A Brief Guide to All-Female Jazz Ensembles

Since the 1920s, all-female groups have made their mark on jazz

Tia Fuller
Diva Jazz Orchestra

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Jazz is no stranger to all-female ensembles. They’ve been a vital component at least since the mid-1920s, when Helen Lewis and Her All-Girl Jazz Syncopators found success, through the present day, when such bands are assembled annually for the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival. Here are five of the most important all-female jazz ensembles of all time.


Formed in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1925, the Ingenues were trained in the vaudeville orchestra tradition but were “syncopators” in the light-jazz style of Paul Whiteman. (In fact, they were dubbed “The female Paul Whitemans” in the press.) But they were also incredibly skilled and versatile, with star soloists like trombonist Paula Jones who doubled on banjo and accordion. By the end of the ’20s they were celebrities, headlining the 1927 Ziegfeld Follies and starring in an early “talkie” film, The Ingenues: The Band Beautiful.


The original Hot Five pianist, the former Mrs. Louis Armstrong was more important for her chutzpah-it was she who insisted Louis become a bandleader in his own right-than her ability. But that ambition pushed her in a new direction when her marriage fell apart in 1931, after which time she moved to Harlem and founded one of the first female hot-jazz ensembles-then did it again three years later in Chicago. Hardin proved a fine talent scout to a fault, as both bands’ downfalls came from other orchestras swiping her best players.


The first integrated all-girl band-incorporating a variety of ethnicities, not just black and white players-was regarded as among the best and hardest-swinging bands of any color or gender during the ’40s. They broke box-office records, appeared in several films and even embarked on a USO tour of Europe in 1945 by popular demand. The band’s singer and conductor, Anna Mae Winburn, was for a time an icon ranked alongside Ellington and Basie.


Founded in 1992 around the energetic swing of drummer/bandleader Sherrie Maricle, DIVA has become a busy and acclaimed powerhouse of progressive mainstream jazz. The 15-woman big band has crisscrossed the world, played with some of the world’s greatest headliners, made more than half-a-dozen recordings and graduated a number of important musicians. Anat Cohen, Allison Miller and Ingrid Jensen are all among the creative young players who have passed through DIVA’s ranks.


Fuller, a resourceful young saxophonist, DIVA alum and member of Beyoncé’s all-female touring band, collaborates with a wide variety of players. Her working quartet consists of four women, including her sister, Shamie Royston, on piano; Miriam Sullivan on bass; and Kim Thompson on drums. Their undeniable chemistry and powerful momentum onstage ensure that any stereotype about “masculine vs. feminine” jazz is rendered irrelevant.