10 Women in Jazz Who Never Got Their Due (Published 2020) (2022)


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We’re often taught to think of jazz’s history as a cavalcade of great men and their bands, but from its beginnings the music was often in the hands of women. Listen to some of the greatest.

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By Giovanni Russonello

Young, female instrumentalists have been establishing a firmer footing in jazz, taking some of the music’s boldest creative steps and organizing for change on a structural level. But this isn’t an entirely new development.

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While we’re often taught to think of jazz’s history as a cavalcade of great men and their bands, from its beginnings in the early 20th century women played a range of important roles, including onstage. During World War II, right in the heart of the swing era, all-female bands became a sensation, filling the void left by men in the military. But in fact they were continuing a tradition that had begun in the vaudeville years and continued, albeit to a lesser degree, in jazz’s early decades.

Prevented from taking center stage, many female instrumentalists became composers, arrangers or artists’ managers. Buffeted by sexism from venue owners and record companies in the United States, they often went abroad to pursue careers in Europe or even Asia. As was also true of their male counterparts, the African-American women who helped blaze some of jazz’s earliest trails had to innovate their way around additional roadblocks.

“These jazz women were pioneers, and huge proponents in disseminating jazz and making it a global art form,” said Hannah Grantham, a musicologist at the National Museum of African American History and Culture who studies the work of female jazz musicians and contributed notes to this list. “I don’t think they’ve been given enough credit for that, because of their willingness to go everywhere.”

The piano and organ were considered more socially acceptable instruments for young women to play, and few serious fans of jazz would be unfamiliar with the names Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Hazel Scott, Shirley Scott or Alice Coltrane. But the ranks of female jazz genius run much deeper than that. Here are 10 performers who made a big impression in their day, but are rarely as remembered as they should be in jazz’s popular history.

Lovie Austin, pianist (1887-1972)

Lovie Austin composed for and accompanied some of the greatest singers of the early recording era, including Ma Rainey and Ethel Waters. A number of her songs became hits, including “Down Hearted Blues,” a smash for Bessie Smith that sold close to 800,000 copies. Based in Chicago, Austin was also a frequent bandleader at some of the Harlem Renaissance’s most famous venues. Mary Lou Williams counted Austin as her largest inspiration. “My entire concept was based on the few times I was around Lovie Austin,” she later said.

Lil Hardin Armstrong, pianist (1898-1971)

Lil Hardin met her future husband Louis Armstrong in 1922, when he joined her as a member of King Oliver’s famed Creole Jazz Band. Hardin, who studied at Fisk University and had an entrepreneurial streak, helped bring Armstrong forward as a bandleader, serving as his first manager, pianist and frequent co-composer. After they split up around 1930, she found some success with her own big band, but stepped away from performing years later after determining that male promoters would never be willing to promote her on the same level as men.

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Valaida Snow, trumpeter (1904-1956)

Valaida Snow’s career was a wildfire: a thing of great expanse and then rapid, wrenching exhaustion. She was a master of the trumpet but played a dozen other instruments, as well as singing, doing arrangements for orchestras, dancing, and appearing prominently in early Hollywood films. When the pioneering blues musician and composer W.C. Handy heard her play, he dubbed her “Queen of the Trumpet.” Denied a proper spotlight in Chicago and New York, Snow became a star abroad, touring for years in East Asia and Europe. She wound up stuck in Denmark during World War II, becoming ill while imprisoned there. She escaped in 1942 and spent the rest of her career back in the United States, although her health never recovered.

Peggy Gilbert, saxophonist (1905-2007)

As a grade-school student in Sioux City, Iowa, Peggy Gilbert quickly became accustomed to cutting against the grain. The daughter of classical musicians, she was told in high school that the saxophone was unsuitable for a young woman — but she taught herself anyway. A year after graduating she started her first band, the Melody Girls. In 1938, outraged at an article in DownBeat magazine headlined “Why Women Musicians Are Inferior,” she penned a retort that the magazine published in full. “A woman has to be a thousand times more talented, has to have a thousand times more initiative even to be recognized as the peer of the least successful man,” she wrote. Talent and initiative were two things Gilbert possessed. She went on to lead ensembles for decades, on the vaudeville circuit and the Los Angeles scene, eventually becoming an official with the musicians’ union there. She continued to perform well into her 90s, and died at 102.

