Dolly Jones, the first recorded female Jazz trumpeter: Videos, Photos

- in BOOKS, VIDEOS, Woman in Jazz & Blues

1938, a young woman stands playing in the centre of the screen, confident and beautiful. In a long white dress, cinched at the waist, she walks around the dance floor as if she owns it and the camera pans to the audience looking on admiringly. The orchestra keeps pace with her as her fingers fly over the keys. It is a masterful performance.

And one that has been almost entirely forgotten. Indeed, even in the history of female jazz, this performance is rarely mentioned, yet it was groundbreaking at the time.

The woman is Dolly Jones, credited in the film as Doli Armenra, and no one who ever saw her perform doubted that she could play. Her wild talent and “hot” style of playing meant that she came to be admired by Doc Cheatham, who’s playing she influenced, and Roy Eldridge, amongst others.

Chicago Girl Starting Out

Dolly was born on the 27th November 1902 in Chicago, Illinois—the heartland of Jazz. Whilst some persist in proclaiming that jazz came north to Chicago via the Mississippi mud boats, after the closing of New Orleans Storyville district. The truth is that it was flourishing in Chicago years before Storyville closed.

It was into this hotbed of talent, where music was a way of life, that Dolly was born into relative poverty. Her mother Diyaw Jones was a trumpeter and performer, known for her pre-Armstrong style and who sometimes worked as a music teacher. Of Diyaw it is written, by Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase, that she was a “tiny woman, who could blow the trumpet like the archangel.” She most-famously contributed to jazz history as the teacher of Valaida Snow, who could play 10 instruments to professional standards by the age of 15. Dolly’s father also played the saxophone, which completed the musical family trio.

Little is known about Dolly’s early life, but she evidently learnt to play the trumpet at a young age. By watching her mother she largely taught herself to play and quickly showed a great aptitude for it.

As a family they formed the Jones Family Band, and, in 1919, worked with dancer and later civil rights activist Josephine Baker, who would later become famous for refusing to perform for segregated audiences. Baker cut her teeth with the Jones family, playing both the trombone and singing.

This move was a standard one for many female musicians at the time. Female instrumentalists, more often than not, formed all-women jazz bands or played in family groups. Making the leap from amateur to professional was—in music, as with most spheres in the early 20th century—difficult for women. The jazz world in particular was a difficult place with women, who faced widespread racism, sexism, and even, in some cases, physical assault.

As a consequence female jazz musicians in this period have often, as Sherrie Tucker writes, “Paid the price of omission, as their careers (often in separate marginalized spheres) have been routinely ignored, trivialized or considered as not real jazz by historians and journalists,” simply because they tended to exist outside the male-dominated jazz scene. For women like Dolly, the very method by which they could begin to participate in jazz almost guaranteed that they would be forgotten.

Music though was Dolly’s life and she grew up on the road. Perhaps traveling around, she dreamt of emulating other female jazz musicians of the time, such as Ann Cooper—who had moved to the Big Apple to play with Joe Robichaux’s Rhythm Boys—or Valaida Snow, who had embarked on a tour of Europe and Asia.

The Beauty of Jazz: 1920s–’30s

In the early 1920s, she formed in Kansas City the “Three Classy Misses” alongside Irene Wilson. Together they played the unusual trio of piano, violin, and trumpet—a combination that made them stand out, as women in jazz tended traditionally to be singers or pianists. Dolly travelled during the 1920s and ’30s extensively, mostly between Chicago and New York.

Roy Eldridge later remembered hearing Dolly play during this time. He recalled walking down the street and stopping at a club to listen to the talented trumpeter. He saw Dolly sitting inside at the bar holding her trumpet and he asked if she was waiting for her trumpeter boyfriend. She, he said, looked at him with a cool, withering look and stated simply, “I am the trumpet player.”

This is a perfect example of the everyday sexism Jones faced whilst establishing herself as a musician. It was an insult, though, that Dolly was willing to overlook, and she and Eldridge went on to jam and discuss music on many occasions. Eldridge would later declare his admiration for her style of playing. It was around this time that Dolly met and married Jimmy “Hook” Hutchinson, himself a saxophonist, but the marriage was short-lived. Dolly continued to use the surname Hutchinson intermittently throughout her career. You can hear Jones on Albert Wynn’s “That Creole Band”.

In 1926, Dolly made history when she became the first female trumpet player to record a jazz record, as part of Albert Wynn’s Gut Bucket Five. There seems little doubt that she was selected for her skill as there would be no other advantage of having a “token” female player in the recording studio.

