Jewish Women in Jazz

by Charles Hersch
Last updated

In Brief

Jewish women have been involved the world of jazz from its beginnings, as instrumentalists, vocalists, and businesspeople. The degree to which Jewishness overtly affects their music varies, and these musicians’ identities as Jews intersect in interesting ways with other facets of their selves, most notably their femaleness. Several Jewish women were prominent big band singers in the swing era of the 1930s and beyond. Jewish women thrived in jazz in the late 1940s and 1950s as well, when bebop expanded the range of jazz. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, Jewish women in jazz took up a wider variety of instruments, and as jazz became more international, Jewish female jazz musicians from around the globe began to come to prominence.

Jewish women have been involved the world of jazz from its beginnings, as instrumentalists, vocalists, and businesspeople. The meanings of this participation are varied and complex, and these musicians’ identities as Jews intersect in interesting ways with other facets of their selves, most notably their femaleness but also their whiteness in an art form whose main innovators have been black. Because gender discrimination meant fewer women were recorded then men, the participation of women in jazz was undoubtedly more extensive than the recorded evidence. Until the second wave feminism of the 1970s, most of the women in jazz who became well known were American vocalists and pianists, musical roles that the public found more acceptable, according to the sexist standards of the time, than female saxophonists and trumpeters. These limits were gradually transcended,however, as women throughout the world created a great variety of jazz music and took part in the music business.

The Swing Era

Several Jewish women were prominent big band singers in the swing era of the 1930s and beyond. Helen Forrest (born Fogel, 1917-1999) sang for three of the most prominent white big bands of the era: Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Harry James.  Called by Shaw one of the best of the big band singers, she was known for her impeccable pitch and melodic sense. At her height she was one of the most popular female vocalists in the country, earning the moniker “the voice of the name bands.” Kitty Kallen (1921-2016), born to Russian Jewish immigrants Samuel and Rose Kalinsky, was also a prominent vocalist, singing with top-notch bands such as those of Artie Shaw, Jack Teagarden, Harry James, and Jimmy Dorsey. Her work included both big band jazz and pop music, and in 1954 she was voted most popular female singer by Billboard and Variety. Another acclaimed big band singer was Fran Warren (born Frances Wolfe, 1926-2013), who sang with both white and black ensembles, including Billy Eckstine, Randy Brooks, Charlie Barnett, and Claude Thornhill. Best known for her 1947 record “A Sunday Kind of Love,” Warren was widely acclaimed by critics. Georgia Gibbs (born Frieda Lipschitz, 1919-2006) had success singing with the big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, and Frankie Trumbauer, and she later broadened her repertory to include rock and rhythm and blues. In the latter capacity she sometimes recorded songs first put out by black singers like Etta James and LaVern Baker, for which she was sometimes accused of what would come to be called cultural appropriation.  

While none of the aforementioned singers emphasized their Jewish heritage in their music, Merna (1923-1976) and Claire Barry (1920-2014), born Minnie and Clara Bagelman, found fame as the Barry sisters with jazz-influenced Jewish music. The sisters often sang jazz songs in Yiddish at the Catskills, on television, and on the “Yiddish Melodies in Swing” radio show beginning in the late 1930s. Their repertory included songs in Yiddish, liturgical songs (such as Kol Nidre,” traditionally sung on Yom Kippur), and popular Jewish melodies. Drummer Florence “Fagle” Liebman (1922-2011) explored ethnicity in a different way in her brief stint passing for black with the African American, all-female big band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. She also played with jazz greats Sarah Vaughn, Oscar Peterson, Dinah Washington, and Ray Brown. 

