Women of the Swing Era.

Mary-Anne SlezacekHistory

In the third instalment of CTS’s Women in Jazz blog series, we turn the spotlight on the pioneers of jazz and swing in the USA. Two of our members, Alisa and The Funky Dak, showcase some remarkable women who made a huge impact. Not only in did they help create the Swing scene that we know and love today; these forces of nature also defied stereotypes and broke down boundaries, contributing to social and political change. Just like the musicians featured in South African Women in Jazz, these women had to battle adversity but their talent and determination led the way into a new era.

Josephine Baker

By Alisa Volkmann

In mid-1920s Paris she was revered as the “Black Pearl” or “Black Venus”. Novelist Ernest Hemmingway described her as “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”. Josephine Baker was a phenomenal performer, a fashion icon and a civil rights advocate. She even served as a spy for the French Resistance during World War II. Although her fame predates the peak of the Swing Era, her influence on dance and her ability to captivate audiences with her mesmerizing performances left an indelible legacy that resonated throughout the Swing Era and beyond. 

Rising from humble beginnings in St. Louis, Missouri, she started dancing from a very young age in vaudeville shows. Her professional dance career began in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, where she danced as a teenager in the chorus line of the groundbreaking all-black Broadway show Shuffle Along – a show that is said to have started the Charleston craze. 

In 1925, at just 19, she embarked on a transformative journey to France, captivating the artistic hub of Paris with her own unique dance style that blended jazz, vaudeville, and exotic influences. She not only ignited fashion trends, pioneering “free expression” with her short hair and skirts, but also stunned audiences with her iconic “banana skirt” dance at the Folies Bergère. Her fame grew as the first woman of colour to star in a European-produced major motion picture, Siren of the Tropics (1927). 

The iconic banana skirt.

As WWII erupted, Baker’s commitment to justice became evident as she spied for the French Resistance. Her advocacy extended to the 1963 March on Washington, where, at 67, she stood as the sole female speaker beside Martin Luther King Jr. She famously adopted 12 children of diverse ethnicities, creating her “rainbow tribe” to exemplify unity. 

In November 2021, almost half a century after her death, she became the first woman of colour to be interred in the revered French Panthéon, alongside luminaries like Victor Hugo and Marie Curie. 

Josephine Baker’s transformative impact on dance, her captivating performances, and her unyielding dedication to civil rights continue to resonate as an indelible legacy that transcends the boundaries of time and artistry.

Willa Mae Ricker

By Alisa Volkmann

Norma Miller and Frankie Manning are probably the most well-known Lindy hoppers today, but Google “Lindy hop” and one of the first images that pops up is this one. Who is the couple in this picture? 

This is Willa Mae Ricker and her dance partner Leon James posing for the famous 1943 LIFE Magazine story on the Lindy Hop.

So, who was Willa Mae Ricker? Born in 1910, she and Frankie Manning grew up together and were best friends. They started dancing together at the Savoy Ballroom with a few other friends. Shortly after Herbert “Whitey” White created Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, Willa Mae was asked to be a part of the second tier of the group, along with Norma Miller and Leon James. Her teenage sweetheart, Billy Ricker, who she married in the late 30s, was also a Whitey’s Lindy Hopper (best known as the chef in Hellzapoppin’). Although they enjoyed a long and healthy marriage together, they rarely danced together professionally. Instead, she partnered with Al Minns, Leon James, Russell Williams, Frankie Manning and others. “She was one of the greatest Lindy hoppers ever,” Frankie said in his autobiography. He specifically noted her skill in aerials and her physical strength “to hold men up so they could shine”. 

She was also considered quite a force off the dance floor. Both Frankie Manning and Norma Miller remember Willa Mae as both incredibly fashionable and business savvy. She often managed the groups while they were on tours. Notably, she was the first dancer who finally stood up to Whitey and demanded that the Lindy Hoppers got paid what they were worth. 

During World War II, when many of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were serving in the armed forces, Willa Mae managed the Harlem Congeroos. When Frankie Manning returned from the Pacific in 1947, he took over the management and Willa Mae continued as a dancer in the group, known simply as the Congaroo Dancers. After the break-up of the Congaroos in the late fifties, Willa Mae enjoyed a second career as a fashion model. She died of cancer in the 1970s.

