Though women have always played a leading role as jazz performers, they have seldom gotten the credit they deserve as writers. Jazz drummer, composer/producer and Grammy winner Terri Lyne Carrington attempts to right that wrong with New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets By Women Composers, published by Hal Leonard and curated by Carrington, out Sept. 15.
The project spans a century of jazz compositions, including works by seminal artists such as Lil Hardin Armstrong, Dianne Reeves, Maria Schneider, Cassandra Wilson and Alice Coltrane. The book crosses generations and continents, with additional contributions from bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding, Chilean tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana and Japanese American pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi.
The songbook is the latest for Carrington’s Jazz Without Patriarchy Project, and the first initiative from Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, which she formed in 2018 with the Berklee College of Music and serves as its artistic director. Having spent the last decade advocating for more inclusivity in jazz and raising the voices of women, trans and non-binary people, Carrington hopes New Standards furthers the conversation about who decides who shapes the genre.
In addition to the song book, Carrington will release new STANDARDS vol. 1 on the recently relaunched Candid Records on Sept. 16. The album contains 11 songs from the songbook, with selections picked to reflect its diversity, both in the music and the creators.
“Our motto is ‘jazz without patriarchy,’ and that is something we’re trying to envision,” Carrington says about the Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice. “We don’t have it yet, but it’s definitely moving in the right direction. We’re trying to shift the narratives and set new standards so that we can transform a culture. It’s collective work [on] so many fronts with so many people that understand the biggest point — which is the music has not and will not reach its fullest potential until there’s equity within the people that create it.”
As a uniquely American art form, the history of jazz reflects the innovation and complexities of the nation. Before movies and television, public entertainment centered around the theater, and songs from musicals would often become the popular songs of the time. Black musicians would improvise a swing rhythm over the songs made popular by the likes of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and George Gershwin to play for their audiences.
“Now the fact that women weren’t included very much is because they weren’t writing the music of the time — and if they did it was more writing the lyrics,” Carrington says.
There were rare exceptions. Hardin was a trained pianist playing in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band when a young trumpet player, Louis Armstrong, joined the band. She encouraged Armstrong to go out on his own, and they would eventually marry. She wrote many of his songs, and also played in both his Hot 5 and Hot 7 bands. Still, Lil Hardin Armstrong was not credited for her contributions in the liner notes of his work, which relegated her to being a ghostwriter. Her 1922 composition “Perdido Street Blues” is the oldest song in the New Standards collection, which contains compositions as recent as 2021.
Lil Hardin Armstrong’s story of being denied credit is far from unique, and is just one of the unfortunate shared experiences for women in music at the time. It’s just one of the many examples of what Carrington refers to as the “invisible labor” women provide, not just in music, but in society in general. Restrictions on how women — and specifically Black women — could exist in society created barriers to not only developing their talents, but sharing them. Women couldn’t travel alone, and were often deemed not as talented as their male counterparts. There were even expectations as to what were to be considered appropriate instruments.
“Alice Coltrane was the consummate pianist,” says Carrington, who included Coltrane’s “Blue Nile” in New Standards. “She was playing in Europe before she met John Coltrane. It’s hard to say she was in the shadows, because she was fairly well known — but if you’re next to a towering figure like John Coltrane, it’s difficult to not be in a shadow of some sort.”
Determined to highlight the contributions of women, Carrington sought to find lead sheets of their music. She looked in the all the traditional places, including The Real Book. To her dismay, there was little to draw on.
For more than 40 years, students and professional musicians have relied on The Real Book lead sheets for jazz standards. Officially published by Hal Leonard since 2003, the Real Book began as an unofficial tome created by a group of students at Berklee. The handwritten charts transcribed popular jazz tunes of the time, and were bound in the first edition of The Real Book.
Having made this her life’s work, Carrington already knew of hundreds of women who were trailblazers in the world of jazz and that their contributions were expansive. During the search process, there were some who doubted her mission was even possible. She laughs as she summarizes some comments: “You know, you don’t have to be so ambitious with 101.” “We could do this book with less people, I mean, are there even 101 women composers?”
“This is why we’re doing a book — because there is so much out there,” she continues. “There’s enough music we could do a second edition immediately. This [book] was just one song per person. All of these people have tons of material. I could do a second book without repeating the same composers.”
New Standards is also for future generations of musicians. “I feel that’s why I consciously have different levels — so that you could be a high school or college student, a great [player] or an intermediate, a beginner… you can find something in here,” she explains. “So it’s definitely something that we hope will be in a college library and something that high school educators will use as a tool for their teachings.”
Carrington laments how the male dominated world of jazz may have prevented so many female artists from developing as jazz players and composers since they were not given the same opportunities and mentors. “Carmen McCrae, Sarah Vaughan, Shirley Horn, they all played piano. I often wonder how they would have developed as pianists if this patriarchal idea about who plays the music wasn’t existing in the same way,” she asks. “Even Ella Fitzgerald, with the talent she had as an improviser and scatting next to any man that plays a horn and holding her own, dusting them off the stage. I wonder what she would have sounded like on a horn. If there was that kind of freedom, she might have picked up a horn like John Coltrane.”
It is these “what ifs” that drive the institute’s mission and corrective work. Carrington, 57, also personally takes up that responsibility. She met Berklee grad Spalding, whose song “If That’s True” is included in New Standards, while both were performing at the school nearly 20 years ago. Having worked together for years, Carrington views their relationship as a cross generational “mutual mentorship” where she continues to learn from her “little sister.”
The value of that mentorship is not lost on Spalding, 37. Though she didn’t grasp it at the time, Spalding has come to realize that Carrington was mentoring her. “What I now understand is that she could see my potential,” she says. “By immediately inviting me to the gigs, the recording sessions, and being around in the music-making thing with her, she was giving me a chance to develop in multiple contexts. Her style of band-leading, and co-playing, co-leading — it gave me an opportunity to get real time feedback and encouragement from somebody who was a woman, who knew on so many levels what it was like to be on the journey I was on.”
Spalding has learned the value of having women mentors early in an artist’s career. “I realized it’s not just about just having a female role model; it’s about having multiple female role models,” she says. “What Terri’s doing, I pray it continues to be one of many, many expressions of women in music.”
From Oct. 13 – Nov. 27, 2022, Detroit’s Carr Center will host New Standards, the first part of the forthcoming larger exhibition Shifting the Narrative: Jazz and Gender Justice. The project was developed and curated by Carrington and will include live performances, panel discussions, a photo exhibit, archival material and artwork created by jazz artists.