Influential Women of Jazz


In the genre of Jazz, there were many influential people. People paved roads, and others followed, expanding the genre to be an internationally beloved genre. With that being said, the genre would not be where it is today without the following women: Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith, and Nina Simone.

Billie Holliday

Elinora (later changed to Eleanora) Harris was born on birth born April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a child, she moved Baltimore with her mother, and at this time (the 1920s) the city was soaked in jazz and its rich culture, which she became apart of in her early teen years with her “apprenticeship,” while singing along with records of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. At the trun of the next decade, Holliday’s mother moved to New York, with Holliday, herself, following afterwards, and soon becoming engulfed with the nation’s most vibrant jazz scene: the Harlem Renaissance. 

It was at this time that she adopted her stage name, Billie Holliday. Billie came from her favorite movie actress, Billie Dove, and Holliday came from her biological father’s last name. Though Holliday had no formal music training in singing or reading music, she quickly made her mark on the scene with her unique singing style that is stated to be “deeply moving.” Holliday is remember by having an innovated influence on the music genre as well as pop singing. Her vocal style was inspired by jazz instrumentalists, which pioneered a new way to manipulate the music phrasing and tempo, and one thing she is most known for is her vocal delivery and improvisational skills, two things that are essential for the genre. And because of this she will forever be known as the Mother of Jazz.

Over her years, Holliday developed an addiction to narcotics, which resulted in arrests and complications. These drug complications mixed with alcohol abuse led to health failure, and she died in 1959, at the age of 44 in New York.

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith, born Elizabeth Smith on April 15, 1894 in ChattanoogaTennessee was a world renowned American singer and blues vocalists.

Her talent was known at a young age, and by the age of eight or nine, she had her first public appearance at the Ivory Theatre in her hometown. In 1913, her started touring with Ma Rainey, a woman who is known as being one of the first of the great blues singers. From her, she received some training. By 1920, Smith had stopped moving around and made a home for herself in Philadelphia, and it was there that she was first heard by a representative of Columbia Records, named Clarence Williams.

In February of 1923, Smith made her first recordings with her label, Columbia Records, these included her classic “Down Hearted Blues,” which quickly became an enormous success, grossing over two million copies. Her in later recordings, other famous jazz musicians accompanied her, these included but not limited to Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Fletcher Henderson. 

When Smith sang, she was known for her rich contralto voice and emotional intensity that was said to be breathtaking. During the Great Depression, her fame started to fade, while her alcoholism increased, which made her unappealing to management. Through all this, her voice stayed intact, however. And it was because of this voice, she is known as the “Empress of the Blues, ” and inducted into two hall of fames post-mortem: the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. She was bold and confident — an artist who did not need the power of microphone to carry her voice.

Smith died on September 26, 1937, in Clarksdale, Mississippi due to injuries she received from a road accident.

Nina Simone

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on Feburary 21, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina. She is known as an American pianist, singer, songwriter, and civil rights activist. Unlke most musicans during her time, her music styles spanned multiple genres including classical, pop, folk, blues, gospelblues, and jazz.

Out of all the women talk about, Simone was the only to have any formal music training. She first enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, then applied for a scholarship to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she was not accepted.

After Juilliard, Simone moved to Atlantic City, where she made a living of playing the piano at nightclubs. This was time she adopted her stage name, “Nina Simone,” which she used to disguise hersef from her unsupportive family members. “Nina” came from the Spanish word “nina,” which came from a nickname used by her boyfriend at the time, and “Simone” came from the French actress by the name of Simone Signoret.

Due to her unique voice and style, that being her expressive and jazz-like contralto voice, and wide range of music genres, as well as her activists, Simone made her mark on the world in many ways, all involving her talents and voice. 


In the genre of jazz, there were many influential people that paved paths for the genre and others. These women were only some of them, but arguably some of the greatest.

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