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Five women songwriters who helped shape the sound of jazz

By Ted Gioia


The songwriting business offered few opportunities to women in the early 20th century. And jazz bandleaders, despite their own experiences with discrimination, were hardly more tolerant of female talent. Although audiences expected the leading orchestras to showcase a ‘girl singer’, women were rarely allowed to serve in other capacities, either on the bandstand or writing arrangements and compositions.

Yet a handful of women managed to overcome the obstacles, and leave a lasting mark on both fields—gettings songs published that became both commercial hits and successful vehicles for jazz. In honor of Women’s History Month, I’d like to call attention to five women who helped shape the sound of jazz with their songs.

Irene Higginbotham (1918-1988) got so little attention for her contributions to jazz during her lifetime, that many scholars and critics confused her with another lady.  She was often described as the wife of jazz pianist Teddy Wilson, but that was a different Irene—Irene Kitchings (1908-1975). Yet Higginbotham was hardly an amateur: ASCAP has her registered as composer of almost 50 songs. But she is best known for one of them—“Good Morning Heartache,” a poignant ballad first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1946, and enjoying even more popularity when Diana Ross featured it in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues. The soundtrack album topped the Billboard chart in April 1973, and “Good Morning Heartache” was a surprise hit single more than a quarter of century after it was composed. Higginbotham was still alive at the time, but apparently no one thought to ask her what she thought about this unexpected turn of events.

Suggested listening:
Billie Holiday: “Good Morning Heartache”
Diana Ross: “Good Morning Heartache”

Ann Ronell (1905-1993) first encountered the world of songwriting via George Gershwin, whom she interviewed for a student publication when she was an undergraduate at Radcliffe. After her graduation, Gershwin helped her make connections in the New York music publishing industry, but Ronell found it hard for a woman to break into this male-dominated field. However, the success of Ronell’s 1932 song “Willow Weep for Me,” a bluesy pop tune that was a huge hit for Paul Whiteman, established her reputation as both composer and lyricist. Ronell’s next best-known song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”—showcased in the 1933 Disney cartoon Three Little Pigs—has also shown tremendous staying power, and has been recorded by artists as diverse as Barbara Streisand to LL Cool J.

Suggested listening:
Nancy Wilson: “Willow Weep for Me”
Irene Taylor (with Paul Whiteman): “Willow Weep for Me”

Dorothy Fields (1905-1974) wrote lyrics for over 400 songs, and worked with many of the leading musical talents of her day. She contributed to the Cotton Club revues in the 1920s, where her songs were performed by Duke Ellington. With Jerome Kern, she wrote “The Way You Look Tonight,” which won the Oscar for Best Song in 1936, and with Jimmy McHugh she was responsible for future jazz standards “Exactly Like You,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” At his first presidential inauguration, Barack Obama referred to one of Fields’s most famous lyrics—“Pick Yourself Up” from 1936—when he announced: “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

Suggested listening:
Betty Carter: “The Way You Look Tonight”
Ella Fitzgerald: “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”

Lil Hardin Armstrong (1898-1971) is probably best remembered as wife to jazz legend Louis Armstrong.  Their marriage lasted from 1924 until 1938, and Hardin played a key role in advancing her husband’s career during these years.  But her place in jazz history would be assured even without this connection.  She was pianist with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, which I rank as the best jazz band of the early 1920s, and her most famous composition “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” has been featured in more than 500 jazz recordings.  Her other songs include “Doin’ the Suzie Q,” “Just for a Thrill” (later recorded by Ray Charles) and “Bad Boy” (featured as title song a 1978 Ringo Starr album).

Suggested listening:
Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five (with Lil Hardin Armstrong): “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue”
Lil Hardin Armstrong: “Doin’ the Suzie Q”

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was best known as a performer, not a songwriter. But several songs she composed or co-wrote have become standards. The ASCAP strike of 1940, which prevented radio stations from playing the songs of most of the well-known American tunesmiths of the day, presented Holiday with both the necessity and opportunity to develop her own songwriting skills. In collaboration with Arthur Herzog, Jr. she wrote “God Bless the Child,” which was a radio and jukebox hit in 1941. Other Holiday compositions include “Don’t Explain,” also written with Herzog, and the blues “Fine and Mellow.”

Suggested listening:
Billie Holiday: “God Bless the Child”
Dee Dee Bridgewater: “Fine and Mellow”

Ted Gioia is the author of eight books on music. His most recent book is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.

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Recent Comments

  1. Marc W. Freeman

    Hello Ted, this is a great blog. Im the late Irene Higginbothams nephew from Atlanta. My mom and her were sisters. My great uncle was JC Higginbotham and my grandfathe I think inspired the creative gift in all of us. I would love to share some thoughts with you on our very talented family. You can reach me via email marc@messagemusicgroup.com
    Kindest regards,
    Marc

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