Photo above of jazz singer and teacher, Germain Bazzle
In recent years, there has been a flurry of attention being called to the absence of women in jazz music and history. The New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint in conjunction with NOLA4Women, a nonprofit aimed at promoting women in the arts, wanted to remedy that. Last month, the museum opened the Women of Note exhibit that puts a spotlight on the contribution women have made to the storied New Orleans jazz scene.
The multi-room exhibit showcases women’s influence on jazz from its very beginnings in New Orleans to contemporary artists mesmerizing the genre.
“The museum itself does have photos and records of women, but certainly not even close to a comparable percentage that we do for me,” said Music Curator David Kunian. “It seemed that the story of women in New Orleans jazz had not been told and now seemed as good a time as ever and, in certain ways, a great time to start telling the story.”
Women of Note features photographs of noteworthy performers like Boswell Sisters and Blanche Thomas and 45rpm and 78rpm records from Billie and DeDe Pierce and Ella Fitzgerald. With promotional posters and programs and multiple listening and video stations, the exhibit reaches back in time to expose the presence women always had in New Orleans jazz.
It also includes instruments such as Helen Gillet’s cello designed to look like Eddie Van Halen’s guitars (named ‘Van Helen’) and Christie Jourdain’s destroyed drum that had to be abandoned when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city.
“Women have always been around in jazz,” Kunian said. “They’ve always been respected as players and as vocalists and instrumentalists, but because of gender restrictions and social norms they haven’t been promoted in the same way. Obviously, they are every bit as talented as the men.”
Kunian explained that the history of jazz included a lot of nightclubs and bars with tough characters that weren’t seen as the kinds of places women should be congregating. The gender restrictions made it not only more difficult for women to participate, but also to discuss participating in the scene.
The social landscape has changed greatly since then and the exhibit puts a special emphasis on contemporary music. Keeping in mind the museum’s proximity to the legendary Frenchman Street, Women of Note features instruments from artists who can be heard a few blocks away. For instance, Charmaine Neville donated a tambourine to the exhibit and can be found playing in clubs down the street.
Another artifact found in Women of Note was donated by the group designated the Street Kings of New Orleans by Red Bull in 2013. The Original Pinettes, the only all-female brass band in New Orleans, entered and won the Red Bull competition and were awarded the title of Street Kings. The members then asked the organizers to cross out the title of kings on the signage and replace it with Queens. The sign now proudly hangs in the museum.
“It’s a great chance to learn about women in music that you haven’t necessarily heard about or to revisit some of the ones you might have,” Kunian added.
Women of Note is open now at the New Orleans Museum of Jazz at the Old U.S. Mint located on Esplanade Ave. in the French Quarter. Check out MusicAtTheMint.org for more information on Women of Note and other exhibits.