Jazz Women

Recently there has been some very public discussion about the policies of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra regarding the in/exclusion of female musicians as permanent members of the Orchestra. While this happens every few years, this time it seems that there is possibly going to be some action taken. You can read about the issue here and a follow up here.

This post isn’t focused on this specific issue but rather more generally about the silent history of women in jazz. I can tell you from my own research that there have always been a significant number of female musicians on the jazz scene in New Zealand- especially in the early years. However, there has always been a sort of visible invisibility about women on the jazz scene. In other words they’re there, but their evidential remains are few. And I should add that all of us- musicians, historians, audience and journalists are responsible for this. Why is it that female musicians don’t get as much coverage as men? There’s no real reason why not, except preconceptions and laziness.

When it came to researching the history of jazz in New Zealand I wanted to try and not talk about Great Jazz Men, but Great Jazz People, so I actively tried to find as much I could about female musicians (including singers) on the scene. Interestingly I managed to both succeed and fail at this. I succeeded because I was (in some cases) able to talk about female musicians on the same level as male musicians and as successful business people, but I failed because, unfortunately the sources about women were disparate, and few. The music periodicals mentioned women far less than their male counterpoints. Newspaper columns that discussed dancing and bands would mention female musicians, even bandleaders, but rarely did they discuss them in the same depth as the men. This makes for a frustrating research journey: knowing that there are women out there and that they played in this band or that, or even ran the band, but in the same column inches learning less about them. When it came to the final draft of my thesis, I was devastated to have to trim down the women I mentioned because I had less (or no) real substantiating evidence (where I could confirm venues, dates, personnel, etc) of their activities.

The one woman I was able to substantially include was saxophonist Elsie Doyle (neé Nixon), but that was because she took matters into her own hands when she was late in her life and recorded an oral history for the Auckland Public Libraries (now City Libraries) oral history project. Through her oral history I was able to learn about several other women that she performed with, and the all-girl band that she led, with musicians who were equally as established as she was and who had long musical careers. Women, I might add, who were frequently mentioned in passing when discussing other bands’ activities.

Elsie Nixon

Elsie Nixon of Auckland (1913-1996) learned piano from a young age, after being inspired by her aunt, renowned pianist Dame Hilda Ross. Her brother Arthur (born 1910) was also musically inclined and learned banjo and guitar from local dance and jazz band impresario Walter Smith. Through Arthur’s lessons with Walter Smith, Elsie came to know Smith’s nieces Dinah and Marjorie Greening (both of whom would become professional musicians), and would later have a close musical association with Dinah. At some point during his childhood, Arthur also decided to learn saxophone. After the family fortunes forced the sale of their piano and put an end to the siblings’ music lessons during their adolescence, Arthur taught Elsie the saxophone.

One of her father’s many businesses was a tearooms and open air cabaret at the bottom of their section in Mission Bay. During the cabaret season (being open air, it only operated in summer), Arthur (on alto saxophone) and pianist Roy Handlen would play for the dancers. While Elsie stated that she was too shy at first, soon she too was joining them on the C melody saxophone. This was her first foray into dance music, but it was not until her father’s next venture that she really became interested in jazz.

The next venture was the Pig and Whistle tearooms and cabaret in Mission Bay circa 1927. The Pig and Whistle was similar to the previous business: tearooms with a cabaret attached, though this one was covered and could operate throughout the year. As a feature Nixon’s father installed a gramophone and had records playing continuously. One of Elsie’s duties was to go to Lewis Eady’s music store every week to select new records. On her visits she met jazz pianist Alice ‘Al’ Clarke who worked in the record department, and would save the latest jazz releases for Nixon to choose from. This duty and burgeoning friendship combined to pique Elsie’s interest in jazz.

Gala Girls

Elsie and Al began a group in 1931 called the Gala Girls with violinist Eve Hewitt and Dinah Greening on banjo. They created their own orchestrations from stock arrangements and leadsheets that were tailored to their lineup (no bass or drums) and their abilities. All the girls improvised, and in the beginning it was necessary so they could fill in a whole four or five-hour gig! Al Clarke was the most experienced musician in the band and became the de facto co-leader because she had the contacts to get them gigs. Clarke apparently had a good following in Auckland and her fans would follow the Gala Girls around on their gigs and acted as word-of-mouth advertisements for them.

