by Nancy Ann Lee
Madame Jazz: Contemporary Women Instrumentalists
by Leslie Gourse
(Oxford University Press, New York, 273 pp., $27.50, hard cover, $14.95, paperback)
from Jazz Notes 7/2 1995Copyright © 1995, Nancy Ann Lee
Leslie Gourse has dug into her subject and written an informative book about women jazz instrumentalists - both veterans and rising stars, some living, some now deceased. While the author explains that her book covers only those female artists who visited or lived in New York between the 1970s-1990s, one can assume that there are other players outside of New York who are also worth their salt.
An experienced jazz journalist and author who has written several books, Gourse writes in a straightforward manner - without a lot of pretentiousness - to reveal the struggles and successes of female jazz players. She imparts with sympathetic understanding and in detail the myriad trials and tribulations these jazz and pop women musicians have faced.
Gourse examines the backgrounds and experiences of many ascending stars, including pianist Renee Rosnes, trumpeter Rebecca Coupe Franks, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. She reveals the wisdom of entrenched veterans such as artist manager (producer and talent scout) Helen Keane, pianists Dorothy Donegan and Marian McPartland, and others.
The author knows her topic well. While many books of this type often wind up reading like overly-scholarly dissertations, Gourse is an accomplished writer who doesn't get too bogged down in details. She keeps her topic lively and absorbing. This is a book not only for the jazz purist, but one that may entice more women into joining the predominantly male ranks of raving fans. (God, it's lonely out here!)
In a society where men traditionally have gone out to work and left women at home to tend to the house and kids, Gourse reveals how some talented and dedicated female jazz players calibrate their domestic lives to fit their careers (as might be expected, not necessarily the other way around).
Madame Jazz begins with a two-chapter status report on the current scene. The format and length of each of the twenty-four chapters varies. Gourse unfolds each life in different fashion. She does not resort to "cookie-cutter" biographs as some jazz authors have done.
The next five chapters reveal the frustration, inspiration, commitment, business experiences of women instrumentalists from the 1970s to 1990s.
After these seven introductory chapters, the book is smartly divided into sections by instrument - one chapter introducing the profiles (Chapter 8), two chapters devoted to string players (Chapters 9 and 10 cover bassist Tracy Wormworth and Emily Remler and the guitarists, respectively). Horn players are covered in Chapters 11 through 15 - the trumpeters, saxophonists, French horn players, flautists, and those who dare to experiment (Jane Ira Bloom). The next three chapters encompass the lives of drummers and percussionists - Terri Lynne Carrington, Cindy Blackman, Sylvia Cuenca, Carol Steele, and others.
The final chapters (20-24) are devoted to those at the top - Shirley Horn, Joanne Brackeen, Dorothy Donegan, Marian McPartland, and others.
A fifty-three page Appendix includes an annotated list of women instrumentalists - both those included in the previous text and some who were not. Incomplete discographies (title, sometimes, and label, sometimes) are included in the Appendix text and the main body of the book. That there is no separate discography is my one criticism.
Though Gourse claims she may have inadvertently omitted some musicians, she has deliberately elected not to cover what is contained in other books on the subject. As have many of the women she writes about, Gourse has forged a new path, i.e., in coverage of women jazz instrumentalists. She has accomplished abundant research, ferreting out many female musicians that otherwise may have gone unnoticed, particularly by the mainstream press. For that reason, Madame Jazz serves as a solid stepping stone from which to launch future research on the unfinished careers of some of these jazz instrumentalists. It takes a woman to do it. Gourse has done it well.