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Women in jazz who have made a historical mark on the scene

13 Feb 2018

This is the second of a two-part series that celebrates women in jazz music

Undertake a customary search of jazz music on Spotify, and it would seem as if the genre was in the possession of men, as many of the playlists that pop up are dominated by male figures. The talents of women musicians of colour are consistently othered and overlooked, yet in the decades since its conception, jazz has been crafted and shaped by these very same women. Often pushed into the shadows of their more famous male counterparts or prized as vocalists but not instrumentalists, women have been integral to the development of jazz. Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, and Eartha Kitt are just a few examples of such iconic women, and below are a list of some who have made a lasting mark on the jazz scene.

Melba Liston – ‘Blues Melba’

Shouldering fame as a talented jazz trombonist and a renowned composer and arranger, Melba Liston boasted a career spanning five decades. Battling through disillusionment with the music industry, stemming from experiences of abuse, discrimination, and sexual assault, she ultimately triumphed with an astounding array of achievements. She formed her own all-female quintet and an all-female jazz band, recorded a legendary album Melba Liston & Her Bones, wrote and arranged for Dizzy Gillespie’s band, headlined the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Music Festival, and served as the Director of Popular Music Studies at the Jamaica Institute of Music.


Vi Redd – ‘Now’s The Time’

Vi Redd is often cited as a talented jazz singer, yet her role as an instrumentalist is frequently forgotten due to the dearth of recording opportunities available to her. A strong and skilled alto saxophonist, she was one of the first female headliners at a jazz festival. Despite sexist coverage in the press, which she faced throughout her career, she cemented herself as a frontrunner in the jazz scene. She formed her own band and performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival, played an unprecedented extensive run with local musicians at Ronnie Scott’s, sung across Europe and Africa, and was appointed a Consultant Panellist to the National Foundations on the Arts and Humanities. Her achievements are complex and endless, and in 2001 she fittingly received the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award.

Alice Coltrane – ‘Turiya and Ramakrishna’

Alice Coltrane was astonishingly talented, working as a skilled pianist, organist, harpist, singer, and composer. She undertook an array of spiritual journeys throughout her life and her music is compelling; her influences range from Detroit to the incorporation of traditional Hindustani instrumentation. Her romantic and musical partnership with husband John Coltrane pushed the genre forward with a restless urgency. Yet we mustn’t forget that she was a leader, aiming for transcendence, and was introspective, impressionistic, and challenged the traditional limits of the jazz genre.

Lil Hardin Armstrong – ‘The Pearls’ with Mae Barnes

Lil Hardin Armstrong was a well-respected composer, pianist, and bandleader who worked with an array of prominent black bands. She triumphed from her early beginnings in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1921 and embraced the role of Musical Director for Decca Records’ Sepia Series, created an iconic album with Riverside Records, and performed on both sides of the Atlantic. Credited for helping to shape Louis Armstrong’s early career, she was also a major contributor to an array of his recordings including Hot Five and Hot Seven and was instrumental in securing the legendary status of these records.


Mary Lou Williams – ‘St Louis Blues’

When describing the inimitable Mary Lou Williams, it’s best to let her do the talking. As she said on the radio broadcast Piano Jazz: “I’m the only living musician that has played all the eras. Other musicians lived through the eras and they never changed their styles.” The pianist crafted a clear space as an arranger and composer, was the first woman to found her own label, Mary Records, set up an array of publishing companies and foundations, mentored individuals such as Dizzy Gillespie, and taught at the University of Massachusetts and Duke.


Toshiko Akiyoshi – ‘The Village’

Pianist and composer Toshiko Akiyoshi experienced an informal jazz education, discovering the genre in her late teens and sourcing records through jazz coffee shops in Japan. Establishing a reputation as a fierce bebop pianist, later in her career, she wove Japanese cultural elements into her playing, establishing a distinctive style. She formed the legendary Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra and has achieved a total of 14 Grammy™ Award nominations, showcasing her work all around the world.


Terri Lyne Carrington  ‘The Mosaic Project’

Boasting an extensive touring career of over 20 years, Terri Lyne Carrington is an accomplished drummer, percussionist, composer, and bandleader. She gained recognition as a house drummer on late night TV shows including the Arsenio Hall Show and Quincy Jones’s VIBE. Her style of jazz is extensive and eclectic, embracing and mixing a range of styles including bebop, soul, and funk. She was the first woman to win a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. Her 2011 work, ‘The Mosaic Project’ gathers an array of astonishing female jazz musicians to showcase the industry at its finest, honouring the history and promoting the future of the genre.