The Gala Girls performed around Auckland for about five years, until Elsie married and her husband did not want her to continue performing. During this time the women also played in other bands, some with each other, and some with musicians outside of the group. According to Elsie, male musicians thought they were a ‘strange breed’, but they respected their abilities, and Al was a well-respected bandleader among the male musical fraternity in Auckland for both her musical and business acumen.

Nancy Harrie

In contrast Nancy Harrie (1919-2000) was a supremely successful swing pianist- in demand by nearly every Auckland swing band in the 1940s and 1950s, and yet very little is known about her and her activities. She performed regularly at the big cabarets in Auckland, and after World War Two in the radio bands, and led her own radio quartet on 1YA and 1YD. In the few interviews she gave she always stated that she was not an improviser (as in, she would not solo- she certainly had improvisation skills as a successful comper behind solo improvisors), and that jazz was for fun, but she was a commercial musician. She might have not considered herself to be a serious jazz musician, but clearly fans and fellow musicians rated her rather more highly. She was routinely termed a hard swinging pianist, and was considered one of the best accompanists in New Zealand. Harrie was frequently requested to accompany visiting vocalists, including June Christie when she appeared in New Zealand with Nat ‘King’ Cole in 1955. When the Brubeck Quartet toured New Zealand in 1960 Brubeck heard Harrie play at an after concert musicians get together and was very impressed by her style of playing.

For all that Harrie was in high demand for live performance, radio broadcasts and recordings, and that media reports almost continuously praised her playing, very little was ever recorded in contemporary reports about her performance style. We are fortunate that a number of early recordings that she performs on have recently been digitally rereleased by Stebbings, so we can now hear some of her commercial work and jazz oriented recordings. However, while it is possibly to intuit what it was that people in the 1940s and 1950s found so interesting about Harrie’s playing, it is unfortunate that journalists and musicians reactions were not recorded then.

While I am able to construct an approximate chronology of Harrie’s work there is still so much that went unrecorded- activities where I know she was participating in, but I cannot find or verify things such as dates, repertoire or even other musicians. I have seen photos of her with musicians but without dates, locations, or mention of events. It is incredibly frustrating to have such tantalising details just hovering out of sight. I hope that one day I might be able to fill in the gaps to construct a detailed biography, but it will take a lot of research and digging.

So to conclude this post- and since it is jazz appreciation month, which is organised by the jazz journalists association- I would ask other writers of jazz, whether professional or amateur to consider female jazz musicians in the same depth that is done with male jazz musicians so that future historians will be able to more accurately construct the activities and biographies of female musicians and place them solidly within the performing jazz canon.




  1. James Hickey · · Reply

    I grew up in Mairangi Bay with her son’s Bryn and Rhys ; Nancy Harrie (nee Humphreys) was like an amazing aunt/friend to me.
    Brubeck recognised her talents (amongst others) and wanted her to go to the US, however her husband Lee Humphres (DFC; amazing story and an amazing man in his own right) died and left her with two small boys so hence it never happened; love her to bits and always will; very special human being. If you want to know about her musical history, speck to any of the musio’s from that period. To know the lady..open up your heart:)

  2. Richard Moss · · Reply

    I worked in Auckland in the entertainment business throughout the late 1960s and 1970s before heading abroad. I knew most of the acts and actors, and many of the singers and musicians of the day on a first name basis; when I wasn’t working , I would go out to places such as the White Heron or Michael’s Caprice to dine, where the live music was often provided by Oswald Cheeseman or the delightful Nancy Harrie trio. I was always delighted to see Nancy, I would halt as I came in to catch her eye, and she would always return a big smile from the keyboard. I always requested the same tune, and eventually I didn’t need to ask, as soon as I arrived at whichever venue she was playing, we would exchange that friendly smile, and the next number she would play was Sleepy Lagoon.

  3. Paula McTaggart · · Reply

    My mother is Nancy’s cousin and although named Janet at birth is also known as Nancy. My mother knows quite a bit about her. Her mother and Nancys were sisters.

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