802 Bookshelf: Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras

by D. Antoinette Handy, Rowman and Littlefield/Scarecrow Press, 357 pages, hardcover

Volume CIII, No. 3March, 2003

The motivation to write this wonderful book about black women musicians developed in the mind of a 14-year-old black American girl whose ambition was to be a symphonic orchestral flutist – the author, Ms. D. Antoinette Handy.

A little more than 25 years later, after having fulfilled her orchestral ambitions, she attended the 16th anniversary meeting of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, in Atlanta in October, 1975. She was invited to read her paper, “Black Women and American Symphony Orchestras.”

Somebody asked her, “Why didn’t you include Lil Hardin Armstrong and Mary Lou Williams?”

Even though the answer was obvious (based on the title of her paper), the question prompted the author to go beyond symphonic orchestras and include all female music makers collectively, which of course meant jazz musicians as well.

As Handy began to investigate available literature, she discovered that female instrumentalists were slighted in areas other than symphonic – though to a lesser degree.

She began gathering information from primary and secondary sources, personal interviews and surveys of orchestras. She researched instrumentalists of all kinds, including both side musicians, soloists and bandleaders.

This prompted her to delve into the history of American orchestras, which is Chapter 1. Handy starts with European influences in the late Middle Ages. Succeeding chapters deal with orchestras and orchestra leaders. Then the biographical information deals with individual female musicians in many categories – namely strings, winds and percussion, and keyboards. She also has a category for “non-playing orchestra/band affiliates.” This refers to those who negotiate contracts, handle bookings, contract musicians, and organize jazz, classical and Broadway tours.

As I was flipping the pages, taking in all of the very expansive, comprehensive information, I became aware of the fact that I know and have performed with many of the female musicians whose biographies are in this book. Many of them are – or have been – members of Local 802.

The one sad note in this review is that D. Antoinette Handy passed away last November. I feel good about the fact that I called her at home to find out where to get a copy of her book. And I let her know that I was buying a copy to put into the Local 802 library as a contribution in her name. She was very pleased about that.

Handy, a first class flutist, was a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music. Born in New Orleans, she spent more than 20 years as a symphonic musician, both in the United States and abroad. She served as organizer, manager and flutist with the chamber group Trio Pro Viva, which specialized in music of black composers for 30 years.

She taught at Florida A & M, Tuskegee Institute, Jackson State, Southern (New Orleans) and Virginia State University. In 1971, Handy was a Ford Foundation Humanities Fellow at North Carolina and Duke universities. She joined the staff of the NEA in 1985 as assistant director of the music program and assumed the duties of director in 1990. She retired in 1993.

–Carline Ray

Carlene Ray is a bass player and a member of the 802 Trial Board. She has been an active member for 57 years. To order a copy of this book, call the publisher at (800) 462-6420. The expanded second edition contains revised biographies and many new entries.