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Artist Stories

31 Great Women in Jazz

We brainstormed a list of over a hundred amazing women in jazz without missing a beat. For March, Women’s History Month, we have selected a sample – one per day for 31 days – to represent the impact women have had on the world of jazz music. For a starter set, we think you’ll find much to dig.

Throughout history, women have been relegated to certain “acceptable” roles and instruments.  But jazz doesn’t like boundaries, and neither have these women.  Despite the limitations and stereotypes, you will discover this group of women is peppered across instrument, contribution, genre, time, geography, and more.

Below we share a little about each of these 31 gems, from A to Z, plus a link to one iconic recording each.  Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to enjoy one per day.

If you have a favorite you don’t see, don’t hesitate to add yours on social media, and tag @thejazzarts as well as #womenshistorymonth, so we can all enjoy!


TOSHIKA AKIYOSHI:  Jazz pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi is renowned for her big band compositions in the 1950s, although many of her albums were released only in Japan.  Her distinctive style reflects Japanese textures firmly based in the jazz of Ellington, Mingus, and Powell.  She has received fourteen Grammy Award nominations and was the first woman to win Best Arranger and Composer awards in Down Beat magazine’s annual Readers’ Poll. and in 2007 she was named an NEA Jazz Master by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts.  Long Yellow Road, 1975.

GERI ALLEN:  Gifted Jazz pianist with a distinctive sound that blends a broad range of technique and makes it all seem natural.  Constantly breaking new ground her album “twenty-One” made her the 1st recipient of Soul Train’s Lady of Soul Award for jazz album of the year in 1995, she composed “For the Healing of the Nations” in 2006 as a tribute to the victims and survivors of the September 11 attacks, and her album “Concert by the Sea” received a 2016 Grammy nomination for Best Historic Album. Feed the Fire from award winning album “Twenty One”, at Festival de Jazz 1997.

LILLIAN HARDIN ARMSTRONG: pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader, known as “Hot Miss Lil” And wife to Louis Armstrong.  Today Lil Hardin is noteworthy as one of the most prominent women in early jazz. With formal training and education, she was largely responsible for Louis Armstrong’s successful career. She not only wrote songs and performed with her husband, but she also managed his career and helped make him an international star.  Armstrong was a renowned musician in her own right. She established a reputation as one of the few female band ensemble members of her time. Armstrong played on many of the first jazz recordings ever made and she wrote many of the early songs of the jazz era.  The original Oliver recording of “Chimes Blues,“ as arranged by Lil Hardin, contained the first recorded solo by Louis Armstrong, 1923.

DOROTHY ASHBY:  evolved the harp from a novelty to an improvising jazz instrument.  Winning Downbeat’s 1962 award for Best Jazz Performer, Dorothy was fearless in her use of harp in bop, soul, R&B, free jazz, and world music like Brazilian, African, and Middle Eastern.  Afro Harping, a 1968 album of jazz & funk.

LOVIE AUSTIN:  Little known Lovie Austin is ranked one of two best female jazz blues piano players of the 1920s.  In a male dominated world, she led her own band the Blue Serenaders who’s members became jazz stars, wrote for and backed many blues greats such as Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, and Bessie Smith, and nurtured rising starts like Jelly Roll Martin for Paramount Records.  Mary Lou Williams credits Austin as her greatest influence.  Down Hearted Blues, with Bessie Smith 1923

JOSEPHINE BAKER:  World renowned Harlem Renaissance singer and dancer, World War II spy, and civil rights activist are few of the titles used to describe Josephine Baker. One of the most successful African American performers in French history and the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. Josephine Baker used her platform to change the world.  A quick glimpse at the incredible life of Josephine Baker,

SWEET” EMMA BARRETT:  One of the true originals in the story of New Orleans jazz, “Sweet” Emma Barrett was a self-taught pianist and singer who pioneered women in a male-dominated field.  She worked with the Original Tuxedo Orchestra in the 1920s and 30s, but wasn’t discovered by the world until she traveled and recorded with The Preservation Hall Band in the 1960s.  In this role, she was a beloved ambassador for New Orleans music and for women. With her trademark red beanie cap and garters adorned with tinkling bells, she was known as “the bell gal” to audiences at home and abroad.  Whenever Your Lonesome, Sweet Emma & Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

CARLY BLEY:  One of the premier composers of the last 50+ years, Carla Bley has written music for big bands, choirs, orchestras, and small combos. Her work, which in the 1960s was important to the free jazz movement, demonstrates originality, a wide compositional range, and a sense of humor.  She was honored with the 2015 NEA Jazz Masters Award.  Here’s one showcasing that grit and humor.