Una Mae Carlisle, pianist (1915-1956)

Just like better-remembered contemporaries such as Fats Waller and Louis Jordan, Una Mae Carlisle made jazz that was also R&B and also pop — before the Billboard charts had effectively codified those genres. She was publicly known best as a singer, but she played virtuosic stride piano and composed prolifically too. Part black and part Native American, Carlisle was a pioneer in various ways, as Ms. Grantham pointed out. Carlisle was the first black woman to be credited as the composer of a song on the Billboard charts, and the first African-American to host her own regular, nationally broadcast radio show. She wrote for stars like Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee, and recorded her own hit singles, often with famous jazz musicians as her accompanists, before illness tragically shortened her career.

Ginger Smock, violinist (1920-1995)

Orphaned at age 6 and subsequently raised by her aunt and uncle, Ginger Smock showed extravagant talents early on. At 10, she performed at the Hollywood Bowl; a year later, she gave a solo recital at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles. She was the only black member of the Los Angeles Junior Philharmonic’s all-student symphony, and soon after she apprenticed with the jazz pioneer Stuff Smith. She then started an all-female trio, the Sepia Tones, that was a centerpiece of the city’s burgeoning Central Avenue jazz scene, and she soon became “pretty influential on the West Coast,” Ms. Grantham said. Later, Smock hosted a full-length (though short-lived) show on Los Angeles’s CBS affiliate, KTSL, in 1951, making hers the first black band to host a regular TV program.

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Dorothy Donegan, pianist (1922-1998)

A blazing player whose personality was as big and effusive as her talents, Dorothy Donegan piled her mastery of classical, stride, boogie-woogie and modern jazz piano into boisterous, often ribald performances. An old-school performer at heart, she could amaze and amuse an audience in equal measure. Donegan’s career was book ended by illustrious performances: In 1943, with dreams of becoming a professional classical pianist, she became the first black instrumentalist to give a concert at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. Time magazine covered it, and it set her on a path to renown, although a career in classical music was off-limits because of both her gender and her race. Fifty years later, she performed at the White House for President Bill Clinton. For all her accomplishments, Donegan made it clear in interviews that she felt sexism had prevented her from joining her male contemporaries in the music’s pantheon.

Jutta Hipp, pianist (1925-2003)

Hailing from Leipzig, Germany, Jutta Hipp taught herself jazz as a child growing up in the Third Reich, secretly listening to international radio broadcasts. She was forced to flee her hometown at age 21, after the war left it in ruin; she supported herself by becoming a professional jazz pianist. Hipp eventually became the first woman bandleader to record for Blue Note Records, whose proprietors were German expatriates. But with true stardom escaping her, she eventually abandoned her career as a professional musician for the stability of job working with seamstresses, although she never totally gave up playing.

Clora Bryant, trumpeter (1927-2019)

A self-proclaimed “trumpetiste,” Clora Bryant was part of the first generation of bebop musicians innovating in Los Angeles clubs, and she joined a handful of all-female ensembles in the years during and after World War II. Bryant became a featured soloist in the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the most famous ensemble of its kind, then joined the Queens of Rhythm. Through the esteemed trombonist Melba Liston she met Dizzy Gillespie, who became her mentor. And as her career went on, she mentored countless musicians herself as a respected elder on the L.A. scene.

Bertha Hope Booker, pianist (1936-)

Bertha Hope’s career bloomed alongside that of her husband Elmo Hope, whose economic hard-bop style was not altogether different from hers. They released a joint album together in 1961, but after his untimely death she focused on raising their children, performing intermittently around the New York area and remaining close with many musicians on the scene. Years later, she remarried, to the bassist Walter Booker; since then she has recorded a handful of albums and become a respected elder among younger New York musicians, including the bassist Mimi Jones, who recently made a documentary about her mentor titled “Seeking Hope.”


Who were some female jazz legends? ›

Influential women in jazz
  • Ella Fitzgerald. Launching her stellar career in 1935 in the Swing era, Ella Fitzgerald was one of the most influential jazz singers of the 20th century. ...
  • Billie Holiday. ...
  • Sarah Vaughan. ...
  • Nina Simone. ...
  • Toshiko Akiyoshi. ...
  • Carla Bley. ...
  • Irene Schweizer. ...
  • Terri Lyne Carrington.

Who is the all time #1 female jazz singer? ›

1: Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)

By the end of that decade, Ella Fitzgerald was singing with drummer Chick Webb's band, but it wasn't until 1954, when her manager, jazz impresario Norman Granz, decided to create a record label called Verve solely to expose her talent, that Fitzgerald's career truly skyrocketed.

