Jazzchester, from Past to Present

What about the Female Jazz Musicians?

Joe Squeezer

During our search for musicians that originated from or played in Rochester, we found very few women, and those that we did find were not as well known as their male counterparts. This can be attributed to the fact that jazz music was, and still is, a man’s world. Sasha Berliner, a renowned female jazz percussionist and vibrophonist, sums it up well in her now famous essay:

“It is important to note that also in this streamlined view of jazz history, there is not one woman mentioned on my instrument (the vibraphone) established as an important figure in jazz despite several having existed. Why has hardly anyone been vocal about what is wrong with the way we have presented the history of jazz and those who represent it? There were certainly female vibraphonists that existed, and if they did, it tells the same consistent story of dismissal. No one ever saw vibraphonist Terry Pollard beyond the shadow of Terry Gibbs, despite being arguably more talented then Gibbs himself. This also brings up an issue that remains at the forefront of modern day jazz patriarchy. It has been stated time and time again that she was “inexplicably overlooked”, and yet nobody had chosen to do anything to change the amount of recognition they claimed she deserved. They simply left her legacy at a missed opportunity.” 

It is an unfortunate reality that women faced significant barriers to become jazz musicians: they struggled to land gigs at jazz clubs, were discouraged to play certain instruments that were dubbed too “masculine,” and were condescended to by their teachers. Yet despite these barriers, many women did persevere. On this page, we honour both the famous and lesser known female jazz musicians of Rochester from the past to the present. We name a few of them below.

Alice Coltrane was an internationally acclaimed jazz musician and composer who played the piano, organ, and harp. Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1937, Coltrane was introduced to jazz by her half-brother after studying classical music as a child. She began playing at some of Detroit’s hottest venues, and eventually formed her own trio. This group, which consisted of herself, Ben English, and Ernie Farrow, stopped by Rochester’s own Pythodd Club in 1960. Also playing with them were Pee Wee Ellis, Steve Gadd, and Roy McCurdy. Coltrane met her husband John Coltrane while on tour, and they married in 1966. She joined his jazz group and continued to play until her death in 2007.

Sarah McLawler, a jazz pianist and organist, was born in Kentucky in 1926. Growing up, she learned piano and the organ from her church’s gospel organist. When McLawler visited Texas as a teenager, she was overheard playing the piano by musician Lucky Millinder, who invited her to tour with him for the summer. Following her experiences on tour, McLawler enrolled in music school at the Indiana Conservatory, and formed an all-women jazz group called the Syn-Co-Ettes. She met Richard Otto, a jazz violinist, at a club in Brooklyn, and the two married and toured together. At one point, McLawler and her husband stopped by the Pythodd Club to share some jams.

Sarah Vaughan, born in 1924 in Newark, New Jersey, was a jazz vocalist and pianist. Beginning her musical studies at the age of seven, she eventually won an amateur contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre in 1942, and was hired to sing and play the piano for the Earl Hines Orchestra. This opportunity lead her to join Billy Eckstine’s band, where she met Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. She toured all around the world, including a stop in Rochester, where Chuck and Gap Mangione recall seeing her perform at one of the local jazz clubs. She was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame in 1990.

Nancy Kelley is a jazz singer that was born in Rochester, NY in 1950. Beginning at age four, she studied the piano, clarinet, and voice, and received a bachelor’s degree from the Eastman School of Music. Kelley has toured around the world, and frequently stops back at Rochester to play at various venues around town. She was inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame’s 2021 class.

Sasha Berliner is a percussionist and jazz vibraphonist from San Francisco, California. Beginning her education in the drums at eight years old, she is now studying to receive her bachelor’s degree from the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City. She has performed at jazz festivals across North America, including Rochester’s own jazz festival in 2019. In 2017, she received positive attention for her essay on sexism in the jazz community.

This list of musicians does not encompass all the female musicians that were connected to Rochester- rather, it details the lives of a few more notable figures. The Jazzchester Exhibit was focused on Rochester’s jazz scene from the 1950s through 80s, which had few instances of female jazz musicians. Regardless of their numbers or popularity, these musicians should be celebrated and remembered.

Rochester’s Mid-Century Jazz Musicians
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