JANE IRA BLOOM:  Saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom has pioneered the use of live electronics and movement in jazz.  This Grammy winner is known for her unique collaborations of improvised sound & light.  She is the first musician ever commissioned by the NASA Art Program for a suite of neuroscience inspired pieces, and has an asteroid named in her honor.  Her description of the surround sound for her Grammy nominating “Sixteen Sunsets”.

JOANNE BRACKEEN:  is an internationally acclaimed improvising jazz pianist and a respected educator at the Berklee College of Music.  She became the first and only female member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1969.  She helped define modern jazz, as a band leader for over 2 dozen recordings, composing over 100 tunes.  Recognized with the  NEA 2018 Jazz Master Award.

TERRI LYNE CARRINGTON:  Terri Lyne Carrington has toured with Herbie Hancock, was house drummer for the Arsenio Hall Show, is professor at Berklee, where she earned a scholarship to attend at age 11, and is the 1st female to win a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album.  One of the youngest to earn the prestigious NEA Jazz Masters, her most recent critically acclaimed Grammy nominated album “Waiting Game” push her concern for social justice forward.

REGINA CARTER:  Though violinist Regina Carter’s music draws upon a wide range of musical influences – including Motown, Afro-Cuban, Swing, Bebop, Folk, and World – she has crafted a signature voice and style.  Carter’s performances highlight the often-overlooked potential of the jazz violin for its lyric, melodic, and percussive potential.  From 2010 album “Reverse Thread”.

ALICE COLTRANE:  A classically trained #pianist, wife of John Coltrane, played piano in John Coltrane’s band for his final 2 years and shared a mission of making music driven by spiritual exploration.  Ultimately, she was an accomplished pianist on her own, one of the few #harpists in the history of jazz, and as bandleader and swamini, lead the exploration of spiritual #jazz.  1970s Journey In Satchidananda described as music for healing:

ROXY COSS:  One of the world’s top #jazz #saxophonists and one of few female band leaders in the jazz field. Roxy is the Founder of @Women In Jazz Organization, whose mission is to help level the playing field, so that women and non-binary people have equal opportunity to participate in and contribute to the jazz community, leading to an improved and more rich, diverse, and successful art form.  The title says it all “Female are strong as Hell”

DOROTHY DONEGAN:  jazz #pianist and #vocalist, primarily known for performing in stride and boogie-woogie, frequently in the same song.  In a field hostile to women, her flamboyant personality and eclectic playing style helped her draw crowds and insist on equal pay.  Recognized with an NEA  “American Jazz Master” fellowship in 1992.

TIA FULLER:  You might know jazz saxophonist Tia Fuller from touring with Beyonce, her role in the Pixar film Soul, her life-sized ad for J Jill, or her Grammy nominated album, or her full-time teaching at Berklee.  This month, we also recognize Tia for using that presence to shine a light on the importance of women role models in jazz.  “Dorothea, I mean Miss Williams,” I mean Tia Fuller.

HOLLY HOFMANN:  Today, Holly Hofmann has taken the flute from its middle-of-the-orchestra origins and made it a front-line instrument in jazz. She has earned the praise and respect of musicians and jazz aficionados for her bluesy, bebop-based improvisations and technical prowess.  critics have labeled her one of the most authoritative, swinging flutists — male or female — in jazz today.  The Very Thought of You, from album Low Life.  2014.

BOBBI HUMPHREY:  fusion and smooth jazz flautist, was the first female instrumentalist signed by Blue Note in 1971.  This “first lady of Flute” continues to push the music community with her music and advocacy, working to strengthen artistic copyright laws.  Harlem River Drive, from best known LP, Blacks & Blues, 1973.

INGRID JENSEN:  Canadian Ingrid Jensen hailed as one of the most gifted jazz trumpeters of her generation. Since graduating from Berklee College of Music, she has recorded several acclaimed albums and become one of the most in-demand trumpet players on the global jazz scene.  Her debut album Vernal Fields won a Juno Award, and in addition to her many musical pursuits and teaching calendar, she participates in the DIVA Big Band, an ensemble of extremely talented women musicians.  DIVA at Dizzy’s a year ago:

MELBA LISTON:  Other than the all-female bands, Melba Liston was the 1st woman trombonist to play in big bands during the 1940s and 1960s. A ghost writer for such artists as the Gillespie, Jones, and Weston, she eventually earned a reputation as an arranger.  Liston was recognized as a trailblazer trombonist and woman with the 1987 NEQ Jazz Masters Fellowship Award.

