5 Ways to Include Women in Your Jazz Studies Curriculum – And Why You Should

The #MeToo Movement shined a light on sexism in many fields of study, “jazz” included. Now, with the immense public support for Black Lives Matter, discussions about racial justice and justice for people with intersectional marginalized identities are out in the open. Students from among the most elite conservatories have taken to social media to share their difficult and traumatic experiences in music education (see @nec_anonymous and @MSMSpeaksOut, among others).

Here five strategies for including more women in jazz studies curriculum. While the followings examples here are specific to women, these points are applicable to any group of people who are underrepresented in this field of study.

1. Hire women on your faculty and as guest artists/speakers

Support women jazz musicians by supporting their careers. There are ample incredible women who play every instrument, compose, understand music business, etc. Hire them, not just as adjuncts but as full-time faculty with a livable salary and benefits. By doing this, you are signaling to you female students that they can achieve this and deserve to be recognized as respected authorities on the music when they enter the professional world.

Bring female guest artists to your campus. Play her music with your school’s ensembles. Treat her with the respect you would any other guest artist rather than tokenizing her.

Include female guest lecturers in your classes. Remember, there are women experts in a variety of fields concerning jazz, not just “women issues.”

2. Use the works of women in your curriculum

For ensemble directors, include the works of women composers in your repertoire. Do not do this for just one “celebrate women concert” but all the time.

For classroom teachers, use reading materials about women and written by women. A few books to start with are Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Morning Glory, and Madame Jazz. Play examples of music performed and/or written by women in your classes. If you’re not sure where to start, I’ve got you covered.

While it is not directly related to “jazz” or “popular” music, I want to give a shoutout to MusicTheoryExamplesByWomen.com!

3. Commit to lifelong learning

It’s okay to not know everything, but it’s important to continue learning. Decide on a commitment that is meaningful but practical for you. Maybe that looks like reading a book, listening to online lectures or panel discussions about women’s issues, or engaging with a local women in jazz organization.

Don’t be afraid to consult with your peers about resources they have found useful for continuing their education or for enhancing their classes.

Be transparent with your students about your learning. This could inspire some of them to learn more about the role of women in jazz and signal that this is something worth their attention. Don’t be afraid to ask your students about what they already know. Some of them might be very knowledgeable about how women have contributed to jazz or be aware of resources for female artists.

It is also important to recognize that many people have intersecting marginalized identities. For instance, your Black female students and white female students are going to likely have different lived experiences. Learn more about intersectional feminism.

4. Call out your peers – and yourself

When you hear someone say something inappropriate, call it out. This can be hard, especially if it is a close friend or someone in a position of power over you. But, if you choose to stay silent, you are signaling that hurtful language and actions are acceptable in this space. Find a way that you are most comfortable with to express yourself. This could be as simple as, “What you just said made me uncomfortable.” Here are some more ideas.

Be mindful of your own biases. Are you overly impressed when a female student plays well? Did you have lower expectations for her when she walked into the room? While these types of thoughts may be nearly subconscious, it is important to observe them and question them. Why did I think that way? Where did I learn to think that way? Are my thoughts based in facts? Then, seek more information (see #3).

5. If there is truly no way to include women in your curriculum, have a conversation with your students about why women are absent

I had a teacher who did this incredibly well, and I found the impact to be powerful.

I was taking an Intro to Western Classical Music class, a topic notoriously devoid of women and BIPOC. Toward the beginning of the course, perhaps even the first class, the teacher acknowledged that there were very few women in the curriculum. He explained how women were often denied a musical education, especially beyond childhood, and that the details of their lives were not preserved to the same degree as their male colleagues.

To me, this was so much better than saying nothing. This explained that there is injustice in this field of study and that the teacher knows this and is doing his best to include women in the curriculum when information is available.

Why this is important

Taking these steps are critical to addressing the ramifications of historical abuse of women in “jazz” and “popular music” that continues to this days from the smallest clubs to the most prestigious conservatories.

Representation matters. It shows women that they are valued and capable of achieving more. While this article is about representation in Hollywood films, the same logic applies. And the same logic – that not only is this the right thing to do, but is good for a school’s bottom line – applies, too. Many women want to attend a music school where they will be able to learn from women and interact with female peers and are finding ways to make their voices heard about this.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, including women in your curriculum is the right thing to do. This is not just from a moral standpoint but also from an academic one. If you are excluding women, you are inaccurately retelling the history of this music.

Side note: I just wrote an article about the role of women in Ragtime music. We have been part of this lineage all along.

I hope this list serves as a starting point for how to make jazz education more inclusive, mindful, and accurate.

How have you worked to include women in your jazz studies curriculum? Let me know in the comments.

Women in Ragtime

Content warning: sexism, racism, racist drawing (covered)
What is a content warning?


Much like the retelling of many aspects of history, the lives and contributions of women are not equally discussed and celebrated as those of their male counterparts. Fortunately, several scholars have been keen on preserving and investigating the stories of female composers of the Ragtime era. It is important to note that there is an enormous disparity in whose history is able to be recovered; White middle-to-upper-class women are far more likely to have a paper trail to follow than Black women of the 1890s to 1910s.

Women had diverse career paths as musicians and composers during the Ragtime Era. Some were prolific composers while others may have only published a couple pieces. [1] Often, women’s careers were stifled after marriage. There are exceptions such as Fleta Jan Brown Spencer, who teamed up with her husband Herbert Spencer to pen several hit songs (straying from the Ragtime idiom) including Pansies Mean Thoughts and Thoughts Mean You (1908) and Prairie Flower (1910). [2]

Brown and Spencer’s Pansies Mean Thoughts and Thoughts Mean You (1908)

One tactic female composers used in order to have their sheet music published was to write under a pseudonym or solely a first initial preceding their last name. While this may have helped sell their music during their lifetimes, it added layers of complexity to tracing back the identities and histories of these women. For instance, Fannie B. Woods’ composition Sweetness (1912) was thought to be written by male composer Charles L. Johnson until 2005. A 1960s home recording of Woods playing her composition, among other evidence, has surfaced to confirm that she was indeed a real person and composer.

