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All-women Jazz Groups: novelty or necessity?

Just as all-women groups were popular in the military band tradition, so were all-women vaudeville and jazz groups.  Both black and white all-women groups formed as a result of the difficulties women had joining well-established male ensembles.  These all-women “girl bands” were actually quite popular in the 1920s and 1930s, but unfortunately much of their popularity stemmed from the fact that such groups were seen as novelty acts without much musical integrity in the jazz world.  According to scholar Linda Dahl in her book Stormy Weather:
            

Given the popularity of female-as-sex-object as a promotional device in entertainment, the many serious and capable women musicians who formed all-women groups were all too likely to be lumped together with the “all-girl” bands   of the “Look, Ma, no hands variety.

The women in these groups were portrayed in a way that played up the visual aspects of their femininity and blended them into one generic woman. Two groups of note are the all-white girl group, The Ingenues, and the all-black girl group, The Harlem Playgirls. The women in these groups were truly talented, but the novelty aspect of their performances is undeniable.  While these women surly wanted to be treated as musicians, setting gender aside, that was unfortunately not an option at the time.  With regard to the sex, Linda Dahl states:

 But whether they [women] liked it or not, it [sex] was an issue, and an important reason for the scarcity of women in established bands.  The women players who   eschewed the all-women groups had few options; if their music remained    “respectable,” their careers quite often remained marginal.

It wouldn’t be until the 1970s that women could partake in more professional jazz roles, and the 1990s was when women became more integrated and accepted into the jazz world.  Groups like The Ingenues and the Harlem Playgirls lost their popularity during the Depression, and many women became disheartened by the “novelty acts” and decided to foster their solo careers or start their own bands.  

  


 Linda Dahl. Stormy Weather: the music and lives of a century of jazzwomen. Hal Leonard Corporation (New York: 1996) p. 47.
 Kristin A. McGee. Some liked it hot: jazz women in film and television, 1928-1959. Wesleyan University Press (New York: 2009) pp. 34-35.
 Linda Dahl, 48.

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