She was a greater talent than many of the men of this period.

Mary Lou Williams

Women’s History Month was established in 1981, to celebrate the achievements women had made in the United States. At that time, the celebration only lasted a week, but in 1995, it officially became a month-long celebration. With March being Women’s History Month, we are going take this opportunity to shine some light on the women of jazz throughout the years.

To start, we are going to learn about a few of the less recognized women who truly paved the way in the early days of jazz.

Cora “Lovie” Austin (1887 – 1972)

Not nearly as well-known today as her peer Lil Hardin Armstrong, Lovie Austin was a successful bandleader, composer, musician, arranger, and singer, during the blues era of the 1920’s. In her heyday, she and Armstrong were two of the best jazz blues piano players around! After moving to Chicago, she began her career in vaudeville, playing the piano and accompanying singers, including her idol, Ma Rainey. She also had her own band, the Blues Serenaders. As a composer, she worked with Louis Armstrong on “Heebie Jeebies,” and she composed Bessie Smith’s famous song, “Down Hearted Blues”, as well as many others. With the decline of the blues in the early 1930’s, she went on to become the musical director of the Monogram Theater, a T.O.B.A. venue*, for 20+ years.

Another famous jazz pianist, the trailblazer Mary Lou Williams, cites Austin as her biggest influence, after seeing her perform and conduct as a child. Williams said: “My entire concept was based on the few times I was around Lovie Austin. She was a fabulous woman and a fabulous musician, too. I don’t believe there’s a woman around now who could compete with her. She was a greater talent than many of the men of this period”. 

To celebrate this unsung heroine, here are a couple of her songs:

*T.O.B.A., Theatre Owners Booking Association, the vaudeville circuit for African-American performers

Blanche Calloway (1902 – 1978)

Before Cab Calloway took the stage, the bright lights shone on his older sister Blanche Calloway. A singer, composer, and bandleader, she was the first female, and first Black female, to lead an all male orchestra. She began her career in a touring production of “Shuffle Along,” which took her to Chicago. It was there that Cab visited her, beginning his own musical career, which she heavily influenced. At the start, they sometimes performed together. At that point, she was a bigger name, and a higher earner, than he was. Around this time, she became the first female to lead an all-male band, Blanche Calloway and her Joy Boys!

Eventually, that dynamic shifted, and Cab’s fame eclipsed hers, but that didn’t stop her from creating her own path. She went on to have a solo career for a while, and then she became more and more involved in civil rights. Later in life, she moved to Florida, and made some waves. There, she became the first African-American woman to be a voting clerk, and also became the first African-American woman to vote in 1958. And in 1968, she started one of the first large Black owned companies, Afram House, a mail order cosmetics company for African-American women. While Blanche may not be the Calloway that immediately comes to mind, she pioneered fearlessly in so many ways and should be celebrated.

Here she is with her Joy Boys performing “Just a Crazy Song,” which starts out with a “Hi-Hi-Hi” that may have inspired Cab’s “Hi-De-Ho”:

Valaida Snow (1904 – 1956)

You’ve heard of Louis Armstrong, but have you heard of “Little Louis,” Valaida Snow? A musical virtuoso and entertainer, Louis Armstrong, himself, christened her “Little Louis”! Born into a show business family, with a music teacher mother and a father who managed the Pickaninny Troubadours, she was proficient in a number of instruments. She learned the violin, cello, bass, banjo, harp, accordion, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet by age 15, AND she also danced and sang. But she chose the trumpet to be her instrument of choice, at a time when very few women played brass instruments. W.C. Handy dubbed her the “Queen of the Trumpet.” She made a name for herself here in the states, as well as abroad. She toured extensively, spending a good deal of time across the pond in the 1930’s, where she was greatly celebrated in London and Paris. Unfortunately, as a woman in a male-dominated field, she never achieved the lasting notoriety that she should have, but her talent was recognized and respected by her peers.

Here she is singing and playing trumpet on “You’re Driving Me Crazy”:

Viola Smith (1912 – 2020)

Drummer Viola Smith also started in a family band. She and her sisters comprised the Smith Sisters Orchestra (originally Schmitz), founded by her father. The drums became her instrument because by the time she joined the band, all the other instruments she liked had been chosen by her older siblings. Throughout the 1920’s and 30’s, the Smith Sisters Orchestra was famous on the RKO vaudeville circuit. But in 1938, she and her sister Mildred started the Coquettes, an all-girl orchestra that lasted until 1942. Called the “female Gene Krupa” and the “fastest girl drummer,” she felt frustrated by the lack of recognition and respect she and other female musicians were receiving. To show her displeasure, she wrote an article in DownBeat Magazine called “Give Girl Musicians a Break!,” arguing that women could play as well as the men. A trailblazer, she continued to play in both her own band and in many others throughout the rest of her professional career, which lasted until 1975. Not one to give up a good thing, Smith continued to drum, until about a year before her death, at age 107!

Here she is with the Coquettes performing “Snake Charmer”:

Unsung heroines

In a male-dominated world, these women helped pave the way for more female musicians, bandleaders, and artists to follow in their footsteps. While their achievements might have been overshadowed by those of their male counterparts, they are no less talented or innovative. They left behind hidden gems in the jazz world, and it’s time to let them shine!

Who are other female trailblazers we should highlight? Let us know!


The Cleveland Jazz Orchestra wants to SPRING FORWARD into jazz education!

With many schools struggling with music education (if they are able to offer it at all), the CJO is focused on continuing the educational outreach projects we began last spring.

We have a goal to reach $3000 by April 1st, so we can help our community, assist our educational partners, and inspire new generations of jazz lovers!

To learn more & donate:

Or text “CJO4NEO” to 44-321

Thank you!