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Women in Jazz

The history of jazz would not be complete without acknowledging the contributions of the many women who played, and continue to play a role in shaping the music. What better place to start than with the vocalists?


Bessie Smith the "Empress of the Blues" has been called "the greatest artist American jazz has ever produced " by John Hammond. She was perhaps the greatest classic blues singer we have ever had. She brought an intensity and emotional level to her singing that transcended whatever material she happened to be singing. Where other blues singers, such as her mentor "Ma" Rainey was popular mostly in the South, Bessie’s popularity was national in scope. She performed in vaudeville, minstrel shows and on the T.O.B.A. circuit. The latter being the Theatre Owners Booking Association which exploited black talent for their own gain.

She recorded many records and in 1923 her recording of Down Hearted Blues sold almost 800,000 copies and made her into a national celebrity. Her phrasing included bending notes and paraphrasing the melody in a way that was closer to instrumental jazz to come. Some of her best work is with instrumentalists like Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson and James P. Johnson. Her greatest popularity was between 1923 and 1928.

Personal problems including excessive drinking and the breakup of her marriage led to a decline in here productivity. Her death in 1937 was the subject of a play by Edward Albee entitled The Death of Bessie Smith. This was a result of the alleged circumstances that caused her death, namely that after an auto accident she bled to death beacuse she was refused entry into a white hospital. The story was based mostly on hearsay and never proven.


There is nothing I can say about Billie Holiday that hasn’t already been said. "Lady Day" as Coleman Hawkins named her, is simply thought by many to be the greatest jazz singer ever. Her life was not an easy one, from her birth to her death she dealt with racism, drug abuse, rape and prostition. She worked with many of the great jazz players and is known for her phrasing, emotional intensity and inventiveness. She also worked with several big bands including Count Basie and Artie Shaw. Some of her most outstanding recordings are Loverman, Strange Fruit and God Bless The Child. Her autobiography "Lady Sings The Blues" was made into a movie starring Diana Ross.


The queen of "scat". Remember that Louis Armstrong was one of the first people to "scat", well, Ella is known for her incredible longevity, her pure vocal style, her ability to swing and her ability to "scat". "Scat" is a way for vocalists to improvise like a horn player by putting "nonsense" syllables to a vocal solo. ( I always point out to my classes that she is a common clue in a lot of crossword puzzles. It usually is " the queen of "scat", four letters, or Ella’s forte.)

Vocally she almost has no equal. She has an incredible range and is able to negotiate wide skips with unerring accuracy. She is well represented on records and Cds and recorded with both small groups and big bands. One of the best recordings is with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, "Ella and Duke At The Cote d’Azure."


Mary Lou Williams is what is known in baseball circles as a triple threat. In music that translates into pianist, composer and arranger. She cannot be put into any one style period having performed in all the styles from ragtime to avant garde. She came from the Kansas City tradition of the blues but hit her stride both as a pianist and arranger with Andy Kirk’s Mighty Clouds of Joy. She also contributed arrangements to the bands of Duke Ellinigton, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong. Not a bad threesome.

She adapted well to the new syles of music and was a champion of the music of Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie.

She was also a teacher who, through her piano playing, introduced many to the history of jazz. In 1997 she was appoionted to the faculty of Duke University where she remained until her death in 1981. To quote Duke Ellington, "Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing are and have always been just a little ahead and throughout her career...her music retains-and maintains-a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul." Well said.


Perhaps no one in this day and age has done more to bring jazz and the history of jazz to the public than Marian McPartland. Through her NPR radio program, Piano Jazz, she has single-handedly brought the famous and the not so famous,( but still incredible), performers to the public’s attention. Marian’s own playing is incredibly beautiful, harmonically advanced and swings hard with or without a rhythm section. Every week her ability to make people feel at home, to fully integrate herself with whomever her guest is, is simply amazing. Some of her best programs are on CD and are a treasure trove of jazz history.


Toshiko Akiyoshi was born in Manchuria moved to Japan in 1945 and came to the United States in 1956 to attend the Berklee School of Music in Boston. She was discovered by Oscar Peterson who encouraged her to come to the US. Her piano playing and compositions have a Far Eastern flavor that she integrates into more traditional forms. In 1972 she moved to Los Angeles and with her husband, Lew Tabackin, formed the Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin Big Band. Her compositions and arrangements for the band are quite difficult and are very unique, having the influences of her background. She has also recorded in the piano trio format. Like Duke Ellington before her, she writes for specific players that are in her band.

Although the band never achieved a great measure of commercial success, it is on a high artistic plane and well thought of by musicians.

There are many other women that have made a contribution to jazz. The following is a partial list that will bear much fruit upon investigation.

Mildred Bailey, Carla Bley, Betty Carter, June Christy, Alice Coltrane, Helen Humes, Diana Krall, Carmen McCrae, Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington and many, many more.