Forties and Fifties

Jewish women thrived in jazz in the late 1940s and 1950s as well, when bebop expanded the range of jazz. Barbara Carroll played piano and sang in a series of trios; prominent critic Leonard Feather called her “the first girl ever to play bebop piano.” (Holden) Vocalist Sylvia Syms (born Blagman, 1917-1992) grew up listening to jazz greats like Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and Art Tatum in New York’s 52nd Street clubs, sometimes standing in the coat room to listen when she was a minor. By the 1940s she was singing in such clubs herself and was praised by Holiday, Frank Sinatra, and Duke Ellington. Teddi King (1929-1977) was another gifted vocalist who began in the 1940s, performing with (African American) Beryl Booker, Nat Pierce, George Shearing, and Dave McKenna. She was especially praised for her sensitive interpretation of lyrics. Corky Hale (born Marilyn Hecht, 1936) was celebrated for her hard-swinging soloing and accompaniment on piano but became most known for her success as one of the few jazz harpists. Admitting that jazz was “a man’s world,” she rejected all-female bands because “a girl doesn’t feel successful as a musician unless she can work with guys—just like one of them.” (Placksin, 245)

The Sixties and Beyond

In the 1960s and beyond, Jewish women in jazz both built on past accomplishments and expanded upon them. As before there were many fine vocalists. Singer and pianist Judy Roberts (b. 1942) has recorded over twenty albums and been nominated for multiple Grammy awards. Janis Siegel (b. 1952) gained fame as a member (and arranger) of the Manhattan Transfer, whose smooth and swinging vocal harmonies helped it win Grammies in both the jazz and popular music categories in 1981. With Siegel, the group ultimately won ten Grammy awards, including one for Siegel’s arrangement of “Birdland.” The group collaborated with well-known jazz musicians and was known for its use of “vocalese,” in which melodies that had begun as instrumental improvised solos were given lyrics and sung, often in harmony.

In the wake of second-wave feminism, Jewish women began to push against some of the boundaries that had hemmed women in as jazz musicians. Sometimes this took the form of taking more economic control of their careers. Vocalists Madeline Eastman (b. 1954) and Kitty Margolis (b. 1955) founded their own record company Mad Kat; both have recorded a number of albums on that label with acclaimed jazz musicians as sidemen.  

In addition, women increasingly gained prominence on traditionally “male” instruments. A number of woodwind players came to the fore beginning in the 1970s. Jane Ira Bloom (b. 1955) is a soprano saxophonist and composer with numerous albums to her credit. In addition to her work in mainstream jazz, she has been a pioneer in the use of electronics and collaborations with dancers, classical musicians, and artists from Asian musical traditions. The NASA Art Program, which utilized artists to teach the public about space exploration, commissioned her—she was the first musician so honored—and she had an asteroid named after her. Lena Bloch (b. 1971) is a saxophonist who was born in Russia and has lived in Israel, Europe, and the United States. A long time student of acclaimed saxophonist Lee Konitz, she has collaborated with others in the Lennie Tristano “school” of improvisation, as well as with acclaimed jazz players like Mal Waldron and Johnny Griffin. Three of her albums, which incorporate Eastern European and Middle Eastern melodies in addition to drawing on modern western Classical muisc, have received acclaim in the 2010s.

Israeli saxophonist and clarinetist Anat Cohen has explored a huge variety of styles in jazz and beyond, including Israeli songs and Brazilian and Cuban music. Known primarily for her clarinet playing, still relatively uncommon in modern jazz, she sees herself as an “international musician” because “music has no borders and no flags” (Jewish Journal). Guitarist Emily Remler (1957-1990) was another Jewish woman on a male-dominated instrument who received acclaim from and collaborated with other jazz greats, such as Larry Coryell and Herb Ellis. Also experimenting with Bossa Nova, Remler was named Guitarist of the Year by Down Beat magazine in 1985.  

