Women's History Month 2020
She is remembered as "The First Lady of Song" and fittingly so. Ella Fitzgerald possessed one of the greatest voices of all time in any genre. Throughout the course of her nearly sixty year career, she sold over 40 million records. Among her many honors were 13 Grammy Awards wins, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center for The Performing Arts Medal of Honor, and The Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Her musical story began famously in 1934 with Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Fitzgerald decided to give it a try, as a dancer. She was intimidated by another dance act and at the last moment decided to sing...and won the night. In 1935 she met bandleader Chick Webb and joined his orchestra for a successful run at the Savoy Ballroom. In 1938, she recorded "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" (a song she co-wrote) and the song became one of the best selling records of the decade. With Webb's death in 1939, Ella took over as bandleader until 1942.
Fitzgerald continued to work with other orchestras, Benny Goodman and Dizzy Gillespie were just two, as well as lead her own smaller groups. She became a master scat singer, able to mimic nearly every instrument in the band. Her range spanned three octaves and the clarity of her voice unmatched. It's said she possessed perfect pitch. That voice would thrill audiences worldwide for decades, making Fitzgerald one of the most beloved singers of her generation and of generations to come. She worked with artists as diverse as Count Basie to Stevie Wonder. Her live recordings made for Verve Records remain highly acclaimed. The version of "Mack The Knife" from her album "Ella in Berlin" won a Grammy and shows off Fitzgerald's improvisational skills beautifully: she forgot the words at one point and simply improvised lyrics to great applause.
She remains an important influence on jazz singers and musicians alike and continues to be one of the best-selling jazz artists in history.
Her life and music have been the subject of books, film, and countless conversations about music, racial equality, and her legacy in both. Nina Simone, respectfully called The High Priestess of Soul left a mark on the world that is more than musical, though musicians as diverse as Elton John, Mos Def, Alicia Keys, and John Lennon have cited her influence.
Born in North Carolina, she began playing the piano when she was only three or four, playing in church and performing her first classical recital at age 12. She was a gifted pianist and had early plans to pursue a career in classical music. Simone spent the summer of 1950 at Julliard in preparation for her audition for the Curtis Institute of Music. Though she performed well in her audition, she was famously not accepted to the Cirtis Institute, something she would believe the rest of her life was the result of racial discrimination. Listening closely to her performances reveals those classical roots, blended with jazz, blues, and soul. Her debut album "Little Girl Blue", released in 1959 on Bethlehem Records remains because a classic jazz recording, included her version of "I Loves You Porgy" (her only Billboard Top 20 hit in the U.S.)
In the 1960s, Simone used her music to address the racism in the United States. She had left her American record label and signed with a Dutch label, Philips Records. It was Philips who recorded and released her scathing "Mississippi Goddam" on the 1964 album "Nina Simone In Concert." The backlash included radio stations in the southern U.S. actually burning promotional copies of the record. But, she was undeterred and continued to use her music and voice to denounce racial discrimination, performing and speaking at major civil rights events, including the Selma to Montgomery marches.
Her voice was powerful, her piano style impeccable, and presence undeniable. Throughout her lifetime, she released over thirty albums, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and two days before her death, she was issued an Honorary Doctorate from the Curtis Institute of Music, the school that turned her away so many years before.
She was known as "Sassy" for her personality and style and known as "The Divine One" for the quality and control of her once in a lifetime voice. Sarah Vaughan joins Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald as one of the early influential jazz singers...and one of the most beloved singers in jazz history. Her sound was warm and deep, yet capable of reaching great heights, often compared to the richness of an opera diva. In fact, Betty Carter once noted that Vaughan could have "gone as far as Leontyne Price" with the proper training. Fortunately, she stayed with jazz and enjoyed a nearly fifty year career.
As with many singers of her era, Vaughan grew up singing and playing piano in church. The pop sounds of 1930's radio caught her young ears and by her mid-teens, she was (illegally) performing in Newark clubs. Vaughan's early musical success began in 1942 at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. She won the night with her version of "Body and Soul"; part of the prize was the opportunity to open for Ella Fitzgerald. As fate would have it, Vaughan's final recording was a scatting duet with Fitzgerald for Quincy Jones' 1989 release "Back On The Block." It was her only recording with Fitzgerald, bringing full circle her connection that began decades earlier when she opened for Fitzgerald at the Apollo.