Who were some early popular female singers in jazz? ›

Historically, women performers in jazz have been mostly singers, among them Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996), Billie Holiday (1915–1959) Bessie Smith (1894–1937), Carmen McRae (1920–1994), Dinah Washington (1924–1963), Sarah Vaughan (1924–1990), Betty Carter (1929–1998), Anita O'Day (1919–2006), Abbey Lincoln (1930–2010), ...

Who are the 5 queens of jazz? ›

Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald started out in the 1930s and 1940s in the big band era, male dominated and singer could be the only female in the bus. The black singers featured also had to deal with racism in their professional lives.

Who is the queen of jazz? ›

Legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald (April 25, 1917 – June 15, 1996) became known as the “First Lady of Song,” “Queen of Jazz,” and “Lady Ella” for her singular tone. Ella Fitzgerald's voice featured prominently on the 1940s musical soundtrack. She was one of the superstars of the era and an all-time musical great.

Who was the first woman to have a number 1? ›

Rewinding The Charts: In 1960, Connie Francis Became the First Woman to Top the Billboard Hot 100. On July 2, 1960, the then-21-year-old Jersey girl scored the first-ever Hot 100 No. 1 by a female artist, just one of her 53 career hits.

Who is the most successful female singer of all time? ›

Madonna is believed to have sold the most records among any female music artists in history, with 335 million records sold worldwide, recognized by the Guinness World Records and other major media outlets while the best-selling Latin artist of all time is Shakira with more than 80 million records sold.

Who was the first black female jazz singer? ›

In 1920, jazz singer Mamie Smith released a record called “Crazy Blues.” She was the first Black female singer to record and release a blues song.

Who was the jazz female icon? ›

Dubbed "The First Lady of Song," Ella Fitzgerald was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century. It's no surprise that over the course of her lifetime, she went on to win 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums.

Is there a gender bias in jazz? ›

The music's gatekeepers are, and have always been, disproportionately male. As such, jazz has been shaped by gendered attitudes and privileged those qualities and characteristics conceptualized as masculine. The roots of gender bias in jazz go all the way back to the 1800s, if not before.

Who are some famous female singers? ›

19 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Female Singers
  • Madonna.
  • Beyoncé
  • Cher.
  • Whitney Houston.
  • Aretha Franklin.
  • Dolly Parton.
  • Tina Turner.
  • Taylor Swift.
10 Aug 2022

Who was the first female musician? ›

The first female composer according to the history books was Kassiani, an 8th Century nun, who composed Byzantine chants.

Who was a famous female singer in the 1920s? ›

The classic female blues spanned from 1920 to 1929 with its peak from 1923 to 1925. The most popular of these singers were Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Victoria Spivey, Sippie Wallace, Alberta Hunter, Clara Smith, Edith Wilson, Trixie Smith, Lucille Hegamin and Bertha “Chippie” Hill.

Who is the biggest name in jazz? ›

The Best Jazz Musicians of All Time – 40 Legendary Jazz Artists
  • Miles Davis.
  • Louis Armstrong.
  • John Coltrane.
  • Charles Mingus.
  • Thelonious Monk.
  • Ella Fitzgerald.
  • Charlie Parker.
  • Duke Ellington.
2 Sept 2022

Who is the best jazz artist today? ›

Contemporary Jazz Artists
  • Chick Corea. 471,327 listeners. ...
  • John Surman. 77,387 listeners. ...
  • Pat Metheny. 410,276 listeners. ...
  • Mike Stern. 117,820 listeners. ...
  • Dave Holland. 103,761 listeners. ...
  • Contemporary Noise Sextet. 29,536 listeners. ...
  • Arild Andersen. 54,564 listeners. ...
  • Marcin Wasilewski Trio. 89,023 listeners.

Who called himself King of Jazz? ›

Paul Whiteman's Orchestra was the most popular band of the 1920s. They are also the most controversial to Jazz historians because Whiteman (March 28, 1890 – December 29, 1967) billed himself as “The King Of Jazz”.

Who is known as the angry man of jazz? ›

Some called Charles Mingus the heir apparent to Duke Ellington, while others dubbed him “The Angry Man of Jazz.” The temperamental musician is equally deserving of both titles: the bass virtuoso, composer and bandleader brought an iconoclastic musical sense to jazz and occasional fists of fury to the bandstand.