Four female Jewish pianists have become known for breaking musical boundaries. Myra Melford (b. 1957) has been a pioneer in avant-garde jazz, recording many albums and collaborating with Joseph Jarman of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Henry Threadgill, Butch Morris, Leroy Jenkins, and others. She has also studied and performed Indian classical music. Michele Rosewoman (b. 1953) has recorded nine albums and recorded with avant-garde jazz musicians (Oliver Lake, Billy Bang) and more mainstream players (Freddie Waits, Rufus Reid, Billy Hart). She has also performed Latin music, most notably with her Afro-Cuban big band, “New Yor-Uba ensemble.” Marilyn Crispell (b. 1947), who graduated from the New England Conservatory in 1968, trained in classical piano and composition but was converted to jazz upon hearing saxophonist John Coltrane’s seminal album A Love Supreme. She greatly admired the style of Coltrane’s pianist McCoy Tyner as well as that of avant-garde jazz legend Cecil Taylor, and her early work included tumultuous solo albums, a ten-year stint with free jazz saxophonist Anthony Braxton, and performances with stalwarts of free jazz like Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, Billy Bang, Oliver Lake, and Reggie Workman. Her later work has become by her own admission more lyrical. Crispell has said that her playing has been influenced by Judaism’s tradition of “openness and being open to other cultures” (Davis). Annette Peacock (b. 1941) was the daughter of an orchestral violist and grew up around music. Influenced by Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler (with whom she toured), she pioneered what she called the “free-form song,” untethered to a steady beat or predetermined harmony, and her compositions have been recorded by many jazz musicians. She is also known for her pioneering use of the Moog synthesizer, and her keyboard and vocals have also made forays into the “art rock” genre.  

At the same time, the scope of Jewish women in jazz expanded as jazz became more international, and Jewish female jazz musicians from around the globe have begun to come to prominence. Vocalist Flora Purim (b. 1942) was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Jewish classical musicians. She grew up listening to records of American jazz musicians and in the 1960s recorded bossa nova and other Brazilian music. Moving to New York in 1967, she and her husband Airto Moreira played in Chick Corea’s fusion band Return to Forever. She recorded many albums of her own and toured and recorded with Stan Getz, Gil Evans, George Duke, Dizzy Gillespie, Mickey Hart, and others. Julia Feldman is a Russian-born (1979) Israeli vocalist and pianist. Her Ensemble in 2006 recorded a tribute to Billie Holiday, and since then she has performed and recorded in a huge variety of styles of music. Russian-born and Israeli-raised Sophie Milman (b. 1983) is a singer based in Canada who has drawn acclaim for her cool vocal stylings, performing with Gary Burton, Chick Corea, the Manhattan Transfer, and others from the worlds of jazz and pop music.

Jewish Women in the Music Business

Jewish women have also influenced the jazz music business, both formally and informally.  Miriam Bienstock (1923-2015), the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, played a key role in the early years of Atlantic Records, which from its founding in 1947 recorded many important jazz (and pop) artists. Bienstock took on multiple roles at the label, including talent scout, bookkeeper, deal negotiator, and more generally running its day-to-day operations.  

The English-born Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, née Rothschild, was only occasionally active in the music business (as a manager), but became a key patron to bebop musicians in the 1940s and 1950s. Her contributions to the musicians included paying their rent, putting them up, buying them food, driving them places, helping them get work, and even hosting jam sessions at her apartment. But her help was intangible as well, providing musicians with encouragement and support. Because of her tremendous assistance, musicians saw her as part of their circles in a way few outsiders were. She was so beloved by musicians that several prominent jazz compositions have her name in the title, including three by famed pianist-composer Thelonious Monk.

The Role of Jewishness

The role that Jewishness played in the career and music of these women has varied tremendously. De Koenigswarter was raised in a secular Jewish environment, but she took pride in her heritage, and her Jewish identity influenced her attraction to jazz. Experiences with anti-Semitism instilled in her a hatred of prejudice that contributed to her later striking sense of affinity with African American musicians and feeling of belonging to the jazz community. Upon hearing Ellington’s “Black, Brown, and Beige,” a musical tone poem portraying the journey of American blacks from slavery to freedom, she said, “I got the message that I belonged where that music was. There was something I was supposed to do. I was supposed to be involved in it in some way. . . . It was a real calling.” She called jazz “everything that really matters, everything worth digging.  It’s a desire for freedom” (Hersch, 76).

But Jewishness was seemingly not a central part of the identity of other Jewish women in jazz.  Flora Purim grew up in a relatively assimilated Brazilian home and was surprised when an interviewer told her that Stan Getz, with whom she worked, was Jewish. Purim in fact later converted to the Bahai faith under the influence of Dizzy Gillespie. Her connections to American jazz musicians, she has said, came from the fact that she was Brazilian.  

