In celebration of Women’s History Month, we are featuring early pioneers who disrupted narratives and gave voice to musicians around the world.
In her playing days she was called Little Giant.
A small woman with a big presence, she was easy to notice. Guitarist Janet Enright was often the lone woman on the bandstand, a member of many jazz bands, including her own, that played throughout Jamaica. It was the early 1950s, and jazz, like so many other things, was a boys club, and even for the boys, music wasn’t a respectable profession.
In class-conscious 1950s Jamaica, being a musician wasn’t a proper job, explains Heather Augustyn, author of several books on Jamaican music history, “Musicians weren’t thought of as stars, they weren’t given the status that we give them today.” Even Enright’s own mother discouraged her. Speaking to Augustyn for her book Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, Enright recalled, “My mother thought, at the time, that playing the guitar was not very feminine. She would punish me if she saw me playing the guitar. We had roles and the roles were established in those days.” It wouldn’t be too long, though, that Enright would find herself on the bandstand with jazz greats from all over and into history as the first woman jazz guitarist in the country. Now in her 80s and still living in Kingston, Enright isn’t as known as she should be, but her life is a pioneer’s story, creating space for women in music despite the obstacles.
Enright came from her music-loving home filled with the sounds of jazz. Big band swing, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, and musicians popular in the local Kingston jazz scene. Music floated all around her, moved her. She taught herself to play guitar and to read music when she was around 12. Even though her mother hated it, the love of the music was already too embedded in her to stop. But seeing that she didn’t just have the drive, she had the talent, her community rallied around her. She could play and they knew it. Enright started to get noticed. “People began to talk to me,” she told Augustyn. “They had a business, and they would say, ‘well come play.’” She started by backing singer Louise Bennett at a lunchtime performance. It was the start of a working relationship with the singer. Enright would perform with her playing mento, a folk music and ska predecessor with its roots in Jamaica’s African heritage.
Her next big break came when she met Eric Deans, a local clarinetist and bandleader. He recruited talent for his band at the Alpha Boys School, a Catholic school in Kingston that offered musical training and would count among its students some of the founding fathers of ska. Deans’ new venture was an all-girl jazz band, with then 14-year-old Enrich as the guitarist. But she was given little time to practice, and a line-up that she found much less committed to music than she was. “I was not at all amused at the girls’ lack of professionalism,” she told Augustyn. She ran out in tears after their first performance.
Two musicians who were playing at the same gig saw her crying outside. They invited her back in to play with them. She told them she only knew a few chords. It didn’t matter to them. Just come up to play two songs, they asked. Just two. She agreed. They played the two songs, a straight-ahead jazz piece and a Latin jazz song, as she recalled. Those two songs were the start of a whole new life for Enright, “It was the beginning of my profession as the first female jazz guitarist in Jamaica.”
As Augustyn writes, “to have a career in music in the 1950s and 1960s was to move from job to job, band to band,” and that was Enright’s life, too. It had to be. Then, music in Jamaica was mostly a live affair. Enright’s peak was in the country’s pre-recording era, and to work meant to travel. She worked with several bands throughout the country, including with Wilton Gaynair and Don Drummond, the two musicians who invited her on stage after her first gig. She eventually started her own band, the Janet Enright Combo.
News about Enright’s talent travelled, and US jazz musicians would seek her out, which led her to play with jazz giants like Carmen McRae and Dave Brubeck during their stops on the island. The musician’s life also taught Enright to stand up for herself. She was often offered less money than the men in her band. They fought for her, but she also fought for herself. “This was a common story when you talk to any woman. In the clubs, in the recording studios, it’s a common story. She was tough,” Augustyn says. “Any woman playing at this time had to be.”
Enright’s legacy should be firm. But her music remains mostly unheard today because so little of it was recorded. Her name isn’t even widely known in her home country. Enright was a musician’s musician, known mostly by those who played with her. But as Augustyn says, “She existed. She was center stage at one point, she was the highlight. Women were not afforded that then, and often still rarely are. That speaks volumes about her talent.”