Who is the black king of jazz? ›

Amazon.com: Louis Armstrong: King of Jazz (African-American Biographies): 9780894909979: Old, Wendie C.: Books.

Who was the first female born? ›

EVA. EVA, EVE is the first woman. There are two stories of the creation of Eve and Adam.

Who is the youngest person to have a number 1? ›

When the track reached No. 1, Stevie became the youngest solo artist to have topped the Billboard Hot 100 – though another future Motown superstar, Michael Jackson, was aged just 11 years 155 days when The Jackson Five's “I Want You Back” topped the Billboard charts in January 1970.

Did Queen have a number one? ›

Over the course of 14 albums (until Freddie Mercury's death in 1991) Queen delivered a near-impeccable run of hits on the Official Chart: 53 Top 40 singles, six of which went to Number 1.

Who are the top 10 female singers of all time? ›

Best Female Singers Of All Time: 20 Trailblazing Music Icons
  • 8: Dionne Warwick. ...
  • 7: Adele. ...
  • 6: Madonna. ...
  • 5: Billie Holiday. ...
  • 4: Kate Bush. ...
  • 3: Ella Fitzgerald. ...
  • 2: Amy Winehouse. ...
  • 1: Aretha Franklin. Topping our list of the best female singers of all time, Aretha Franklin also stands as the most-charting female singer in history.
12 Jan 2022

Who is the #1 female artist in the world? ›

Madonna has certainly earned the title of the best-selling female artist of all time – a title certified by Guinness World Records.

Which female artist has broken the most records? ›

Madonna. With more than 335 million albums sold across the globe, Madonna is considered by multiple organizations to be the best-selling female artist in music history. She's also scored the most No.

Who is the most powerful woman in music? ›

Most Influential Female Musicians: 30 Trailblazing Women
  • 8: Alanis Morissette (1974-) ...
  • 7: Patti Smith (1946-) ...
  • 6: Chaka Khan (1953-) ...
  • 5: Joni Mitchell (1943-) ...
  • 4: Tina Turner (1939-) ...
  • 3: Carly Simon (1945-) ...
  • 2: Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) ...
  • 1: Stevie Nicks (1948)
8 Mar 2022

Who is the Queen of Soul Pop? ›

The National Museum of African American History and Culture mourns the passing of Aretha Franklin, the "Queen of Soul." Her voice, one of the most captivating of her generation, was unrivaled and changed the landscape of American music.

Who is the Princess of soul music? ›

Aretha Franklin - The Princess Of Soul - Before The Coronation - Her Earliest Recordings 1956-1962 [ORIGINAL RECORDINGS REMASTERED] 2CD SET - Amazon.com Music.

Who is the biggest black female singer? ›

1 – Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey is the most popular American black singer and actress, born on March 27, 1969.

Who is the greatest black female singer of all time? ›

Aretha Franklin was born on March 25th, 1942, in Memphis, TN, and tops this list as one of the most respected vocalists and black female singers the world has ever known.

Who was the first woman to sing the blues? ›

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1886–1939), known as "The Mother of the Blues”, is credited as the first to perform the blues on stage as popular entertainment when she began incorporating blues into her act of show songs and comedy around 1902.

Who is the blind female jazz singer? ›

*Diane Schuur was born on this date in 1953. She is a white-American jazz singer and pianist. Diane Joan Schuur was born in Tacoma, Washington, two months premature and weighing less than three pounds. Complications of prematurity resulted in her total loss of vision.

Who are three famous male and female jazz legends? ›

From pioneers like Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton to the big-band sounds of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to vocalists like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, jazz music is one of America's greatest exports.

Who is famous for free jazz? ›

Effectively, free jazz began with the small groups led in 1958–59 by alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, from whose album Free Jazz (1960) the idiom received its name. Shortly afterward, saxophonists John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy and pianist Cecil Taylor began creating individual versions of free jazz.

Is jazz losing popularity? ›

Today, although jazz music continues to be played and enjoyed around the world, it has become, along with classical music, one of the least-popular genres in the United States, according to recent sales figures.

What race listens to jazz the most? ›

Although jazz retains a multiracial audience, it enjoys particular support in the black community. More than half (54 percent) of the adult African American population reports liking jazz, compared with only a third (32 percent) of whites.

Who banned jazz music? ›

On March 24, the Orleans Parish School Board officially abolished a 100-year ban on jazz music and jazz dancing in New Orleans public schools. The measure, which has not been enforced for decades, was first enacted on the same day in 1922.