SHERRIE MARICLE:  When choosing an instrument in 4th grade, Sherrie Maricle was told girls don’t play drums.  Fortunately director, band leader, teacher and award winning #drummer Sherrie made her way there anyway.  Sherrie Maricle has played with #jazz legends, leads an all-woman big band, and forges new roads for women in jazz.

MARIAN MCPARLAND:  English-American imaginative #jazz #pianist, prolific composer and writer, Marian McParland is most recognized as the host of #NPR radio show Piano Jazz, winner of a 1983 Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting.  She is one of only three women commemorated in the iconic 1958 photo “A Great Day In Harlem”.  This 2003 McPartland Piano Jazz interview with Nora Jones shows them both off perfectly.

CARMEN MCRAE:  Carmen McRae is considered one of the most influential #jazz #vocalists of the 20th century for her behind-the-beat phrasing and ironic interpretation of lyrics which led to her description as a storyteller.  She recorded over sixty albums and performed worldwide.    Mad about the boy, 1957:

MARY OSBORNE:  Mary Osborne was one of jazz’s earliest exponents of electric guitar, creating a name for herself on the jazz scene in the 1940s and 50s, pushing past gender biases. Born in North Dakota to a musical family, she was enamored by the electric guitar style, and performed on stage, radio, and TV her entire life.  The Mary Osborne Trio – Blues In Mary’s Flat 1947

TERRY POLLARD:  Pianist and vibraphonist Terry Pollard’s talent and contribution to jazz is demonstrated through her partnership with Terry Gibbs.  Together, they struggled for their incredible talent to be realized, against prejudice, as a Jewish man from Brooklyn performing with an African American woman from Detroit.  Pollard was often remarked to “hold her own”, even quite literally on Leonard Feather’s 1954 LP entitled Cats vs. Chicks.  Terry Gibbs &Terry Pollard vibing it out on the Tonight Show, October 12, 1956.

VI REDD:  Saxophonist Vi Redd was the first female to headline a jazz festival, in 1962.  She was often hired as a singer or support, rather than accepted as a phenomenal #jazz sax musician… until they heard her play.   Art Blakey, that same year, raved about Vi to his NY recording executive. The reaction: ‘Yes, but she’s a girl.”  Consequently she only had opportunity to record 3 albums, and today is lesser known than her talent deserved.

MARIA SCHNEIDER:  Maria Schneider’s jazz-based compositions blur the lines in genres, described as “evocative, majestic, magical, heart-stoppingly gorgeous, imaginative, revelatory, riveting, daring, and beyond categorization.”  Her work with #jazz #orchestras is instrumental in revitalizing big band music, and she is leading the way in advocating musician’s rights in the digital age.  Her 2004 album Concert in the Garden was the first digital download-only album to win a #Grammy Award.  A little of her sound:

HAZEL SCOTT:  Hazel Scott was a #jazz legacy who had dual success in classical music as well as Broadway musical theatre. As a virtuosic #piano prodigy, Hazel was one of the first artists to fuse jazz, boogie, and classical music. she was also a smart, multitalented star in film, television, and radio. Hazel used her status as one of the best-known African-American entertainers of her generation to shine a spotlight on issues of racial injustice and civil rights.

ESPERANZA SPALDING:  Jazz singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding has forged a reputation for innovation in the music industry. Her work has won multiple #Grammy Awards, been recognized with several firsts, and received both critical and mainstream acclaim.  With every album and foray, she breaks new ground.  Latest video, Dec 2020.

CAMILLE THURMAN:  Camille Thurman is a saxophonist and vocalist, composer, and member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.  Receiving critical acclaim as a rising star for her soulful inflection and creativity, she has 4 albums to her name, the most recent “Awaiting the Sunrise” receiving the 2019 Independent Music Awards for Vocal Jazz Album.

MARY LOU WILLIAMS:  Jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams wrote hundreds of arrangements and recorded more than 100 records. Williams wrote and arranged for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and she was friend, mentor, and teacher to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie.  She was known as “the first lady of the jazz keyboard”. Williams was one of the first women to be successful in jazz. “Walking and Swinging” shows her phrasing genius.


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