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March 1, 2024

Celebrate Women’s History Month

Please enjoy this message from Dean of Jazz Arts Ingrid Jensen in celebration of Women’s History Month (March 2024):

Dear MSM Community,

Every March, Women’s History Month shines a bold beam of light on the achievements of the often-lesser-known artists who represent as women. In the field of Black American Music (Jazz), the catalogue of under-acknowledged female artistry runs deep and continues to evolve as artists from days past and those currently trending get their due on the current media platforms and in the history books of today.

Since its first celebration as Women’s History Week in 1981, which later became Women’s History Month in 1987, the National Women’s History Alliance (formerly the National Women’s History Project) selects a different theme that highlights various aspects of women’s history and achievements. Last year, the theme of Women’s History Month (2023) was Celebrating Women Who Tell Stories and this year, the theme is Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. I find tremendous inspiration from both.

The stories that have evolved over time relating to both themes exist on a swinging pendulum that takes our knowledge from the beautiful to the uncomfortable and back again. The life stories of legends such as Lil Hardin Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, Nina Simone, Marian McPartland, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Barbara Donald, Terri Lyne Carrington (MSM HonDMA ‘20), Geri Allen, and more, lead us into rich landscapes carved out by extreme expertise combined with timeless souls and spirits.

Women have written, sung, orchestrated, choreographed, performed, and taught their way through adversity and resistance to rise to the highest peaks of artistic prowess, crashing through glass ceilings and filling our musical atmospheres with tremendous sound and energy.

My chosen Queen to celebrate this month is the great Mary Lou Williams.

Mary Lou Williams

I first learned of Harlem’s own Mary Lou when I was in my third year of college at Berklee. In my class, Mary Lou was only covered for one day and I left the class feeling both cheated and baffled that I had never heard of her until that moment. I went on to do my own research to find out that many of the men I was transcribing and digging into were former students of Mary Lou’s, having studied harmony, theory, and orchestration as well as being huge fans of her playing. Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, and more. Mary Lou famously turned down touring with Charlie Parker as she wanted to stay close to home to write music for small and large productions, choreograph with famous ballet companies, orchestrate for the greatest big bands of the era and teach tirelessly in the Harlem Community. Despite being under-acknowledged, she remains a prominent figure in jazz history.

The field of jazz is male-dominated and let’s just say, a tall, blonde Danish-Canadian girl raised on a remote island on the West Coast of British Columbia is not what the average jazz trumpet player looks like. To describe my experience playing in a male-dominated field, I will defer to my brilliant award-winning composer and saxophone-playing sister Christine. She once described the environment best when acknowledging the propaganda machine that maintains a certain image of the “jazz-playing person”. This idea runs parallel to the scripted imagery that Hollywood perpetuated to suppress the images of Black Americans, intentionally hiding the power and the beauty of living legacies and instead magnifying specific stereotypes and furthering demeaning narratives. When we look at the famous photo, A Great Day in Harlem (1958), we see a sea of men, all wonderful artists, but it is the three lonely women in the frame who continue to catch my eye.

A Great Day in Harlem (1958)

Women’s History Month is a time for me to give thanks to both the women on the scene and the women behind the scenes, many of whom we will never meet on the pages of our history books or scroll through on our playlists. I would be remiss not to give gratitude to the many enlightened men in my life who pushed me forward with their mentoring, insisting that the one thing left to change in this music, is the inclusion of the unique voices of women.

A lesson I learned early on from my mentor, the great Clark Terry, was that a note doesn’t care who’s playing it, “black, white, man or woman, as long as there is love for the music behind every breath”. And to quote Mary Lou Williams: “I think people would be much calmer now if they heard jazz…”

To celebrate Women’s History Month, here is a list of notable women in jazz that I think we all will benefit from listening to:


In addition, here is a brief list of more groundbreaking women in music: 

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