Fannie B. Woods’ Sweetness (1912)

Even more severe, it was thought that pianist and composer Mary Celina Mamie Desdundes Dugue was an imaginary figure when she was in fact a real person who was highly influential in the New Orleans music scene. In a 1938 interview with scholar Alan Lomax, Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe, better known as “Jelly Roll” Morton recounted his memory of Mamie Desdunes.

“Jelly Roll” Morton talks about Mamie Desdunes with Alan Lomax and demonstrates Mamie’s Blues, also known as 219 Blues

Note: In the recording, Mortan says, “she hardly could play anything else more.” On the surface level, this could be construed as a sexist remark, that Mortan doubted Desdunes’ abilities. However, this comment was likely in reference to the fact that Desdunes had an injury resulting in the need to amputate two fingers on her right hand [3], limiting her ability to play larger chords, which is reflected in the way Mortan performs in the recording.

Perhaps Mamie Desdunes’ near erasure from history is an example of the disparity between Black and White women musicians of the Ragtime Era. White women from middle-to-upper class families were more likely to have access to a piano and private lessons, as playing the piano was seen as a social skill. [4] It was also common for White women to hold jobs as pianists at stores for the entertainment of shoppers and also to promote the sales of sheet music and pianos. [5] It is important to remember that during this time period there was no television, radio, or recorded music other than piano rolls toward the end of the era.

Women were the subjects of a substantial amount of sheet music cover artwork, but the way White and Black women were portrayed were worlds apart. White women were typically portrayed as being sophisticated, well-dressed, and adhering to Eurocentric standards of beauty while Black women were regularly depicted as caricatures, unkempt, and with exaggerated features. Sometimes these images would be accompanied by racist language whether that was in the title or subtitle of the piece, lyrics, or other text elements. There are also instances of derogatory images of non-Black women of color such as Native Americans fronting sheet music of the period. Compare the way women are depicted in these two examples – The Thriller (1909) and Gladiolus Rag (1907).

The Thriller (1909), composed by May Frances Aufderheide

Scan of original sheet music available on the Library of Congress website

Gladiolus Rag (1907), composed by Scott Joplin

The practice of using women, especially women complying with Eurocentric beauty standards, to market music is a practice that extends far beyond the Ragtime era and continues to this day. Lara Pellegrinelli’s JazzTimes article entitled The Women Jacketed By Records discusses this history in detail.

It is clear that women contributed to Ragtime music in a variety of ways as composers, lyricists, and performers. In the lay discourse on Ragtime music, women are largely overshadowed by the “big three” composers – Scott Joplin, James Scott, and Joseph Lamb. It is time for the female pioneers of this art form to be given their due recognition, along with an acknowledgement of the intersectional disadvantages imposed on women of color.

Learn More About Women in Ragtime

These are the works of scholars who have done extensive research to uncover the histories of women musicians in the Ragtime era.

Websites not available: Nan Bostick, Dr. Nora Hulse, Richard Zimmerman


Learn More About Ragtime

This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.

That Epidemic Rag

While researching for my next extended blog post, I came across a rag I couldn’t resist sharing – Edna Williams’ That Epidemic Rag (1911). How fitting for this unique time in history!*

That Epidemic Rag MIDI realization by RagtimeDorianHenry
The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra’s rendition of That Epidemic Ragtime

I tried to find more information about the life and music of Edna Williams, but little information appears to be available on the internet. I came across another song she likely wrote entitled You’ve Made a Home Run With Me (1911) and a collection of more songs from the University of Oregon’s Historic Sheet Music Collection.

I did find two other important musicians by the name of Edna Williams. Edna C. Williams was a beloved soprano vocalist, pianist, and educator. There was also Edna Williams, a trumpet player and member of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, perhaps the most prominent all-female band of the Swing Era.

*For the sake of clarity: COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in mid-March.


Learn More About Ragtime

This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.

September 2019 Newsletter

I can’t believe it’s already September. The summer has once again flown by, but I am so excited for the adventures up ahead. Today is my first day as a student at New England Conservatory! I am so honored to be a part of this talented and friendly community. It is also my first day in my role as a music theory teaching assistant. So many new beginnings!

I have some more exciting news to share. My composition Survivor’s Suite was awarded the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble Prize by the International Alliance for Women in Music!

Check out the press release here.
premiere of Survivor’s Suite
My composition “Thaynks Again” was a finalist in the Seattle Women’s Jazz Orchestra composition contest and will be performed next month in the Earshot Jazz concert. A huge congratulations to my former classmates Seulah Noh and Juen Seok who were the winner and honorable mention of the contest!
Thaynks Again performed by the Berklee Concert Jazz Orchestra
I have been working on revamping my blog. I am writing more content including announcements, obscure jazz history, music tips, and more. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Lastly, I have been spending a lot of time expanding my Women in Jazz Directory. The list of musicians includes well over 100 artists now. I also added a section for industry members who are not (at least primarily known as) performers or composers.

There are so many exciting things in the work and I can’t wait to share more soon. Happy September!
Upcoming Performances
In the works! Stay tuned on social media for announcements!
New Scores For Sale
Original compositions and arrangements for a variety of ensembles available on Noteflight Marketplace!

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Willene Barton: An Overlooked Link in the Big Three Tenor Legacy

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.

Sources