Born: September 19, 1887 | Died: 1972 Primary Instrument: Piano
This lady was one of the premier bandleaders in the hot jazz scene in Chicago in the 1920’s. She was the house pianist at Paramount records, where she accompanied the best women singers, as well as leading her own sessions with formidable sidemen of the era.
She was born Cora Calhoun in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1887. She was well educated and received extensive formal training in college as well. Her early career was in vaudeville where she played piano and performed in variety acts. She led a couple of acts on the T.O.B.A. circuit including her own Blues Serenaders. This band used a carefully varied series of devices based around the blues which lent the music real individuality. The Serenaders recordings used many of Chicago's best hot musicians including, Johnny Dodds, Tommy Ladnier, Kid Ory, Natty Dominique, and Jimmie Noone. They accompanied many of the Classic Blues singers of the 1920s, including Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, and Ethel Waters. She rarely took a solo herself, and mostly executed a steady rolling comp which set the mood for the piece. Some of these sessions are well represented in the Classics reissue of “Lovie Austin 1922- 1926.” On these historical recordings, one can appreciate the fourteen instrumental sides under her leadership, in addition to eleven vocals backed by the pianist and various members of her band.
She was the musical director at the Monogram Theatre at 3453 South State Street in Chicago where all the T.O.B.A. acts played. She also was a pianist in a dance school, where she played on and slipped into relative obscurity, until she was rediscovered while backing Alberta Hunter in 1961. This was recorded for Riverside as “Chicago: The Living Legends.”
Pianist Mary Lou Williams cites Lovie Austin as her greatest influence. She had this to say about her in 1977, When I was between 8 or 10 years of age (1918 or 1920), my stepfather and my brother-in-law, often took me to dances and theatres to listen to musicians. Well, there was a T.O.B.A theatre in Pittsburgh where all black entertainers came. I remember seeing this great woman sitting in the pit and conducting a group of five or six men, her legs crossed, a cigarette in her mouth, playing the show with her left hand and writing music with her right. Wow! I never forgot this episode... My entire concept was based on the few times I was around Lovie Austin. She was a fabulous woman and a fabulous musician too. I don't believe there's a woman around now who could compete with her. She was a greater talent than many of the men of this period.
Source: James Nadal