Why is Mary Navis not famous?
She was the “duchess of swing,” the only female leader of a male ensemble who played an instrument, and was once the leading trumpeter in Ina Ray Hutton’s all-female group, the Melodears. She was hugely successful in the big band era of jazz, yet she doesn’t produce a single result in a google search. She played the drums, violin, guitar and several other instruments in addition to the trumpet. She was revered as the “world’s hottest girl trumpeter.” She mingled with the greatest of the greats and did publicity shoots for instrument manufacturing companies such as Selmer instruments and she had regular gigs at some of the most popular night clubs in Philadelphia, but today she is almost entirely forgotten.
Given her unique success as a female instrumentalist who also led an entire band, it is necessary to ask why she has been so forgotten by the public, by general history, and by the historians and fanatics of jazz and Philadelphia in particular. Could it be because her uniqueness wasn’t completely accepted in the era? Or did the fact that she was a woman overshadow her career rather than highlight it?
In the big band era of jazz, the only tolerated roles for women were singer and pianist. Female composers, band leaders, and musicians that did not play the piano were far less respected despite their personal success, and therefore far less remembered today. The instrumentalists remembered today were almost exclusively career-long members of all-female big bands and more than likely active after the 1950s. Navis, while once being a member of an all-female big band, decided to create a career leading a band of men and was active in the years before 1950. In addition to this, female musicians at the time were almost entirely judged on their looks instead of their talent and there was widespread belief that female musicians were simply not capable of being as talented as male ones.
The notion of the highly limited role of women in jazz is highlighted in a photograph called A Great Day in Harlem. This photograph, taken in 1958, featured the era’s greatest jazz musicians collected in Harlem. Of the 57 people featured in the photo, only three were women and all three were either pianists or singers – Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams, and Maxine Sullivan.
This lack of female inclusion transcends to downright sexism in a 1938 edition of Downbeat magazine, the most popular jazz publication of the era. This issue featured the headline “Why Women Musicians Are Inferior” and commenced with the quote, “Why is it that outside of a few sepia females, the woman musician was never born capable of ‘sending’ anyone farther that the nearest exit? It would seem that even though women are the weaker sex, they would still be able to bring more out of a defenseless horn than something that sounds like a cry for help.”
That attitude was unfortunately not uncommon at the time. It was the widespread understanding of the female musician. Mary Navis maintained a career in an era where everything was working against her. She was believed by the vast majority of people to not have the capability of being great solely because of her gender. Despite her success in her era and among the people who watched her play, she was never taken into account when it came time to write the history books, very few women were, and that is why Mary Navis is not famous.