Though Jewishness was a part of all these women’s identities, it was only one of several, evoking the concept of intersectionality: the idea that individual categories like race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation overlap and interact with one another in complex ways. For example, the sexism that female Jewish jazz musicians experienced in the jazz world made their femaleness far more immediately impactful than their Jewishness. Because of such sexism, they were constantly reminded that they were female in ways that they were not confronted with their Jewishness. Thus in interviews and writings, Jewish women in jazz talk rarely about their Jewishness but often about being women (perhaps partly due to the sexism of interviewers, who always bring up their gender). And the fact that they worked in an art form whose canonical figures have been mostly African American influenced their sense of identity as well. Thus Emily Remler famously said, “I may look like a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey, but inside I’m a 50-year-old, heavy-set black man with a big thumb, like [jazz guitarist] Wes Montgomery.”(West) Yet the fact that such a sentence begins with an acknowledgment of her Jewishness indicates its relevance to her, despite her identification with an African American.  

Saxophonist Rosalind “Roz” Cron embodied intersectionality when she performed with the (theoretically) black, “all girl” International Sweethearts of Rhythm in the 1940s. Cron was introduced publicly as “part Russian,” with the assumption that the other part was black; other band members were called “part Chinese” or “part Italian.” Her Jewish looks undoubtedly helped her to get the job—an “unethnic” looking blond would have no chance—but she still had to go to considerable effort to pass for black: she put on dark makeup, permed her hair, and adopted black speech patterns.  

Cron herself did not seem to connecther Jewish identity and her (so to speak) adopted blackness; as she put it, “there was, of course, no middle ground.” When the Sweethearts played for American troops in World War II Germany, Cron was troubled by nightmares of Hitler, and on Rosh Hashanah in 1945 in Stuttgart she attended services with 100 Jewish soldiers and concentration camp survivors they had liberated. However, she never spoke of these experiences to her bandmates. When she played with the band, she was “black,” and when her tenure was finished, she slipped back, apparently seamlessly, into the California suburbs, a place where, ironically, most Jews were trying to pass from Jewish to WASP. However, Cron cherished and held on to an attachment to black culture.  “I developed a closeness to black people and a deeper understanding of the black experience, thus enriching my life for the rest of my days.” Music for her was in fact a way to bridge gaps between the races or even transcend ethnicity altogether: “The race thing between us was really not the main thing you thought about once you were up there. Our language was the music—we just knew we sounded great” (Hersch, 106-7).

The extent to which Jewishness affected the music of these women is hard to gauge. Some have explicitly explored Jewish music, as with the Barry Sisters or clarinetist Anat Cohen’s recordings of Israeli songs. Sometimes the influence is more subtle, as in the minor “Middle Eastern” melodies of Lena Bloch. Anat Cohen has spoken of cantorial music as an influence on her, striving for the depth that cantors can give a single word—or in her case, a single note. Yet few of these women, at least since about 1945, have made Jewish music a focus of their artistry; despite several albums by male Jewish jazz musicians devoted to “Jewish jazz,” there are few female equivalents. Despite Cohen’s recordings of Israeli songs, one would be hard pressed to say that Jewish music is anywhere close to her biggest influence, and Brazilian choro is a far bigger part of her repertoire. Perhaps the female musician who has ventured the furthest into “Jewish jazz” is violinist Jenny Scheinman (b. 1973) who recorded two albums for John Zorn’s Jewish-themed Tzadik record label, at times combining klezmer with other kinds of music.  

Indeed, it is remarkable the number of the women discussed here who, in addition to jazz, perform some other kind of ethnic music, often Latin, taking part in “world music.” One could in fact argue that there is something very Jewish about this musical diversity, recalling Marilyn Crispell’s contention that her Jewishness has made her more open to the music of other cultures.  Indeed, as most Jews for most of Jewish history have lived in majority gentile environments, Jewish identity is inevitably tied up with cultural interactions with non-Jewish neighbors. Perhaps it is this very Jewish porousness of identity that we see in the varied and creative jazz of the women discussed here. For some this account might be less inspiring than a celebration of pure Jewishness, but it also speaks to a richness that reflects the reality of the multicultural world in which we live.  


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How to cite this page

Hersch, Charles. "Jewish Women in Jazz." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 19, 2024) <>.