OBITUARY: Rosetta Reitz; champion of women in jazz; 84
- OBITUARY: Rosetta Reitz; champion of women in jazz; 84
By Douglas Martin
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
November 24, 2008
Rosetta Reitz, an ardent feminist who scavenged through the early
history of jazz and the blues to resurrect the music of long-forgotten
women and to create a record label dedicated to them, died Nov. 1 in
New York City. She was 84.
The cause was cardiopulmonary problems, said, her daughter Rebecca Reitz.
Mrs. Reitz (pronounced "rights") came by her interest in jazz through
her husband and male friends, but as the feminist movement gathered
steam in the 1960s, she noticed something was missing: the music's
women. So she started collecting old 78s of performers like the
trumpeter Valaida Snow, the pianist-singer Georgia White and a bevy of
blues singers who had faded from memory.
At the same time, she unearthed lost songs by more famous artists such
as Bessie Smith, Ida Cox and Ma Rainey.
"In that decade of the 1920s, when jazz was really being formulated
and changing from an entertainment music to an art form," Mrs. Reitz
said in an interview with The New York Times in 1980, "these women
were extraordinarily important and instrumental in accomplishing that."
She continued: "Louis Armstrong was a sideman on records in the '20s
with singers like Sippie Wallace, Eva Taylor, Hociel Thomas, Virginia
Liston and Margaret Johnson. These women's records were made as their
records. But when they come out now, they're reissued as Louis
Armstrong records, when actually he was not that important on them."
These women "had the power," she told The Christian Science Monitor in
1984. "They hired the musicians and the chorus line, a lot of them
wrote the music themselves, and they produced their own shows. They
were more than just singers; they were symbols of success."
Music was at first just one element in a busy life. Mrs. Reitz was at
different times a stockbroker, a bookstore proprietor and the owner of
a greeting card business. She was a food columnist for The Village
Voice, a professor, a classified-advertising manager and author of a
book on mushrooms. She was a founding member of Older Women's
Liberation. She raised three daughters as a single parent.
Mrs. Reitz also wrote "Menopause: A Positive Approach" (1977),
considered one of the first books to look at menopause from the
viewpoint of women and not doctors. She listened to her recordings of
women while she wrote the book, many of them celebrating the strength
of women rather than treating them as victims.
"I was so alone and needed to be nurtured, and I found I was getting
it from them," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1992.
Mrs. Reitz started Rosetta Records in 1979 with $10,000 she had
borrowed from friends. Her routine was to scout out lost music,
usually through record collectors. She then supervised the remastering
of records that were often severely damaged; researched and wrote
detailed liner notes; and designed graphics and found period
photographs for the album covers. She personally wrapped each order
and took it to the post office for shipment. About a dozen stores
later carried the Rosetta label.
Over the years, Mrs. Reitz went from vinyl recordings to tapes to CDs.
She refused to give sales figures, but she did tell the Los Angeles
Times that the four titles in her "independent women's blues" series
of compilations including "Mean Mothers" sold about 20,000 copies
each. Some albums centered on themes like railroads or prisons.
Much of the music she recorded was in the public domain, but Mrs.
Reitz said she had devoted time and energy to tracking down the rights
to some songs and to paying artists royalties when she could.
Her label had not issued a recording in at least 13 years, but
previous releases are sometimes sold on the Internet. A number of
mainstream labels also have reissued albums of the artists Reitz admired.
Rosetta Goldman was born Sept. 28, 1924, in Utica, N.Y. She attended
the University of Wisconsin for three years, moved to Manhattan and
got a job at the Gotham Book Mart. She negotiated a loan to buy her
own bookstore, the 4 Seasons in Greenwich Village, where literary
figures like Ralph Ellison were celebrated.
For years, Mrs. Reitz lobbied for a postage stamp honoring Bessie
Smith, which was issued in 1994. She produced concerts by longtime
female blues singers for the Newport Jazz Festival, Carnegie Hall and
the Hollywood Bowl.
She married Robert Reitz when she was 23, and they divorced in the
Mrs. Reitz is survived by her daughters, Rebecca of Manhattan, Robin
Reitz of Tucson and Rainbow Reitz of Manhattan; and a granddaughter.
Mrs. Reitz did not always finish what she started. She had planned to
make 26 albums, she said, but completed only 17. She never finished a
book on women in jazz. Even her success with the Rosetta label had
left her with a conviction that more work had to be done.
"My hope and dream," she said, "is that there won't be a need for a
women's record company."
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