Who is the No 1 singer in the world? ›

Top 10 Best Singers of All Time
1Michael JacksonPop, Soul, Funk, R&B, Rock, Disco, & Dance
2Stevie WonderSoul, Pop, R&B, Funk, & Jazz
3Marvin GayeSoul, R&B, Funk, Pop, & Jazz
4Freddie MercuryHard Rock, Music Hall, Glitter, & Prog Rock
6 more rows
31 May 2022

Who is the most famous female artist alive today? ›

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) is arguably the most famous female artist alive today. Yayoi Kusama is a contemporary artist known for her profuse use of polka dots and her extensive body of work which includes paintings, sculpture, clothing, art objects, performances, and installations.

Who is the most famous girl singer 2022? ›

Here is the complete list of top 10 female popstars in 2022:
  • Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift has a long-lasting career in both the country music and pop music industry. ...
  • Ariana Grande. Ariana Grande started her career by appearing in Broadway Musical 13 in 2008. ...
  • Billie Eilish. ...
  • Dua Lipa. ...
  • Selena Gomez. ...
  • Beyoncé ...
  • Rihanna. ...
  • Katy Perry.
25 Apr 2022

Who are the top 50 female singers of all time? ›

50 best female artists of all-time
11.Joni Mitchell
22.Aretha Franklin
33.Judy Garland
44.Barbra Streisand
55.Loretta Lynn
56 more rows

What is a female musician called? ›

songster, songstress, vocalist, voice.

Who was the first black female musician? ›

Harriet Gibbs Marshall (1868–1941) Harriet Gibbs Marshall was the first African-American female instrumentalist to pursue and officially complete her studies at a music institution in the United States. Marshall was born in 1868, just five years after the official end of slavery.

Who was the most popular female jazz singer in the late 20's? ›

Bessie Smith

Born back in 1894, Bessie Smith (aka “The Empress of Blues“) was one of the most popular singers of the 1920s/30s.

Who were 5 major artists that were popular in 1920s? ›

1920s Artists
  • Annette Hanshaw. 54,838 listeners. ...
  • The Boswell Sisters. 68,045 listeners. ...
  • Victoria Spivey. 41,801 listeners. ...
  • Marion Harris. 17,818 listeners. ...
  • Mamie Smith. 34,311 listeners. ...
  • Eddie Cantor. 39,551 listeners. ...
  • Sophie Tucker. 24,185 listeners. ...
  • Bessie Smith. 312,350 listeners.

Who were 2 popular artists of the 1920's? ›

-> 1930s
1.Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra29001
2.Al Jolson11375
3.Ted Lewis & His Band10504
4.Isham Jones & His Orchestra8401
10 more rows

Who are three famous jazz legends? ›

The Best Jazz Musicians of All Time – 40 Legendary Jazz Artists
  • Miles Davis.
  • Louis Armstrong.
  • John Coltrane.
  • Charles Mingus.
  • Thelonious Monk.
  • Ella Fitzgerald.
  • Charlie Parker.
  • Duke Ellington.
2 Sept 2022

Who are famous male and female jazz legends? ›

From pioneers like Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton to the big-band sounds of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to vocalists like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, jazz music is one of America's greatest exports.

Who is the first person with jazz? ›

Buddy Bolden, an African-American bandleader called “the first man of jazz” by historian Donald M Marquis, was at the forefront of the jazz movement. Bolden played the cornet in dance halls during the day and in the red light district of New Orleans' Storyville at night.

Who was the first jazz star? ›

Jelly Roll Morton became recognized as the first great jazz composer.

Who are the two most important personalities in jazz? ›

Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Charlie Parker is one of the most innovative musicians in jazz history and along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, he pioneered “bebop” which is still the common language used in jazz today. Parker's approach to the music radically changed the way musicians played jazz.

Who was the first woman ever to compose or arrange for a jazz big band? ›

Mary Lou Williams (born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs; May 8, 1910 – May 28, 1981) was an American jazz pianist, arranger, and composer. She wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements and recorded more than one hundred records (in 78, 45, and LP versions).
Mary Lou Williams
Years active1920–1981
9 more rows

Who was first blues woman? ›

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, form Georgia, was the “ Mother of the Blues,” and lived from 1886-1939. She was the first woman to incorporate blues into her act of show songs and comedy.


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