It is hard to imagine today just how important a milestone this was for female jazz music, paving the way for others to follow in her footsteps. Though it is worth noting that few at the time knew she was the trumpet player, the importance of her recording was more important “on the ground,” as people heard of it, rather than in quantifiable historical terms.

Two years later, she toured with Ida Cox in support of Uncrowned Queen of Blues (some believe her later record Creole Blue to be influenced by this period in her life). She went on to play the jazz chair for Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Harem Harlicans, performing in some of the most famous jazz venues, including the Lafayette and Apollo theatres in New York City, and the Regal in Chicago. There is a tendency amongst jazz historians to treat female musicians as “perpetually emerging,” as Sherrie Tucker writes; however, as we have seen, Dolly was very far from emerging by this point—she was a well respected and established professional musician.

So much so that in 1937 she was able to put together a show at Harlem Uproar House on 52nd Street with the (now-dated and derogatory) title “7 whites, 7 coloured, and Dolly.” This show was pioneering in that it attempted—with a varying degree of success—to bridge the gap between the clubs of the jazz scene and the land of the theatre. The attempt is in itself testament to the position of respect Dolly now enjoyed amongst her contemporaries and it was whilst she was in New York, that Dolly recorded the performance for which she is most famous.

Swing!: Smashing Gender Stereotypes

It was in 1937 that she was recruited by Oscar Michauex. In 1938, the Black filmmaker—famous for his willingness to address racial issues in his films—announced the completion of three new films. One of these was a musical romance called Swing!, and it is in this film that Dolly appears. Oscar Michauex famously refused to shy away from issues such as African-American job discrimination, rape, lynching, and violence. Unfortunately for Dolly, this meant that his films often fell foul of the state censors, meaning that many of his films are largely forgotten today.

We cannot be certain when Dolly filmed her scenes, but the autumn/winter of 1937 would make most sense, given that she was in New York at the time. Dolly has no lines in the film but her trumpet solos take centre stage and are the one remarkable feature of the film. Dolly’s performance in Swing! does not conform to any “standard” female role of the time. She is neither clown, whore, mother, alluring dancer, nor noble savage. Instead, she appears to be exactly what she is: a brilliant musician. This portrayal for the time is quite remarkable.

In her first performance she is seen wearing a conservative white dress of virginal simplicity—this, in itself, is in marked contrast to the historical tendency to portray African-American women (especially in the musical field) as sexually available.

Confident, Dolly stands in front of the all-male band, mistress of all she surveys, as behind her Leon Cross leads her accompaniment. Dolly’s playing style was known as “hot, being fast and syncopated with a toe-tapping rhythm.”

There is, however, nothing here in Dolly’s performance to detract from her music. There is none of the clown actions of Tiny Davis, nor the choreographed actions of Snow, who played on her sexuality through dance and costume. Dolly simply stands and plays, and by doing so she makes a stand for feminism over sexuality. Bud Freeman said of her performance that, “She had no affectation, no showmanship” and yet held the stage not through her sexuality but through her talent.

She is aware of the camera but only in the sense that she completely ignores it, going against the familiar stereotype of a woman playing to the camera. This in itself for a female jazz musician is pioneering. Dolly Jones is one of the earliest representations of a Black woman on screen who is portrayed as talented and attractive, but also chaste and modest.

There is no evidence to suggest that these factors were deliberate, but Dolly’s mere presence, as Kathy Ogren writes, “Disrupted and challenged conventional racist representations of Black female jazz musicians.”

Dolly Jones’ Legacy

Her appearance in Swing! was the highpoint of Dolly’s career. She went on to record again in 1941 with the Stu Smith Quartet, and became one of the first female jazz musicians to cut her own record, Creole Blue—though sadly none of her recordings sold well.

Dolly continued to play right up until her death in August 1975, though details about her later life are scarce.

Dolly Jones smashed barriers in the jazz world, both as the first female trumpeter to lay down a record and as the first to showcase her purely musical talent in film. Her playing was so beautiful, so visceral, that even in her known recordings her playing has been compared favorably to her hero Louis Armstrong.

Yet she remains forgotten, for every door she opened for female musicians, she lived to see them slam back. Yet she continued to play, and she deserves to be remembered for what she was: a groundbreaking trumpet player, who wrote an important chapter in the history of women’s jazz.

Doli Armenra (Dolly Jones) in Swing! 1938 an Oscar Micheaux Film - YouTube

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