Ella Fitzgerald

By The Funky Dak

Picture this: a time when jazz notes danced in the air like fireflies on a summer’s eve. In strolled a vivacious dame, armed with a voice that could melt icebergs and charm even the grumpiest cats. Her name? Ella Fitzgerald, the sultaness of scat and the enchantress of the empyrean octave.

Born in 1917, Ella’s journey to vocal superstardom began with humble roots. She faced challenges as a young girl but turned to music as her beacon of hope. Little did the world know that this jitterbugging teenager would become the first lady of song, belting out melodies that could make the crowd weep and tap their feet till sunrise.

Ella’s vocal prowess was a force of nature. She rode the swell of each note, diving into improvisation like a dolphin in the deep blue sea. Her signature scatting, a linguistic jigsaw puzzle of sounds and syllables, left audiences awestruck. It was as if she had a private chat with the saxophone, engaging in a melodious tête-à-tête on stage.

Her rendezvous with the legendary Chick Webb Orchestra catapulted her into the spotlight. And when she serenaded the world with A-Tisket, A-Tasket, the airwaves caught fire. People couldn’t resist the charm of her velvet voice and spirited charisma. She swung and swayed through genres like a musical chameleon, transforming each song into a masterpiece.

But Ella wasn’t just a singing sensation, she was also a trailblazer. In an era when racial barriers were common, she shattered them with every note. She had a manager who believed in her as well as the civil rights movement and fought tooth and nail for her equal inclusion in the entertainment industry. Through her talents and collaborations with peers such as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, she broke through seemingly impossible barriers.

As the years rolled on, Ella continued to conquer hearts, awards, and stages worldwide. She sang her way into history books, leaving a legacy that still serenades our souls. Even now, her records spin like time machines, transporting us to an era of swing, sass, and unforgettable vocal finesse.

Ella Fitzgerald, a true luminary of the music realm, showed the world that with determination, passion, and a voice that angels could envy, it’s possible to rise from the shadows and become a star that shines for eternity.

Ella demonstrating her unrivalled scatting talents.

Mary Lou Williams

By The Funky Dak

In the realm of jazz history, a luminary shines with timeless brilliance: Mary Lou Williams, the distinguished jazz pianist whose elegant keystrokes left an enduring mark on the genre. Born in 1910, Williams embarked on a musical journey that would enrich the tapestry of jazz with her unique artistry.

From her early years, Williams displayed a remarkable affinity for the piano. Her compositions, composed as a young prodigy, hinted at the genius that would later flourish. As she graced the stages of Harlem and beyond, her playing resonated with a refined passion, weaving narratives that captured the essence of the human experience.

Montreux 1978

Her impact extended beyond her melodies. She defied societal norms, proving that gender was no barrier to mastery. Leading her ensembles, she displayed a keen sense of arrangement and composition, contributing significantly to the evolution of jazz during the vibrant swing era.

Collaborations with illustrious contemporaries like Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk underscored her significance in the jazz cosmos. Her notes, though gentle, conveyed a profound musical language that communicated across boundaries, transcending time and space.

In her quest for artistic growth, Williams delved into spiritual themes, channelling her reverence into compositions that added a contemplative dimension to her oeuvre. These ethereal pieces revealed her versatility and a depth of emotion that touched souls.

Her legacy is a testament to the lasting impact of her art. Her piano stylings, while understated, resonated with elegance and innovation. Through dedication and unassuming brilliance, she carved her name among the pantheon of jazz greats, contributing to a genre that continues to captivate hearts and minds.

In the quiet cadence of her playing and the subtlety of her expression, Mary Lou Williams remains an emblem of jazz excellence.

We wish to thank these musical pioneers whose contributions have left an everlasting imprint on jazz and swing history. They took risks, broke the mould and showed the world what can be achieved in the face of adversity. Like our South African jazz heroines, they showed that beauty will always prevail and shine on forever.

About the Author

Mary-Anne Slezacek