeToo movement. They organized a group to play at the 1981 Kool Jazz Festival.
One of my dreams is to live to see women written back into jazz history. We have been here all along. It is time to shine light on these artists, not relegated to a special section in the back of the book for the women, or even worse, completely left out. After reading this, I hope you agree that Willene Barton’s name could easily go alongside those of whom she played with, and deserves to be there.