In the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were more women in jazz than is customarily known or documented. We tend to think of jazz as men's music, with a smattering of women functioning primarily as novelty acts. Men also thought that way back then, making life doubly difficult for female artists. The view was perhaps best summed up by manager Joe Glaser's comment: Who wants to come and hear three broads playing jazz?" [Photo above: Beryl Booker]
Beyond Mary Lou Williams, and Marian McPartland there were dozens of gifted artists who played lounges and bars and recorded—but few had an opportunity to becomes a household name. They either gave up the music business to raise a family or the lounge scene tightened, leaving them without work. In addition to pianists like Pat Moran, Hazel Scott, Lorraine Geller, Jutta Hipp and Blossom Dearie in the early '50s, there was trumpeter Norma Carson; harpist Corky Hale; vibists Marjorie Hyams and Terry Pollard; guitarist Mary Osborne; bassists June Rotenberg, Vivian Garry and Bonnie Wetzel; and drummer Elaine Leighton.
Among the best was Beryl Booker—a self-taught pianist and singer who today is largely unknown or has been forgotten. Booker played with a large number of male jazz stars in the late 1940s and early 1950s and led her own small groups. Her discography runs from 1946 to 1954, gigging extensively through 1959 and disappearing until the 1970s. Her recordings include dates with Don Byas, Tony Scott, Count Basie, Dinah Washington, Slam Stewart, Don Elliott, Budd Johnson, Oscar Pettiford, Miles Davis, Chuck Wayne, Clark Terry, Russell Procope, Jimmy Cobb and Billie Holiday.
Booker had a rich, confident swing style exhibited by thick chord voicings. She also had a melodic, confident singing voice, as evidenced on You Better Go Now. In the April 1952 issue of Down Beat, Leonard Feather wrote...
Beryl Booker deserves national recognition more than any other pianist we've heard... [Her] combination of pianistic and vocal charm, combined with what we know about her as a person, inclines us to a prejudiced interest in her success."
The problem for Booker was ill health and bad breaks, Feather notes in The Jazz Years: Earwitness to an Era, including an inability to land a hit record. She eventually wound up back in her native Philadelphia, where she took odd jobs. By the late 1970s, she wrote Feather: At last! I'm going to move out to San Francisco. At least then I can be with my daughter, and maybe there will be some work."
Soon after Booker moved to California, she suffered a stroke and died in 1978. Booker truly was exceptional. As you listen to her over the years, what's remarkable is her embracing style and ability to adapt, depending on the group she was with. She also tended to use novel approaches on standards that caught th ear. But best of all, Booker could take a ballad and bring tears to your eyes. That's stil the case.
JazzWax tracks: You can own everything Booker recorded on two CDs: The Chronological Beryl Booker: 1946-1952 and 1953-1954 (both French Classics). You'll find the former here and the latter here.