By Dakota Parks for Downtown Crowd and reprinted in Musicwoman Magazine
At the young age of four years old, Dr. Joan Cartwright walked onto a stage for the first time to perform in front of thousands of people, unaware that she would later spend most of her life revolving around the stage: on tour, lecturing, writing and advocating for female musicians.Over her 40+ year career as a jazz and blues musician, vocalist and composer, she rubbed shoulders with some of the greatest musicians in the world. Cartwright is an author of 14 books, including her memoir, and books about poetry, women in music, the history of jazz and blues and the business and marketing of music. The National League of American Pen Women and African American Heritage Society of Pensacola will be hosting Dr. Cartwright at the Voices of Pensacola via Zoom at 2pm on March 14, where she will be presenting on her book Blues Women: The First Civil Rights Workers.
“For about 36 years, I toured five continents, 22 countries and several states,” Dr. Cartwright said. “Over that period, I worked with hundreds of male musicians—and only six women. I started doing research and, quite frankly, I got mad. You have to get mad first before you can try to fix something, so then I started writing.”
Cartwright became interested in the stories and lives of the female musicians that pioneered blues music, including Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Eartha Kitt to name a few. Through studying their lyrics and lives, she came to realize that these women were singing songs embodying the black experience and calling out for liberation, healing and civil rights, many of which were long before the Civil Rights Movement began.
Her book tells the stories of Eartha Kit being blacklisted for speaking out against the Vietnamese War and Josephine Baker being the only woman to speak at the March on Washington where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Originating out of the South by enslaved African Americans and hailed “Devil’s music,” by early crude listeners, blues created a foundation for catharsis and a rhetoric of liberation, according to Cartwright’s book Blues Women: “Blues is a breath of fresh air in the stagnant world of discrimination, racism, physical and psychological abuse, and over all inhumanity towards children, women, men, and whole groups of people.”
Dr. Cartwright’s interest and dedication to women musicians didn’t stop with the blues women, however. In 2007, she founded Women in Jazz South Florida, Inc., a non-profit organization to promote women musicians, globally. From there, she kept writing and earned a Doctorate in Business Marketing where she wrote her dissertation on “Women in Jazz: Music Publishing and Marketing” to help bridge the gap of women musicians in the male-dominated industry. According to Forbes, the gender gap in the music industry is staggering: women make up 21.7 percent of artists, 12.3 percent of songwriters and only 2.1 percent of music producers.
“The music industry is a $20 billion industry and women musicians only make around 12 percent of that revenue” she explained. “Just think: when is the last time you saw an all-woman band or a woman headlining on an instrument? Women face the same hiring bias as black people. Coachella is one of the biggest music festivals in the world and four women have headlined it since 1999. Beyoncé was the first black woman to headline at Coachella and only 10 percent of the musicians there are women.”
Her dissertation outlines a myriad of issues that exist solely for women musicians and not their male counterparts, including unequal pay, discrimination in venue and gig booking, sexualization and objectification by the industry at large and marginalization in the male-dominated recording studios and production companies, owned, operated and scouted for by men.
Her studies found that women in jazz that do not join a musician’s union make 68 cents to every dollar paid to male musicians. For Dr. Cartwright, who identifies as a womanist, a term coined by Allice Walker that focuses on uplifting women of color, her goal is to empower women musicians and build the archive of women musicians. She says the solution to closing the gender gap in music is to help women gain business and marketing skills, which she promotes in both her dissertation and her nonprofit publication Musicwoman Magazine.
“I am not a jazz journalist or simply a jazz artist that writes. I’m a jazz archivist. All of my books and magazines are collecting the stories and archives of women musicians,” she said. When asked what we can learn from the history of the early blues women paired against the struggles facing modern women musicians, Dr. Cartwright explained that it’s about building harmony in the face of cacophony.
“Every revolution in the world was heralded by the musicians: by the war drum, by the trumpet sounding an army gathering,” she said. “Music is very powerful, and it’s the precursor to every revolution. We have to use music to build harmony out of the cacophony of the world. From the Civil Rights Movement to the attack on the Capitol in January—all of that is cacophony, confusion, disharmony. I think music shows us the way through it and how to navigate it.”
Dr. Cartwright will be giving her lecture and presentation on the blues women on Zoom through the Voices of Pensacola on March 14 at 2pm. A link to the event will be posted at africanamericanheritagesociety.org/ events. Dr. Cartwright is currently working to get her books into every major library and university system in America and aspiring to build a theatre in North Carolina complete with a library and archive of women musicians. To learn more about her work and nonprofit, visit wijsf.org.