top of page

WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW WILL HURT YOU: Reflections for Women’s History Month

Susan O'Halloran

4 min read

Mar 7

142

3

I was in the fourth grade in 1959 when I attended the band demonstration at my grammar school on the southwest side of Chicago. Mr. Quinlan, the band director, raised his baton and smiled at his protegees. Then, into this demonstration running late came a 6th-grade boy. He had a trumpet tucked under his arm like a running back cradling a football. His other arm waved wildly for Mr. Quinlan to wait as he slid into his seat. Mr. Quinlan scowled. The mini concert continued followed by a sales pitch to join the band.


I immediately understood that this boy was in trouble. I thought that maybe if a bunch of kids signed up for this scallywag’s instrument, Mr. Quinlan would forgive the boy for his tardiness. So, showing early signs of co- dependency, I signed up for the trumpet so that someone else might feel good.


Two weeks later, I stepped into that first trumpet rehearsal to discover it was me and twenty-one boys. I didn’t know that musical instruments were gender-based. The boys on either side of me shook their heads and whined, "What are you doing here? A girl... trumpet player?"


Thus, began years of surprise at best or outright derision for my instrument of choice.


Every summer, my father’s workplace had a family picnic where they held dance contests. It was quite the joke when, one year, my Dad and I, the two Irish contestants, won the polka contest. My Dad sent me up to the prize table to claim our reward.


I saw an album partially out of its cover. The record was made of see- through, bright, bright red plastic. The man behind the table must have felt obligated to warn me. "Oh, honey," he said, "you don’t want that. That's a jazz album." I didn't care - it was red.


I took that album home and played it over and over again until I had to load the stylus of the phonograph with pennies and nickels to weigh the arm down so it would play through the scratches.


My family was more the Mitch Miller sing-a-long kind of family, "Sweet Rosie O'Grady" and "A Bicycle Built for Two". Likewise, in the band, we practiced "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" and “The Thunderer’s March.” We learned the Western European tonic scale, were instructed to hit the notes straight on and give each their allotted time. I was frustrated. I felt trapped by the meter. I wanted this instrument to do something like the musicians on the red album, Concert by the Sea.


In that recording, the musicians bent notes, changed the time signature, made things up as they went along and grunted, talked and laughed as they played! Mr. Quinlan would have killed us for behaving that way! By high school and college, I had dropped trumpet-playing for the more feminine pursuit of modern dance. Then, one day in my senior year of college, I was driving down Lake Shore Drive when a short, unassuming report came on the radio about female blues and jazz instrumentalists from the turn of the century through WWII.


For the first time, I heard about Michigan's Viola Allen leading her all- female, Black brass band as early as the 1880s. I learned that Hattie McDaniel of "Gone With The Wind" film fame played drums with George Morrison's band. I was given the picture of Lovie Austin sitting in an orchestra pit, conducting five or six men with her left hand and writing music for the next act with her right.


Most importantly, I heard about Dyer Jones, a woman who was playing the horn before Louis Armstrong ever knew what a trumpet was. Her daughter, Dolly, also a trumpet player, ignored the constant jeers, "What? A girl trumpet player?" and took the stage by storm.


I had to pull the car over. Tears filled my eyes as I traced the rim of the steering wheel. I listened to the reporter tell of Dolly sitting in on jam sessions and holding her own and how one night, Roy Eldridge walked by a Chicago Club and was pulled into the place by the sound of a powerful trumpet. It was Dolly. Roy and Dolly jammed together until the wee hours of the morning.


I'd never heard of any of these female jazz musicians. I'm not crying sour grapes here - "I coulda been somebody; I coulda been a contender." It's not so important whether I would have gone on to be a trumpet player as what it meant not to know it was possible. Other women wanted to play from the heart and not just from the head. Other women had melted the brass and made their trumpets bend, glide and sing.


That day, I learned about the power of names to mark the trail. Without the names, the journey is needlessly long and confused. Without the names - without knowing you can do something because someone else, someone you identify with, already has - parts of our souls may remain hidden even from ourselves.


That day I learned that once, long before I was born, there were girl trumpet players. Their names were Dyer and Dolly Jones.


*If you know someone who is part of an organization that wants to focus on equity issues, would you send this article to them or tell them about O’Halloran Diversity Productions? They can reach me at susan@susanohalloran.com and we will set up a short conversation to see if I can be of help to them. Thanks in advance!


*You may reprint this article with proper credit: Written by Sue O’Halloran at www.SusanOHalloran.com


*More on Sue’s trumpet-playing days on her audio recording The Mad Trumpeter of St. Thomas More at www.SusanOHalloran.com/store - 30 minutes of nostalgia, family and fun!


*More on Women’s Empowerment in Sue’s one-woman show Mothers and Other Wild Women at the Studio Theater – a funny, uplifting celebration of the many roles women play and the friendships that sustain them.

Susan O'Halloran

4 min read

Mar 7

142

3

bottom of page