Vaughan's extraordinary career yielded fifty studio albums, eight live albums, and numerous awards. She earned four Grammy Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award and in 1989, was named an NEA Jazz Master. She recorded for major labels like Decca, Columbia, and Mercury. She had exquisite musical rapport with Billy Eckstine, first working with him in Earl HInes' band, then joining Eckstine's band in 1944. From fronting larger ensembles, to her intimate trio recordings (Including "After Hours" featuring guitarist Mundell Lowe) Vaughan's command of her voice allowed her to swing fiercely and present a ballad with intense emotion. She was truly one of a kind.
Billie Holiday was one of the most influential women in jazz music. Lady Day, a nickname given to her by saxophonist Lester Young (she dubbed him Prez) patterned her singing style after instrumentalists and became known for her improvisation skill, as well as the unique quality of her voice. Holiday's life has become the stuff of jazz legend. Her turbulent childhood saw her moved from place to place, physically abused by the adults in her life, and trouble with the authorities that would last until her death in 1959. Music was her escape and that troubled young lady would contribute some of the most important compositions and recordings in jazz history.
Throughout her career, Holiday recorded now-classic records for Brunswick, Okeh, Decca, Capitol, and Columbia recording companies among others. Her first big hit, "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" in 1935 with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra, became a jazz standard. As a songwriter, Holiday collaborated on many tunes that are now part of the jazz repertoire: "Don't Explain", "Fine and Mellow", "Billie's Blues," "Lady Sings The Blues," and the unparalleled "God Bless The Child." She sold out Carnegie Hall three times, has songs in the Grammy Hall of Fame, and has influenced countless singers for decades.
Holiday was plagued by alcohol and heroin addiction; her multiple run-ins with police have also become the stuff of jazz legend. Holiday died in 1959 in a Manhattan hospital, under police guard. Her hospital room had been raided by federal authorities and she had been arrested and handcuffed for drug possession as she lay dying. Holiday didn't live to see the numerous awards and honors her work eventually received. She was nominated for 23 posthumous Grammy Awards, inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and the Downbeat Hall of Fame.
Like her idol Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae is remembered for her one of a kind voice and lyrical interpretation. She was an accomplished piano player and early in her career she played piano at the famed Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. It was at Minton's where she met notable jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Kenny Clarke, who would become her first husband. McRae found success as a pianist in Benny Carter's band, worked with Count Basie, and made her first recording not as a vocalist, but as a pianist with Mercer Ellington's band in the mid-40s. She often accompanied herself in her early gigs as a singer.
The warmth in her voice set McRae apart. She could deliver a ballad with deep emotion, she could swing like mad, and had a command of phrasing that still inspires jazz singers today. Throughout her fifty year career, McRae toured the world, appeared at major jazz festivals, and recorded dozens of albums. Even toward the end of her career, she was recording important albums, notably "Carmen Sings Monk" and "Sarah-Dedicated To You" for Novus Records in the early 1990s.
She earned seven Grammy Award nominations over the course of her career. In 1993 she was honored with the NAACP Image Award and was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1994.
Anita O'Day began her career not as a singer, but a dancer. As a teen, she travelled the marathon dance circuit before deciding she would hang up the dance shoes in exchange for a microphone. O'Day's earliest recording success was in the early 1940s when she made sides with Gene Krupa's big band, and soon after, the Stan Kenton Orchestra. While rooted in the swing of these early bands, she was later cited as one of the early bebop vocal influencers and is considered part of the West Coast Cool Jazz sound.
Rather than position herself as another "girl singer," O'Day presented herself as part of the band. Her rhythmic approach and use of short phrasing set her apart from more traditional singers. Throughout her career she worked with Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, and Oscar Peterson. Her 1958 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival was captured in the documentary "Jazz On A Summer's Day." Drugs would play a big part in O'Day's story: She was arrested several times for marijuana possession and fell victim to a heroin addiction, nearly dying of an overdose in 1968. Her resilience showed itself and O'Day recovered and continued to record and perform.
She published her memoir "High Times, Hard Times" in 1981 and in 2007, "Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer", a full length documentary about her premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Dinah Washington dubbed herself "Queen of The Blues", but her sound and her style adapted easily to jazz, pop, and R&B. Through her short lifetime, she recorded a legacy that has influenced artists as varied as Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, and Amy Winehouse.
Born in Alabama and raised in Chicago's Southside, Washington found her voice in gospel choirs. She toured with a gospel group before turning her attention to jazz and blues. Noted for her clean, expressive voice, she worked with Lionel Hampton's band in the mid-1940s, using members of that band to record her debut LP. The album features her first hit and one of her enduring classics, "Evil Gal Blues" which made Billboard's Harlem Hit Parade in 1944. Washington had success with hits like "What A Difference A Day Makes" and the country crossover gem "Cold, Cold Heart" by Hank Williams. Her interpretations of torch songs had an authenticity rooted in her own life (Washington was married seven times.)
Among her awards and recognition, Washington earned a 1959 Grammy Award for "What A Difference A Day Makes." That song and two others have been inducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1993, thirty years after her death at 39, she was inducted as an Early Influencer into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That same year, the U.S. Post Office issued a commemorative stamp to honor her.
Betty Carter was a vocalist with a style all her own and the determination to create and present the music as she heard it. Over the course of her career, she would not only solidify her place as one of America's great singers, but she was also a producer, record label founder, and perhaps most importantly, a mentor to other musicians.
Raised in Detroit, she studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory of Music at age 15, but would move on to concentrate on singing when she was 16. Carter is often considered one of the last singers of the big band era, having landed a gig with Lionel Hampton's Big Band in 1948. Their musical partnership is legendary...as it turned out, she was a little too free with her improvisations and clashed with Hampton more than once...he fired her seven times during their two and a half year run. Note that he hired her back six.
Carter was a master scat singer, patterning herself after Dizzy Gillespie. She eventually would play with musicians Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and Wes Montgomery. She released her first album in 1955 with The Ray Bryant Trio. After being introduced to Ray Charles, the two made a self-titled album in 1961 that included the flirtatious hit single "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Over her forty year career, Carter recorded over twenty albums, finally receiving a Grammy Award in 1988 for Best Female Jazz Vocal Performance for the album "Look What I Got."
Her uncompromising commitment to her music led her to create her own record label, Bet-Car Records in 1969. In 1993, she founded the Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead Program in conjunction with The Kennedy Center, offering young players a unique opportunity to compose and perform under the tutelage of high-level professional musicians. She is credited with discovering musicians Mulgrew Miller, Benny Green, and Curtis Lundy among others. The Jazz Ahead programs continues today, under the direction of Jason Moran.
June Christy, affectionately known as The Misty Miss Christy (also the title of her 1956 release for Capitol Records), was a legendary voice in cool jazz. She was born Shirley Luster in Illinois and began singing professionally while still in high school. She changed her name to Sharon Leslie while working with the Boyd Raeburn Band. When Anita O'Day left Stan Kenton's band in 1945, Christy auditioned and won the vocalist spot, then changing her name one more time, to June Christy.
She and the Kenton Orchestra would have a series of hits from their collaboration, including "Tampico" which became Kenton's biggest selling record, reaching one million in sales and peaking at #3 on the record charts. Christy would go on to appear on several Kenton releases, among them "Artistry in Rhythm" and "Innovations in Modern Music." After two stints with the Kenton Orchestra, she embarked on a solo career in the late 1940s, and in 1956 released one of two signature albums for Capitol, "Something Cool" with arranger and bandleader Pete Rugolo. Rugolo had been an arranger for the Kenton band and would continue to work with Christy through the 1950s. The album "Something Cool" essentially launched the vocal cool jazz scene.
Christy continued to tour throughout the world until deciding to come off the road in the early 1960s to focus on her family and personal life. She would return to the scene in the late 70s and record one final album, "Impromptu" in 1977. Her sensual voice and the deep feeling of her style have secured her place in jazz vocal history.
Peggy Lee grew up in North Dakota and began singing on local radio as a young teenager. It was the program director at WDAY who suggested she change her name from Norma Egstrom to Peggy Lee and by age 17, she was off to Los Angeles to make her way in music. She landed a gig with Benny Goodman's band and she spent two years on the road with them from 1941 to 1943. As she got more into the jazz world, her vocal style would set her apart. Lee's sublte, sultry voice offered an understated, yet powerful presence in music...and led to a career that spanned seven decades.
Lee's string of hit songs included the definitive version of "Fever" which was released in 1957. But, her first Number 1 hit came in 1942 with "Somebody Else is Taking My Place", followed by another Number 1 chart topper in 1943, "Why Don't You Do Right?" The latter would make her famous. Lee then made her name as more than a girl singer. She was an acccomplished songwriter, penning such classics as "What More Can A Girl Do" recorded by Sarah Vaughan, "Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)", and music for the enduring Disney film "Lady and The Tramp" (a film for which she not only wrote music, but voiced four of the characters.) She was nominated for an Oscar for her work in the film "Pete Kelly's Blues" and also appeared alongside in the 1952 remake of "The Jazz Singer." She recorded for Capitol Records and Decca Records, Throughout her life, she was nominated for 12 Grammy Awards and was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995.
Pat Launer's Center Stage
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